Plan for districts to elect commissioners advances

Bill could empower voters in smaller areas such as Mancos

DENVER - Against expectations, Sen. Ellen Roberts advanced her plan Monday to let rural counties elect their commissioners by district instead of at-large.

The vote was a surprise success for a bill that the Legislature voted down two years ago when it was proposed by Roberts, R-Durango, and former Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio.

Roberts said her Senate Bill 84 will help voters feel better about their representation at the level of government that's closest to home - the county. Rural counties are often dominated by a single city or town, she said.

"The folks who live in the outlying areas of the county often feel a disconnect between themselves and the county commissioner who represents their district," Roberts said.

Currently, a commissioner from Mancos, for example, is elected county-wide and has to win a solid number of votes from Cortez. Roberts said this gives voters in the main population center too much influence over rural areas.

In an unexpected move, the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee passed the bill on a 4-1 vote. The same panel killed a similar bill in 2012 on a party-line vote.

The bill's next test comes in the full Senate.

It allows counties of less than 70,000 people to hold a vote to see if its citizens want to elect their commissioners by district. Either the commissioners or a citizen petition could put the measure on the ballot.

County commissioners recently voted unanimously to oppose the bill, said Pat Ratliff, a lobbyist for Colorado Counties Inc.

Commissioners worry that if they were elected by district, it would be harder to make decisions for the good of the whole county, Ratliff said.

"We think this is a critically important issue that has the potential to balkanize the counties, and we're concerned about that," she said.

But Roberts said most offices, including the Legislature, are elected by district.

"Have we balkanized Colorado by having House and Senate districts?" she said.

Usually, such a strong show of opposition from county commissioners would doom a bill. But not Monday.

Roberts insisted the bill was not a partisan issue, and people from all across the political spectrum have asked for the change. But in 2012, it was Democrats who ended up killing the bill despite Republican support.

On Monday, two Democrats joined the GOP senators to vote for it. With Democrats holding an 18-17 edge in the Senate, Monday's vote means Roberts should be able to pass the bill as long as she can get unanimous support from her fellow Republicans.