House panel approves county commissioner gerrymandering bill along party lines

House panel approves county commissioner gerrymandering bill along party lines

By Pat Poblete (March 4, 2021)

A House panel on Thursday passed on party lines a measure seeking to apply aspects of the congressional and state legislative nonpartisan redistricting plan to districts drawn for some county commissions. 

The proposal from Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat, would implement some of the framework from 2018’s amendments Y and Z to county commissioner maps, where commissioners are allowed to draw their own districts. The bill specifically targets the state’s largest counties that have five commissioners: Arapahoe, El Paso and Weld. 

“This will make sure that neither political party is able to hold advantage over these redistricting processes and that it will be done fairly to ensure that the interest of the people are put ahead of the interest of the politicians,” Kennedy said during testimony before the House State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. 

The proposal  primarily mirrors one that cleared committee but died last session without a floor vote after strong opposition from counties. Counties considered a provision calling for a seven-member independent commission, assisted by nonpartisan staff, to take charge of drawing district maps to be an expensive, unfunded mandate. 

Although Kennedy dropped that provision in this year’s version of the bill – a move he said he was “not that thrilled that I had to give up” – Arapahoe and El Paso counties were again poised to line up in opposition of the bill. Nancy Jackson, a Democrat who chairs the Arapahoe County Board of County Commissioners, said county legislative bodies are often “pretty nuts and bolts” and not plagued by the partisanship that can grip state legislative and congressional representatives. As such, she said, some of the provisions in this year’s version of the bill felt onerous. 

“Very detailed and time-consuming requirements in the introduced version of House Bill 1047 would be burdensome and time consuming in the best of circumstances,” Jackson said. “2021 is anything but the best of circumstances. Our board has been and continues to be overwhelmed with dealing with the plethora of issues related to the pandemic.” 

But she said recent work with Kennedy moved them to neutral. According to Jackson, that move was down to an amendment Kennedy introduced today, which among other things struck the mandate for judicial review of maps and streamlined the map-drawing process by eliminating some steps required under amendments Y and Z. 

Still, Jackson said she had lingering concerns in three areas: 

  • How to account for the delay in census data to incorporate into the redistricting process. 
  • A provision of the bill that changes how counties could go back from electing commissioners by districts to electing them at-large. She said her board felt that measure was “a vehicle to restrict local control.” 
  • A measure calling for competitive districts as criteria, which Jackson said felt contradictory when paired with provisions requiring other criteria such as population equality, respect for the Voting Rights Act and communities of interest. 

Jackson also provided a letter from the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners, who also moved from opposing the bill to neutral after working with Kennedy but still expressed concerns. 

“We still feel that this concept is not the right solution for El Paso County, but we were encouraged by your willingness to consider a list of amendments,” the letter said. https://75ab17a35aedd4d15ac87f77841b05cf.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

But two El Paso County residents slammed their commissioners’ opposition to the proposal. Stephanie Vigil, a unaffiliated private citizen, said their opposition came down to an effort “to shore up for themselves nothing less than unchecked, unanimous, single-party control” while Mike Maday accused commissioners of “flat-out blatant gerrymandering.” 

Both Vigil and Maday, who serves as the voting protection coordinator for the El Paso County Democratic Party, testified the maps in their county were drawn to disenfranchise Democrats and involved little to no public input. 

“We were presented with three options that the county clerk came up with to comment on — one option was uncompetitive, the other was very uncompetitive, the third was extremely uncompetitive,” Maday said. “We presented our own maps and ideas and they were not presented to the county board for their consideration.” 

Maday said while those districts were uncompetitive, they weren’t illegal as the only legal standard that applied — population equality — was met. 

“We could have sued, but we would have lost,” he said. “I’m not the type of person that wants to go to court a whole lot and just lose things.” 

El Paso County commissioners were not immediately available for comment. 

Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, said the testimony from Maday and Vigil moved him from a “no” to a “no for today.” 

“I’ve heard some concerning things that don’t sit well with me and I’m going to go back to my commissioners and I’m going to ask very direct questions,” he said. “I definitely had an opposition going in, but through the dialogue and the discussion, I want to be a little bit more open-minded about what’s going on because I think you have legitimate concerns and there is merit to what you’re doing.” 

But Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, a Watkins Republican who previously served with Jackson as an Arapahoe County commissioner, blasted the proposal as “an anti-El Paso County bill.” 

“Until I hear something from, Weld, Arapahoe and El Paso that says that they’re comfortable with this bill, I’ll probably be fighting it the whole way,” he said. 

The bill passed 7-4, with Rep. Ron Hanks, R-Penrose, joining Williams as a “no for today.” 

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