A Conversation with Clint Folsom, Mayor of Superior, Colorado

In the US political system, one of the most important dimensions of social justice is a matter of local politics: giving people of modest means a chance to live in nice towns and cities within a reasonable commute from jobs. I felt a tug of civic duty to do my part toward this end in my home town of Superior, Colorado. (See “Miles Moves to the University of Colorado Boulder.”) Superior, Colorado is a town of 4 square miles, with 12,483 residents in the 2010 census. Along with Louisville across the Denver-Boulder Turnpike (US Route 36), it is the first town on the road from Boulder to Denver after the greenbelt that surrounds Boulder.

In Colorado, we vote by mail; my ballot is already sitting on my kitchen table. But even in a town of Superior’s size, I thought I could make a bigger difference as a journalist with an activist tilt than as a voter alone. My interview here of Clint Folsom, Mayor of Superior, who is up for reelection this month, is my first effort in this direction.

When I emailed him to ask for an interview at his mayoral email address, Clint replied with a personal email account, explaining that since my interview seemed campaign related, he thought he should avoid using his mayoral email account. We met at his real estate brokerage office in the neighboring town of Louisville because like most small town mayors, Clint isn’t provided any office space at Superior’s Town Hall.  

Contrary to some negative stereotypes, I have the view that successful politicians are usually quite talented, smart and impressive people. Clint has the kind of intelligence, social skills and self-confidence that lends itself to being a successful politician.

Clint told me he had moved to Superior 20 years ago a few years after graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder.  I said how much I had enjoyed living in Superior the last 2+ years. One of the most recent things I have come to appreciate about Superior is how, without leaving Superior, I can get from Safeway, Costco and Whole Foods any of the particular types of food I have been recommending in my Tuesday diet and health posts that I can get in any store in the Boulder area. Clint said that when he talks to other mayors, the retail they have on their wish list for their cities was the kind of retail Superior has. Those stores generate a lot of sales taxes as well as benefits for consumers. (There is also an excellent mall in a neighboring town—FlatIron Crossing—that generates benefits for consumers from Superior, but no sales tax revenue for Superior.)

I had reassured Clint that this was a combined in-person, email interview, and that what we said on email could overrule anything said in person. I had emailed four question in advance; the last I added on the spot. Here they are, with a distillation of Clint’s answers.

1. What do you see as the big issues going forward for the city government of Superior?

Clint explained that Superior has a town manager, who has the primary agenda-setting power in the town, so that the mayor’s official role is chair of the “Board of Trustees,” which is just another name for the city council of Superior. In addition, as mayor he has substantial ceremonial duties. He said he does ribbon cuttings with the giant scissors for new businesses—big and small—in Superior, and talks to school children about the town government.

Clint also attends regional meetings of mayors. There, they mostly talk about transportation issues. A big issue locally is that a ballot initiative was passed that raised taxes in order to pay for passenger rail from Denver to Boulder. This hasn’t happened. The cost was seriously underestimated at the time of the ballot initiative, in part due to extra costs associated with new safety regulations, specifically PTC or positive train control, which are intended to reduce the possibility of head-on collisions. The original plan was for the transportation authority to buy time on an existing freight train track but that was complicated because the owner of the track won’t allow power lines needed for electric passenger trains to be installed above the tracks. Diesel passenger trains are probably the only option, but diesel trains take a long time to stop and start, making it hard to have as many stops and slowing things down generally. At that point, busses become the more convenient and faster option. Clint thinks everyone should face reality and redirect those funds from a rail project that no longer looks so attractive toward other transportation initiatives. (I suggested more frequent bus service as a simple possibility. For example, currently the bus to the Denver airport only runs once an hour, except at peak times.) Clint said changing directions would require another ballot initiative, coupled with an extensive public education campaign—no easy thing. In the absence of that kind of facing of reality, Clint said that local voters understandably are skeptical of other transportation ballot initiatives, even those that are at the state, rather than the regional level.

In direct answer to my question of big issues going forward for the government of Superior, Clint talked about the effort to find some community space that could be used for gatherings, say of up to 150, and subdivided for smaller classes like scout meetings or art classes. Currently, the available spaces would only accommodate about 25 people at a time. A big discussion was whether a community space of this sort should be combined with a recreation facility. The trouble there was all the competing recreation facilities in town that drive down the benefit/cost ratio for an additional recreational facility. They Board of Trustees started by talking about something modest, but the benefit wasn’t enough to get people excited. Then the Board of Trustees started talking about something that could get people more excited, but it was quite expensive. Clint now leans towards a community space somewhere in the new Downtown Superior development.  He would also like to explore the idea of expanding the usage of Superior’s two outdoor pools which are currently only open for three months of the year during the summer.  A retractable roof or other options to cover one of the pools could allow for year-round usage and a better use of our existing assets.  

