State Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, has sponsored a bill that would change the way county commissioners are elected. It would allow voters in counties with fewer than 70,000 residents to require commissioners be elected by district.
It is a nice-sounding proposal – with an superficial ring of fairness. It is also a prescription for bad government and partisanship that should be rejected.
Under current law, candidates for county commissioner run from a particular district but are elected by countywide votes. Roberts’ measure, Senate Bill 84, would allow voters to enact a new system whereby each commissioner would be elected by – and presumably be beholden to – only the voters in his or her district.
Roberts says the idea is to help voters feel closer to their county government. Rural counties, she told The Durango Herald, are often dominated by one town, saying, “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.”
There are a number of things wrong with that thinking, starting with the suspicion that “disconnect” really means “wrong party.” But worse is the idea that commissioners represent their districts. They do not. Commissioners are required to live in their respective districts to ensure a certain degree of geographical diversity. But they are elected at-large for a reason: They represent the entire county and the interests of all county residents.
The idea seems to be that rural residents feel underrepresented. But they are not; they are simply outnumbered. In La Plata County, almost a third of all county residents live within the city limits of Durango. Probably another quarter to a third live so close to the city limits as to be effectively considered Durangoans. And, there are other residents living north of town who, if anything, are further disconnected culturally and economically from the most rural parts of the county to the east, south and west. Even Bayfield, while proudly apart from Durango, almost certainly has more in common with the county seat than with Allison or Redmesa.
The law requires the three commissioners’ districts (the number is set by law as well) be drawn so as to be roughly proportional in population. That has typically been accomplished by including parts of Durango in each of the three districts. And given the numbers, it is hard to see how it could be done otherwise.
But what if it were? What would that mean? At best the least populated parts of the county would get one of the three seats. Presuming the rural-urban divide underlying by-district thinking would only ensure a permanent two-one split and guarantee rural residents be permanently disenfranchised.
Regional representation is at the heart of our federal union. And with that, rural populations are over-represented. Wyoming’s fewer than 600,000 residents have the same number of U.S. senators – two – as California’s more than 38 million people.
But thanks to Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s, that sort of disparity is not permitted the states. And while there are state Senate and House districts representing the various parts of Colorado, there is no reason to force that sort of regionalism onto smaller jurisdictions.
Through Colorado Counties, Inc., the state’s county commissioners recently voted unanimously to oppose SB 84. As a CCI position paper put it, going to by-district voting “would open the door to petty boundary disputes and an ‘us versus them’ mentality that is the exact opposite of sound governing.”
Good government is tough enough. There is no reason to make it harder. SB 84 should be defeated.