Voting district areas in Routt County a puzzle
Boundaries must be tweaked in 2011
May 9, 2010
Steamboat Springs — Overlooked in the 2009 debate about the proposed annexation of Steamboat 700 was the potential impact on county politics of adding as many as 2,000 homes to the city of Steamboat Springs. In theory, at least, the future growth of the city has the potential to increase the influence its residents have on electing a slate of county commissioners.
Under Colorado statutes, Routt County is governed by three county commissioners, each from a distinct geographical region of the county. But look a little closer, and it quickly becomes apparent that the potential exists today for all three county commissioners to live in the city limits.
Most of Steamboat Springs lies within Commissioner District 3. However, Districts 1 and 2 take small bites out of the city population, opening at least the possibility that someday, all three commissioners could live in the city.
And even if that were not the case, an increasingly Steamboat-centric Routt County population eventually could grow to dominate county elections. That's because the statutes provide for at-large commissioner elections — every registered voter in Routt County votes for all three commission seats, regardless of which district they live in. The same rule applies to municipal and school board elections.
Former City Council President Ken Brenner said he doesn't think political influence will become centered in Steamboat even if its population grows. He said he thinks voters in the city understand the need to balance political influence across the county.
"County voters would not be supportive of that," Brenner said. "I think they prefer seeing a diversity. That's why Doug (Monger, District 2) and Nancy (Stahoviak, District 1) ran unopposed last time. They're thoughtful, they prepare well, and they're from rural parts of the county."
County leaders said the Board of Commissioners looks after the broad interests of all residents.
"The commissioners vote on issues that affect the entire county," Routt County Clerk and Recorder Kay Weinland said.
"We're the commissioners of all of us," Monger said.
Name your district
Perhaps because they vote for all three commissioner districts, and because the current commissioners happen to live in the heart of their districts, voters may rarely give the boundaries of those districts a second thought.
However, the question came to the forefront in April when Jim Hansen, of Steamboat Springs, a nominated Republican candidate for District 3, found out belatedly that he lived just outside the district, making him ineligible to run.
When the County Clerk's office told him that his home literally was on the wrong side of Broad Street to run in District 3, his bid to challenge incumbent Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush in the fall came to an abrupt end. His only option might have been to move to a new home.
Hansen told the Steamboat Pilot & Today that he was under the impression that he always has lived in District 3. What he wasn't aware of was that in 2001, in a process mandated by state statutes, the boundary between District 3 and District 2 had been shifted so that the west side of Broad Street, where he had lived on Steamboat's northern boundary for 16 years, was moved into District 2. It's the commissioner district that includes Hayden but also takes in Strawberry Park northeast of Steamboat and reaches to the north beyond Clark to the Wyoming state line.
Weinland said she takes responsibility for not directing her staff more promptly to compare the legal description of District 3 against the location of Hansen's residence to determine his eligibility.
"I should have looked Jim up immediately when he came into my office" to file candidacy papers, Weinland said. "It's a lesson learned. I regret that I didn't do that."
Why the change? Colorado statutes mandate that at least every 10 years, after the latest census results are finalized, counties must take a fresh look at their commissioner districts and adjust the boundaries.
The statutes read: "Each county shall be divided into three compact districts by the board of county commissioners. Each district shall be as nearly equal in population as possible based on the most recent federal census of the United States."
The easiest way to achieve that goal is to capture some of the population of Steamboat, where all three districts come together, and pull it into one of the other districts.
In 2001, after the 2000 census, the district boundaries were redrawn so that the population of the three districts were: District 1, primarily South Routt, 6,596; District 2, primarily North and West Routt, 6,541; and District 3, most of the city of Steamboat Springs, 6,553.
Stahoviak, representing District 1, and Monger, representing District 2, were on the board in 2001 when the county last equalized districts. They said their policy has been to stay removed from the work of calculating how to balance the populations.
"We approve it, but we tried to keep our distance from it," Monger said.
Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan recalled that equalizing the districts was one of the first big jobs he tackled when he moved here from Kansas to take the post, and it reminded him of the same process there. He said he consulted with a former assistant county attorney and Weinland. The attorney's office helped him conform to the statues, and Weinland's guidance was to keep county voting precincts intact as much as possible.
"The boundaries of a precinct are limited by voter registration numbers, up to 1,500 voters," Weinland said.
Routt County has 18 precincts, including eight in Steamboat city limits.
"Until 2001, no more than a couple of precincts were split between commissioner districts," Weinland said. "Now, several Steamboat precincts have been split."
Sullivan said adjusting the boundary between Districts 3 and 2 on Steamboat's north side was tricky in 2001 and complicated by the fact the census collects population data along its own sense of boundaries, or census blocks.
"We wanted to hold a whole block in a district," Sullivan said.
Robert Felinczak, county Geographic Information Systems coordinator, explained that historic census data boundaries follow their own boundaries, sometimes following a city street and then changing direction to follow a geographic landmark such as a creek.
Brenner strongly agrees that keeping precincts intact while equalizing the commissioner districts is the way to go.
"To keep the integrity of the precinct intact, the less chance there is of any sense of impropriety or gerrymandering," he said.
Gerrymandering is a political term describing the practice of redrawing political boundaries, most commonly U.S. congressional districts, to change the political makeup of the voters in those districts.
Déjà vu all over again
Hansen's unpleasant surprise reminds Brenner of 2002, when he was planning a race against former County Commissioner Dan Ellison in District 3, only to find that his home off Amethyst Drive on Spring Creek Circle was among 10 or 12 homes in his neighborhood that had been moved into District 2 a year earlier.
"You can say that was coincidence," Brenner said, "but there are people who would've said there were other motives involved."
"I suddenly left the district that would have allowed me to run against Dan Ellison and left me to run against Doug Monger," a fellow Democrat, Brenner said. "I didn't want to do that."
He said he and Monger grew up on local ranches and share similar values.
In his mind, Brenner said, it would have made more sense in 2001 to add population to District 2 by capturing population from Precinct 11 on Steamboat's west side and to continue doing that.
Weinland said she thinks the county's growth in the past 10 years has been more proportional across the three districts and the need to adjust commissioner district boundaries in 2011 will be less complex than last time, if any adjustments are needed.
Brenner said he continues to think the different units of government have a better track record of working together than do most counties in the state.
"We have some really good working relationships," he said.