2. I love the trails in Superior, but one thing I admire on the occasions when I take a walk on the Coal Creek Trail in Louisville is the "There is No Poop Fairy" campaign. I wondered if Superior might do a similar campaign. Relatedly, I have thought that I see some extra dog poop on trails where garbage cans are far away. 

Clint liked this idea, and said that an open space committee could take it up. (There are actually two different open space committees in Superior.)

3. Superior is such a wonderful city, I wanted to ask about your views on allowing construction (particularly near the bus station) to make Superior financially accessible for additional people to move in and enjoy everything we have here.

It was interesting to see Clint’s mind at work here. He sees it as important for Superior to a town where people at different income levels can live, and agreed that the area near the bus stop at the Denver-Boulder Turnpike is a great place to put additional residential developments. This land is currently part of a large shopping area. Big box retail has done well in that area, but smaller retail hasn’t always done well there, and more people living right there could help. He said any retail area has to keep running to stay in the same place; doing nothing usually leads to decline. Adding residential developments right there in the retail district near the bus stop could be just the right thing to keep that retail area vigorous. He mentioned how much that retail district contributes in sales taxes—its health matters for Superior’s finances.

A nice example of how Clint was thinking through all the practicalities of new residential development in the retail district by the bus stop was a point he made that residential parking needs and retail parking needs dovetail nicely together: peak residential parking needs are at night, while peak retail parking needs are during the day. So it could work well for retail and residential to share parking lots in that area.

Clint said that, of course, height of apartment or condo buildings in that area would be one of the most controversial issues. I made the case that if the developer agreed to make a tall building beautiful in exchange for a liberal height requirement, it could be great to have a skyline for Superior with a landmark building that would give homes to many people.

One thing I had thought about before the interview, but forgot to mention to Clint is that as soon as one thinks on a regional basis, even if a new building is made up of luxury apartments, it still contributes to affordable housing, because everyone who moves to one of the new luxury apartments frees up another housing unit somewhere in the area. As people of middle incomes then move to fill those vacancies, at the end of the chain, affordable housing opens up. That is, because of supply and demand, it is the total number of units that matters most for “affordable housing” in the region, not whether those particular units are low-rent or not.

4. I'd also be interested in asking a few "horse-race" questions. I don't yet have a good sense of local politics and where the battle lines (if any) are drawn, and how strong the different sides are.

Mayors and Board of Trustee members have four-year terms in Superior, staggered at two-year intervals.

Clint is running against two other candidates for mayor: Gladys Forshee and Jack Chang. Clint said he had won 80% of the vote against Gladys in 2014. Gladys is a long time resident of Original Town Superior which is a collection of small miners cabins—some over 100 year old when Superior was founded as a coal mining town.  Gladys is a staunch defender of keeping Original Superior as-is.

About Jack Chang, Clint said that Jack had made an offer to buy some land from the Town of Superior at the intersection of Coalton and McCaslin to build a charter school and what sounded like a startup incubator. The land in question wasn’t for sale and the Board of Trustees unanimously rejected his purchase contract then a week later Jack decided to run for mayor. Clint and many others thought that was a conflict of interest on Jack’s part. I argued that if Jack was basically a one-issue candidate on behalf of that idea for using that plot of land, that in the unlikely event that we won the election, he might reasonably be said to have enough of a mandate for that to overcome the conflict-of-interest worry.

I asked about the other races. The other Board of Trustees races seem quite competitive. Six candidates are running for three seats. Unfortunately, even for Clint, it is very hard to discern the policy views of those running for the Board of Trustees. Clint said that pretty much everyone would say they were for “smart growth” and “careful growth” and for “honoring past agreements.” But these phrases hide differences that show up when specific issues come up for a vote by the Board of Trustees.

Some Trustees in the past have said in meetings (that are all on video) that they don’t think low-income people are a “good fit” for Superior. But you wouldn’t know what I would call their “anti-poor” views from their campaign signs, which have no real content other than the name. (Name recognition is the only thing the signs are going for.)

The ballots for town officials in Superior are nonpartisan. Sometimes voters want to know Clint’s party. Clint describes himself as “unaffiliated” with any political party. My reaction was that it would be much more useful to know whether a candidate was in favor of making it possible for people of all income levels to live in Superior or not than it would be to know their political party.

5. About how many hours do you spend as mayor, and how much are you paid as mayor? What about Board of Trustees members?

Clint said he spend about 20-30 hours a week as mayor. He has been paid $500 a month for being mayor; that will go up to $750 a month in 2019. He guessed that Board of Trustees members spend about 10-25 hours a week on thing related to that role. They have been paid $300 a month; that will go up to $500 a month next year. Clint said they aren’t doing it for the money. At those rates, I believe that.