The Colorado State Legislature did not approve a bill that would have increased the number of elected county officials in charge of major counties and mandated that a certain percentage of those officials live in districts that they would be responsible for representing.
State Representative Robert Marshall of Highlands Ranch backed legislation to allow for a maximum of five county commissioners. Douglas County, where the board is notorious for its fierce fights and 2-1 votes, was among the Front Range counties with a significant enough population to be affected by the measure.
“All I know is we’ve got two people running the whole county,” Marshall said. Contested 2-1 votes are “not just a problem for Douglas County — it’s a latent problem for all the large counties,” Marshall added. Elective officials, akin to city councils, commissioners run counties. They have significant policymaking power over “unincorporated” county areas (those outside of incorporated towns).
Highlands Ranch is located in Douglas County among several other communities like Franktown and Roxborough. In a local meeting in August, the possibility of adding two more commissioners to Douglas County was brought up. Abe Laydon, the commissioner, has maintained his opposition.
“The last thing counties need are more politicians,” Laydon said in a February statement regarding the state legislature’s bill. There will always be at least one person who disagrees with a decision, regardless of how many commissioners there are. Jefferson, Larimer, Douglas, Boulder, Pueblo, and Mesa are all three-commissioner counties that would have been impacted by the measure had it passed.
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Adams County is governed by five commissioners, but Marshall pointed out that the bill’s requirement that commissioners be chosen by district would have impacted Adams. By contrast to other counties, voters in Adams’ “at large” system choose the five commissioners who will represent the entire county, rather than just their own districts.
According to Marshall, the proposal’s central idea was to hold commissioners accountable to the residents of their respective districts around the county. Marshall stated, “Everyone was saying, ‘Marshall is just trying to get a Democratic commissioner’” elected in Douglas County. A Republican might still effectively represent Highlands Ranch under his plan, though.
He pointed out that Boulder County’s more conservative neighborhoods would feel “shut out” of decision-making if there isn’t a Republican commissioner. “It’s just to help political minorities regardless of who they are,” Marshall said. Marshall argued that Highlands Ranch’s large population made representation an issue in Douglas County. Highlands Ranch is home to about 28% of the county’s residents.
Since Highlands Ranch is not a town, it must rely on the county for many governmental functions, but
“When the commissioners are all elected at large, then (Highlands Ranch) really does not have a voice in the county government, which is particularly troublesome,”
As Marshall put it. Highlands Ranch Metro District performs a subset of governmental tasks, but the county is ultimately responsible for the bulk of them.
Bill Could Return
On March 2, the State, Civic, Military, and Veterans Affairs Committee of the California State Assembly voted 7-3 to “postpone indefinitely” the proposal, House Bill 23-1180.
“I think it’s clear that people who had a vested interested in the outcome were more likely to vote against it than people who could (see it) neutrally,” Marshall said.
Vote tallies show that the bill was met with both support and opposition from committee members who represent counties that would have been affected.
“Have a very strong ideological view of not letting the state tell local jurisdictions what to do, regardless of what the issue is.”Marshall said of Republican legislators in general.
He said he plans to reintroduce the bill to Congress in the upcoming session. I’m not going to give up,” Marshall declared. I guess I’ll wait till December or January to see how things stand, but if they do, I’ll give it another shot.
Other Counties Already have Five
There are counties in Colorado with five commissioners. Current regulations allow for a citizen group or the county commissioners to put a question on the ballot asking inhabitants of a county with over 70,000 population if they wish to add two more electoral districts. Some of Colorado’s 12 largest counties, including Adams, El Paso, and Arapahoe, have increased from four to five commissioners.
As part of their respective home-rule charters, or de facto constitutions, both Weld County and Pitkin County have increased the number of commissioners to five. Both Denver and Broomfield are governed by city councils consisting of roughly a dozen individuals.
All counties with 70,000 residents or more would have needed five commissioners under the proposed legislation, with at least three of those commissioners needing to be chosen exclusively by voters residing in the district from which each commissioner campaigns for office. The proposed legislation would have given counties the option between three distinct voting systems:
• Three commissioners from three districts elected by residents in those districts and two commissioners elected at large.
• Four commissioners from four districts elected by residents in those districts and one commissioner elected at large.
• Five commissioners from five districts elected only by residents in those districts.
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