County-commissioner bill backers have bumpy ride

Measure would allow elections by districts in small counties

DENVER – Two Southwest Colorado legislators hit turbulence Wednesday in their bid to change the way county commissioners are elected.

House Bill 1159 began as an attempt by Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, to let voters in small counties decide to elect their commissioners by district, instead of in countywide votes.

It passed the House 61-4 last month. That’s when the trouble started.

Brown’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, dropped her sponsorship of the bill, leading Brown to wonder whether he was being targeted because he’s in a competitive race for re-election.

Nicholson said she backed away because she rethought her support and began to worry that if county commissioners are elected by district, they will compete with each other rather than cooperating for the good of the county.

Brown’s re-election campaign had nothing to do with it, she said.

“It was not political. It was about what is the best public policy,” Nicholson said.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, stepped in as the Senate sponsor when Nicholson walked away.

But Senate President Brandon Shaffer assigned the bill to the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. In the past, the state affairs panel has acted as a “kill committee” – a convenient place for the majority party to dispose of legislation from the minority. But this year, it has seen relatively few partisan bills.

“I’d just like to know, are they going to kill it because of the merit, or is it because I’m on the bill,” Brown said before the hearing.

The panel didn’t kill it at all, at least not yet.

But it took no action after 100 minutes of testimony and debate Wednesday.

Bayfield Mayor Rick Smith spoke in favor of the bill, saying Durango dominates county politics because its voters can overwhelm the less-populated areas.

“It’s kind of hard for the rural east side of the county and the rural west side of the county to get a fair shake,” Smith said.

But the panel’s Democratic senators said they hesitated to vote for it because of opposition from Colorado Counties Inc., the lobbying group for county commissioners.

There was near-unanimous opposition to HB 1159 at the last CCI meeting, said Pat Ratliff, the group’s lobbyist.

Democrats opted to delay a vote until after March 15, giving Roberts and Brown time to go back to CCI and argue for their bill.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, said sponsors should have done their homework at CCI and at least gained the group’s neutrality.

“I find it really difficult to vote against the major county organization,” Bacon said.

Ratliff did not hold out much hope that county commissioners would change their minds, calling their opposition “strong” and “visceral.”

“I do not know that the position would change this year,” Ratliff said.

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