OUR VIEW: GarCo residents should get to vote on county districts
Garfield County has a clear electoral problem with which it needs help from state lawmakers.
We all know that the county, the eighth largest by area of Colorado’s 64, is remarkably diverse in its residents’ political views and their geographic split.
In general, the western part of the county is conservative and strongly in favor of natural gas exploration and extraction; the stretch of the county that’s in the Roaring Fork Valley is much more liberal and protective of undeveloped land. Glenwood Springs is the fulcrum of this political teeter-totter.
County commissioners represent districts in which they are required to live but are elected by countywide vote. That leaves many in the more liberal part of the county complaining that they don’t have a voice on the three-member board of commissioners.
We believe residents should have the opportunity to vote on whether they want to address this.
The only route currently open is an expensive and tedious process to create a home rule charter for the county. The Legislature, though, in the name of less government red tape, could solve that by letting counties decide whether to elect commissioners at large or by district without dealing with home rule.
The county’s split showed up dramatically in November’s election, with incumbent Tom Jankovsky carrying 77 percent of the vote from New Castle west to Parachute but only 58 percent overall.
(A quick note: This editorial is not a criticism of Jankovsky, whose re-election we endorsed and who we believe works hard, within his ideological framework, to represent his district. He has taken a leading role in nascent economic coordination efforts, has leaned away from oil and gas development in the Thompson Divide, and works to support energy efficiency and renewable energy.)
Still, he lost to Democrat Michael Sullivan within his district, with Sullivan pulling 57 percent of the vote in District 1, which includes most of Glenwood Springs south of the Colorado River and the rest of the southeast corner of the county.
Sullivan was preferred by 65 percent of the voters in the heavily Democratic Carbondale-area precincts, and pulled in 50.5 percent of the vote in the district’s Glenwood Springs-area precincts.
“I can’t help but think that District 1 needs to have a voice on the board and a system that more accurately reflects the will of the people,” Sullivan said after the election.
Home rule is not the way to go, though.
Establishing Garfield as a home rule county would require at least two elections and considerable spending.
The way state law is written, creating a home rule county is a process that makes a root canal seem appealing.
It would start either with a resolution from the existing board of commissioners or a petition drive. An election would then be called to determine whether to form a charter commission. At the same election, voters would choose 21 members of the commission, six from each of the county’s commission districts and three at large.
This unwieldy commission of 21 would have 240 days after its first meeting to formulate a charter to present to county commissioners, who would hold three public hearings. The charter commissioners would then be able to amend the document and an election would be set on its adoption. Other twists and turns are possible, and the county commission could levy a tax to cover the expenses of the charter commission, which under law may hire staff, consult experts and buy or lease equipment or space.
Are you numb yet?
Well, if the charter were rejected the first time, the commission could drill down some more and try again.
We don’t want the county to go through this.
We do want residents to have a chance to decide whether to elect commissioners by district.
The Legislature can change the law to allow that without creating a home rule county. So we urge Rep. Bob Rankin, a resident of southeastern Garfield County, to work with colleagues on allowing residents of any county not already governed by home rule to vote on such a change.
The idea shouldn’t suit just Democrats in Garfield County’s southeast corner. While electing commissioners by district likely would ensure them the voice they say they lack on the county board — should county residents vote to take that approach — it also likely would cement a Republican majority on the board for some years to come by locking up Districts 2 and 3.
Most importantly, it would let counties take a moderate step toward determining for themselves how to elect their leaders without the time and expense of a full-blown home-rule charter effort.
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