Weld County says no thanks to state law designed to reduce gerrymandering

Weld County has a message for the state of Colorado: stay out of our business.

At least when it comes to establishing new boundaries for the districts the county’s five commissioners are elected to represent.

Weld County completed the task of redistricting — an exercise accompanying every decennial census — on March 1, despite accusations that it bypassed a state statute revamping the way some counties in Colorado must draw up their new lines. HB 1047, passed in 2021, calls for counties with commissioners who are elected by district only — as opposed to at-large — must follow a more comprehensive and public process that takes into consideration factors beyond the chief mandate to adjust districts for even population size.

That’s all well and good, Weld County attorney Bruce Barker told The Denver Post, but it’s not something his county needs to worry about.

“The state constitution guarantees the right to organize a county government according to the electors of that county,” he said. “You don’t tell a home-rule county how they organize.”

Barker said at the beginning of the year, Weld County’s clerk and recorder submitted new district boundaries to the commissioners in the Republican-leaning county and a new map was chosen in short order. There was no independent redistricting committee, no interactive mapping tool and no series of public meetings, as called for by HB 21-1047.

By contrast, two other large Front Range counties — El Paso and Arapahoe — are abiding by the language of HB 21-1047 in their redistricting efforts. In late April, Arapahoe County wrapped up the last of five public feedback sessions on potential new district maps. The county also provides an online mapping tool so residents can create their own maps for consideration.

That has some in Weld County crying foul and contemplating litigation. Counties in Colorado are generally responsible for providing law enforcement and social services, completing road and bridge work, conducting elections and operating a public health agency, among other duties.

“It felt like they were making a decision almost behind closed doors,” said Kathleen Milligan, co-chair of the League of Women Voters Greeley-Weld County.

The League is looking into whether Weld County violated the new law and whether home-rule status is sufficient to shield it from state edicts. A lawsuit could be in the offing.

“The people who oversaw the redistricting decision were the commissioners — they’re all Republican, they’re not bipartisan,” Milligan said.

But Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine said it’s clear to her that the county’s charter “determines how we organize ourselves.”

“If that statute could overrule the state constitution in redistricting, I would expect we would have heard from the (attorney general’s) office by now,” she said. “Instead, people are moving to Weld County because of more freedom and fewer taxes — arguing against self-determination and self-governance is probably a political loser for the sponsors of HB 1047…”

While Saine can see the “benefit” of an independent redistricting commission, she said nothing compels a home-rule county to put one in place.

State Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, the architect of HB 1047, said the law provides “a great bipartisan structure to prevent partisan gerrymandering by either side.” By not following the state statute, he said, Weld County effectively “diluted minority voices.”

With Greeley and Evans, which are heavily Latino, split into Weld County’s three districts rather than standing as its own, deGruy Kennedy said the commissioners failed to keep at least one potential “community of interest” intact.

But, Saine said, there’s a perception that Greeley already “gets more resources and attention than our southern communities.”

“Having Greeley as one district would accelerate this division,” she said.

Eric Bergman, policy director for Colorado Counties Inc., said as the bill is so new, it is “pretty much untested at the local level.” The redistricting efforts happening now won’t bear fruit until the 2024 election.

The law effectively only applies to Arapahoe, Weld and El Paso counties, due to the “hybrid approach” the three counties use of having commissioners elected both by districts and at-large, Bergman said.

Arapahoe County, which has nearly double Weld County’s population of 340,000, appointed a nine-member citizen redistricting advisory committee to draw up maps. The committee is made up of three Republicans, three Democrats and three independents, said Bill McCartin, the committee’s chairman.

During a single meeting of the committee, McCartin said, they winnowed down the choices from 16 maps to four.

“I was incredibly heartened how well the nine committee members came up with maps,” he said.

The committee aims to present three maps to the five commissioners by mid-June, with a decision on a final district map expected from the board in August. McCartin said the advisory committee looked at creating a community of interest along the Interstate 25 corridor, with the possible inclusion of Glendale, an Arapahoe County enclave surrounded by Denver.

Aurora is too large to set aside as its own community of interest, he said, but it was important for the commission to keep neighborhoods within Colorado’s third-largest city intact within a district.

“We looked at not dividing neighborhoods, if possible,” McCartin said.

DeGruy Kennedy hopes Weld County will take a cue from its neighbor and consider a new redistricting process that includes more public input and participation. But it may take a lawsuit to make that happen, the Lakewood Democrat concedes.

“Yeah, I hope someone sues them, because that’s not OK,” he said.

Barker, the Weld County attorney, said a constitutional change will need to be made at the state level first to overrule county home-rule powers.

“That’s the way it’s written into our charter,” he said. “That’s the way it’s been done since 1976.”

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