2021 Leg Session, Elections, Original Report, Sherrie Peif, Weld County

County attorney says commission redistricting bill not applicable under Weld’s home-rule charter

GREELEY — A bill working its way through the Colorado legislature aimed at controlling how counties draw the boundaries for electing their commissioners will not affect Weld County, as many are saying, because the bill failed to consider state constitutional guidelines for home rule counties.  That’s according to Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker.

Weld is one of only three counties House Bill 21-1047 targets as they have more than three members on their commission and three of the five-member board are elected in districts, with the other two are elected at large.

Under the state Constitution, counties are organized to include three commissioners all who live in a specific district but are elected at large. However, home rule counties or counties that grow larger than 70,000 in population have the option to allow voters to increase that to five.

Of the 64 counties, only Weld and Pitkin have organized as home rule counties, while Denver and Broomfield are organized as a city and county under one governing board.

Under its home rule charter, Weld voters can determine  how the commissioners are elected (whether at large or by district), the manner in which district’s boundaries are drawn, qualifications for office and even how much they make (which the state sets for all other counties).

Barker said the Colorado Constitution allows for those decisions, and that nothing in HB 1047 changes that.

“There is nothing in his bill that speaks to changing what goes in a home rule charter,” Barker told Complete Colorado. “It just says, ‘this is the way you’re going to do it.’ ”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Democrat from Jefferson County, said in a House committee hearing on March 4th, that he’s been wanting these changes since there was an attempt to expand Jefferson County’s commission to five members. He said he heard from constituents then their worry about gerrymandering by one party if commissioners could oversee the process for drawing district lines.

“We need to make sure that neither political party is able to hold advantage over these redistricting processes,” Kennedy said in the hearing. “And that they will be done fairly to make sure the interests of the people are put ahead of the interests of the politicians.”

Coincidentally, Weld and El Paso, another county specifically targeted by the bill, both have been dominated by 5-0 Republican commissions for decades. The last time a Democrat sat on the board in El Paso was in the 70’s. In Weld, the last Democrat left office in 1992. Arapahoe County, the third county affected by the bill, currently has a narrow Democrat majority.

The bill, which passed the House along party lines, is now in the Senate and scheduled to be heard in the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on April 6.

HB 1047 implements large portions of Amendments Y and Z, which were passed by voters in 2018, and changes how state boundaries are drawn. The bill requires county commissions where any number of the commissioners are not elected at large to follow a prescribed set of requirements that include:

  • Multiple hearings throughout the county that are broadcast and stored online and comply with state statutes regarding open meetings.
  • An opportunity for public involvement at hearings both in person and electronically.
  • Prohibits improper communication between a member of the commission and the staff of the commission or a member of an advisory committee.
  • Mandates that paid lobbying of the commissions be disclosed to the secretary of state by the lobbyist.
  • Establishes prioritized factors for the commissions to use in drawing districts, including federal requirements, the preservation of communities of interest and political subdivisions, and maximizing the number of competitive districts.
  • Prohibits the commissions from approving a plan if it has been drawn for the purpose of protecting one or more incumbent members, or one or more declared candidates, of the board of county commissioners, or any political party.
  • Requires the commission to approve a redistricting plan and specifies the date by which a final plan must be adopted by the board of county commissioners.
  • Specifies that the staff of each commission or an advisory committee will draft no less than 3 plans.

All three impacted counties have said they have issues with the bill, despite amendments made on their behalf, and all three have taken a neutral stance on the bill.

For years, outsiders have questioned the benefits of counties becoming home rule, as it doesn’t give counties as much autonomy as it does municipalities. What it does do, however, is give voters latitude when it comes to how its government is structured, and this bill is directly in conflict with the state Constitution, Barker said, adding that Weld County will continue to operate as it always has.

“We are vested with that power,” Barker said. “It goes to the heart of home rule counties. The people of this county get to (organize the commission how) they want …how many (commissioner) and how they are elected. This is saying this is how you will do it. It completely misses the boat with respect to home rule and tells citizens this is the way you’re going to govern your county.”

Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine, who until this year represented House District 63 and now represents the county commission district that was the last to hold a Democrat, said this bill is a solution looking for a problem.

“It is up to the voters,” she said. “District 3 is probably one of most diverse districts in Weld County. I’ve represented this area for the past eight years. I’m in tune with what voters want and able to balance what they want. We have some really hyperintelligent voters in Weld County. They are going to vote for the best candidate. I am not sure why he felt there was a need for this bill. People want government out of their lives.”

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