A push to allow small counties to elect county commissioners by district is gaining traction in the Colorado General Assembly, but critics say the measure has the potential for fracturing communities.
Currently, counties with a population of fewer than 70,000 people have a three-member board, with each commissioner representing three separate districts. State law requires all three commissioners to be elected at-large – by voters of the entire county.
Introduced by Sen. Don Coram and Rep. Marc Catlin, both Montrose Republicans, Senate Bill 221 bill would allow these counties to change the method of election so that only residents within a district can vote in the election of their district county commissioner.
While the proposed bill wouldn’t mandate voting by district, it would allow county commissioners or voters to petition to put the change in process on a ballot to be voted on by residents.
The Senate Local Government Committee approved the bill unanimously 5-0 on April 10. The measure won approval by the full Senate on Tuesday on a 24 to 11 vote. The bill now moves to the House.
This is not the first time a bill has been proposed that would allow county commissioners to be elected by district votes rather than at-large.
Most recently, in 2012, former state Rep. J. Paul Brown, an Ignacio Republican, tried passing a similar bill. That iteration passed the Republican-controlled House with bipartisan support on a 61-4 vote. It was ultimately killed on a 3-to-2 party-line vote in a Senate committee with a Democratic majority.
Today, the situation is reversed: Democrats control the House and Republicans the Senate.
Brown, as well as other supporters, said Monday the intent of the proposed legislation is to give county residents more representation in the districts they live in.
Calls to Coram were not returned.
The matter is particularly of interest in La Plata County, Brown said, where Durango, a populous city-center, tends to sway elections despite the larger number of residents in the county.
“There’s a feeling of not being represented and frustration by a lot of county residents,” Brown said.
But critics of the measure say the bill would create a divisive atmosphere that would encourage commissioners to push for matters that benefit their district rather than the county as a whole.
“We are elected to represent the entire county, not just our district,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt. “I believe if we were only to represent our districts, we would be forever pitted against one another.”
La Plata County Commissioners Brad Blake and Julie Westendorff did not return calls seeking comment.
La Plata County District 1 includes the west side of the county; District 2 is made up mostly of the city of Durango; and District 3 encompasses the east side of the county.
Tiffany Parker, La Plata County Clerk and Recorder, did not have information immediately available Monday that would show on what frequency a district’s preferred candidate lost because of the at-large vote.
La Plata County frequently swings back and forth between electing Democrats and Republicans.
In District 2, which has more than double the amount of Democrats to Republicans, a Republican-affiliated county commissioner held the district from 1992 to 2012.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Lachelt, a Democrat, took the seat and was re-elected in 2016.
“When people see a candidate, regardless of their party, they will look at who will do the best job representing the county, and that’s who they vote for,” she said.
Brown does not agree that electing commissioners by district would cause rifts. He also noted that counties with a population greater than 70,000 already have the option to vote by district.
“At least there would be representation,” Brown said. “Because, presently, there are citizens that don’t even feel like they have representation. There’s no one in there to fight for them at all.
“But I think there does need to be more discussion,” he said. “At the end of the day, the county commissioners are going to do what’s best for entire the county.”