New political boundaries for some of the most powerful local officials in Weld County are under scrutiny by some state lawmakers who say the districts were drawn in violation of a 2021 law.
Weld County officials, who argue the county is exempt from that state law, looked solely at population in drawing new county commissioner district lines, resulting in voter pools that critics say assure Republicans win coming elections.
The redistricting law, which borrowed from state-level requirements, details specific steps for drawing new districts, such as forming a redistricting commission, creating a website for public input and holding public meetings.
While redistricting experts say the 2021 Colorado law mandates that cities should be kept together when possible in county commission maps, the largest municipality in Weld County, Greeley, is divided in three under the boundaries. The city is 40% Latino, compared with the county as a whole being about 30%.
“Weld County is blatantly violating the law, and they know it,” said state Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat and a prime sponsor of the 2021 legislation.
Weld officials, however, say they don’t have to follow that law because of their unique status as a “home rule” county, meaning its residents voted to create a charter to organize county government rather than going off the default rules laid out in the state constitution.
“They can’t dictate how we set up our government,” said Bruce Barker, Weld County’s attorney. “They would have to change the constitution to make that happen.”
Additionally, Barker contends that because home rule counties weren’t explicitly named in the bill, they aren’t included under its rules.
That’s not what the legislature’s nonpartisan attorneys said in the lead-up to the bill’s passage, though.
“If the general assembly enacts a statute requiring counties to follow new procedures in redistricting county commissioner districts, a county with a home rule charter would be bound by that process,” reads a memo sent to deGruy Kennedy from the Office of Legislative Legal Services in February 2021.
The new maps could make the county vulnerable to a lawsuit that could ultimately force it to restart its redistricting process, state lawmakers say. The next Weld County election is in 2024, when two district-based commissioners and one at-large commissioner are up for reelection. Currently, all five commissioners are Republicans.
☀️ READ MORE
The decisions county commissioners make have far-reaching implications. Commissioners rule the budget for offices like the sheriff’s office, elections, the coroner’s office and oversee things like roads and bridges and human services. They often manage hundreds of employees and multimillion dollar annual budgets. Weld County, with about 340,000 residents, has a $440 million budget in 2023.
More broadly, such a legal challenge could further define what home rule counties can and cannot do. While dozens of cities in the state have home rule status, Weld and Pitkin are the only counties to adopt the status. (Denver and Broomfield are home rule cities but have the same municipal and county boundaries and no county commissioners.)
Others, such as Douglas County, have also expressed interest in establishing home rule charters after a bill from 2022 included a provision exempting them from collective bargaining, said Eric Bergman, policy director of Colorado Counties Inc., a nonprofit advocacy organization.
“To my knowledge, it’s untested in the courts,” Bergman said.
Barker, the longtime attorney for Weld, said he knew of only one court case from 1984 that addressed home rule for counties.
2021 map-drawing law
House Bill 1047, signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis in April 2021, outlines requirements for counties with five-member commissions, where some or all members are elected by voters within the district where the candidate resides.
Under the bill, counties must hold at least three public input meetings with any in-person meetings rotating through multiple areas of the county.
It also recommends but doesn’t require an independent commission be formed to draw the lines. The redistricting commission can be made up by the board of commissioners.
The law borrows rules for congressional and legislative redistricting approved by voters in 2018 under amendments Y and Z, which Weld County voters approved by about 23 percentage points each.
Under House Bill 1047, a redistricting commission must maximize competitive districts and preserve “communities of interest” such as municipalities.
Most commissioners in Colorado are elected by the entire county and therefore unaffected by district rules. There are three counties with commissioners elected by district: Weld, Arapahoe and El Paso.
Weld County has five commissioners, three of whom are elected by voters living in specific districts and two of whom are elected at-large by the entire county.
The goal of deGruy Kennedy’s bill was to make it easier for counties to expand their boards from three to five commissioners without worrying about gerrymandering, he said. A bill that would have required expanded boards for counties with more than 70,000 residents was narrowly defeated in the House State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee on March 2.
