Weld County says new county redistricting law doesn't apply to them

Colorado state capitol
Posted at 4:49 PM, May 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-03 20:58:51-04

DENVER — Gov. Jared Polis has signed a bill into law that will change the way some counties redraw their district boundaries.

House Bill 1047 was passed by lawmakers last month and signed into law last Thursday. The bill applies some of the same principles of Amendments Y and Z, which voters passed in 2018.

Amendments Y and Z called for an independent commission to be formed, more of a public process and more transparency in the process of redrawing Congressional and state district lines.

Those independent commissions have already started to meet to redraw the district lines but have had some troubles due to Census data delays. One of the many tasks the Congressional commission will be undertaking this year is adding an 8th district with all of Colorado’s growth over the past decade.

The new law does not require an independent commission to be formed for county redistricting but encourages it. It also requires multiple public hearings to be held and for more opportunities for public involvement.

“In previous law, there were really very few requirements for how counties redrew their districts. They had that equal population and then federal law had some provisions in the Voting Rights Act that equally applied to counties, but otherwise state law was silent on how counties were to go about their redistricting processes,” said Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, a co-sponsor.

Because there were so few laws on the books for how to properly redraw county lines, Kennedy says counties were allowed to not include public input, redraw the counties in a partisan manner and more.

The new law prohibits maps from being redrawn in order to protect an incumbent, bans improper communications about redistricting between commission members and staff, requires paid lobbying commissions to identify themselves to the state and sets some standards for how to redraw the district boundaries, among other things.

Kennedy wanted to include an independent commission requirement but says he took it out of the bill after hearing from counties last year that the commission would be too burdensome and costly for counties to run.

However, the new law only applies to counties that have five commissioners serving on their board.

There are currently only three counties that meet that criteria: Weld, Arapahoe and El Paso counties.

Most Colorado counties have three commissioners who live within individual districts but who run on a countywide ballot for an at-large seat.

The five commissioner counties have some members who run for at-large seats and others who run within a particular district. The commissioners are typically the ones who redraw the county lines every couple of years.

Kennedy is expecting that more counties will change from a three to a five commissioner system in coming years.

“I hope many, many other counties across Colorado just make the change from three to five because it’s a better, more democratic system of government, and now, we have some protections in place to make sure they won’t be gerrymandered districts,” he said.

Only counties that have populations of 70,000 or more or who are home rule are able to ask the voters for permission to change to a five commissioner system.

Weld, Arapahoe and El Paso counties had taken a neutral stance on the bill, meaning they wouldn’t actively campaign for it but also wouldn’t fight it.

However, Weld County’s attorney, Bruce Barker, says because it has a home rule charter, it does not need to comply with the new law.

“In the state of Colorado, you can have a home rule county, which has the ability to set up the organization and structure of the county government,” Barker said. “In this case, Weld County set it up as a board of county commissioners with three districts and two at-large positions.”

Weld is one of two home rule counties in the state; the other, Pitkin, has a three commissioner board, so the new law doesn’t apply.

Barker says that in order to implement a law like this, either the state would have needed to modify some other statutes or the voters of Weld County, who approved the home rule charter back in the 1970s, would have to agree to the modifications to the new redistricting law.

He believes the new law undermines the local control the state’s constitution set out.

While he welcomes a petition to amend the charter, Barker says he has not seen an appetite for it.

He’s not planning on suing the state over the new law but says he will defend the county if the state tries to sue them for refusing to enforce the new law.

“They have every right to try to bring that lawsuit against Weld County, but we will defend it vigorously,” Barker said.

Kennedy disagrees and says he consulted with the legislative legal team about this very issue.

“I had a legal memo prepared by staff at the beginning of session to better understand whether home rule would exempt a county like Weld from this law. It does not,” he said. “Home rule for counties is very limited in its application.”

Since Weld County took a neutral stance on the bill, Kennedy was under the impression that it would enforce the new law. He says the state is prepared to sue any county that does not comply.

Counties will not be required to apply the new rules until the redistricting in 2023. In the meantime, Weld County is once again standing up against the state and questioning its authority to control home rule areas.