Weld’s redistricting process
Weld County Clerk and Recorder Carly Koppes initially presented the proposed county commission map to commissioners Jan. 23 during a public work session. No residents were present, according to a county spokesperson. Commissioners also discussed redistricting in an earlier work session but no action was taken.
The map was then approved during a March 1 meeting, where several attendees complained about the redistricting process.
“That’s the way the commissioners have done it for 47 years,” Barker, the county attorney, said of the county’s process.
As of the day of the map’s approval, the county had received at least 50 “emails of concern” on the topic, including many complaints about the process and requests for more time for public input. The county received one email of support for the districts.
“County commissioners are choosing their voters instead of voters choosing candidates,” wrote Greeley resident Virginia Lightsey-Ceehorne.
“When information regarding redistricting is not readily available and announcements of meetings not widely shared to encourage diverse participation, I question the motives of those in power,” wrote Paulette Dolin, another resident.
“It seems obvious to me you want to keep all the commissioners in the Republican party and not representing unaffiliated or Democrats,” Erik Staub wrote.
Outside of routine meeting agendas, there was no other posting of the redistricting process on the county website, according to a county spokesperson. A legal notice was published in The Greeley Tribune.
The Greeley and Weld County chapter of the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization that promotes democracy and voter rights, said they called for a meeting with the county in February to learn about redistricting and learned the process was nearly complete.
“We knew it was coming up, I didn’t realize it was halfway through the process and almost a done deal before we got involved,” said Barbara Whinery with the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Several members of the chapter showed up at the March 1 meeting to complain and ask commissioners not to adopt the maps and instead restart the process.
The local chapter is now speaking with the statewide League of Women Voters on how to address the situation, with legal action as a possibility, Whinery said.
To split Greeley or keep it whole?
The new district lines are substantially similar to the previous ones, which also split the city of Greeley in three. Just one commissioner on the current board lives in Greeley, which accounts for about a third of Weld County’s population. Under the new and old maps, it’s possible for no one on the board to come from the city.
“Our forefathers felt it was extremely important for the three commissioners to have a piece of Greeley to represent it as well as rural Weld County so we don’t get that rural-urban divide like there is throughout many parts of Colorado,” Weld County Commissioner Kevin Ross said.
But Scott Martinez, a Democratic election law attorney in Colorado who specializes in redistricting, said city splitting, which dilutes the political power of a municipality, is seen in many parts of the U.S. and often the subject of lawsuits.
“In other parts of the country with a rural area and one municipality in the center, where the city is intentionally fractured, that’s used as evidence there’s an attempt to dilute progressive democratic voices in the process,” he said. “This is the very central thing that happens in litigation across the country.”
Sometimes cities aren’t kept together in district maps but map drawers typically have to demonstrate there’s a community of interest more significant than the city itself to do so, Martinez said.
“We don’t get any breakdowns of voter affiliation or anything, we just keep our population in three districts as equal as possible,” Ross said.
State Rep. Jennifer Parenti is a Democrat who lives in the Weld County half of Erie and represents House District 19. She believes if Greeley were kept mostly whole, it would create a highly competitive district for commissioners based on voter registration there.
Parenti feels the new commissioner map “really puts a lot of the communities of interest in the county at a disadvantage. And I would say it disadvantages farmers, too.”
Creating competitive political districts in Weld County is possible. For instance, House District 50, which is entirely in Weld County and includes parts of Greeley, is considered competitive between Democratic and Republican candidates.
As of Monday, no legal action had been filed against the county.
“There’s recourse and there’s time,” deGruy Kennedy said. “If a citizen of Weld County was to file a lawsuit, I am confident that they would prevail and that Weld County would have to start over again and redo the process following the law.”
If a lawsuit is filed, Barker said the county will defend its position.
“It’s a challenge to the state constitutional power of citizens to determine how they set their government up,” he said.
The fight is about more than just redistricting, Barker said. It’s about the county’s relationship with state laws.
“If we have to do that, what’s next?” he said.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 3:20 p.m. on Tuesday, March 14, 2023, to correct the title for Eric Bergman, policy director for Colorado Counties Inc.