Aiming for ‘richer’ political debate? |

Aiming for ‘richer’ political debate?

Scott N. Miller

EAGLE – Stay flexible. Keep it simple. But go for it.That, in short, was the advice the Eagle County Home Rule Commission heard Thursday during a presentation about government reform by officials from the only two Colorado counties that have adopted home rule. The commission has until the end of July to propose a new charter for the county. Voters will have the final say about adopting that charter.

Thursday’s session was an overview of how governments function in Pitkin and Weld counties, both good and bad.Pitkin County Manager Hillary Smith and Treasurer Tom Okur talked about their experience, as did Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker.

Here’s a brief look at the issues they talked about:Number of commissionersAll said working with five-commissioner boards is a good thing.”You can really tell the difference when five or three commissioners are present,” Smith said. “The discussion is much richer.”While both Pitkin and Weld counties have five commissioners, they’re elected a little differently. Pitkin County holds non-partisan elections. The commissioners represent specific geographic districts, but are elected by all county voters. That’s the system in place now for Eagle County’s three commissioners.If more than two candidates run for a commissioner’s job, there’s one August primary for candidates from all parties. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then face off in the November election.Weld County’s system is a little different. The elections are partisan, meaning that the November election usually gives voters a choice between a Republican and a Democrat. There are three commissioner districts and two “at large” seats on the board. At election time, voters will pick a candidate from the district they live in and the at-large candidates.”The commissioners feel like they need to take care of their districts,” Barker said. “But we haven’t seen parochialism with that, and they all feel like they take care of the whole county.”How best to elect commissioners has already been a matter of debate among commission members. And Basalt commission member Jacque Whitsitt has made it clear she wants that part of the county to have its own county commissioner.Between state law and political pressure from the Eagle River valley, that might not be possible. But, Smith said, there are parts of Pitkin County that are similar to the Basalt – El Jebel area. Those areas – which include Thomasville and Redstone – are represented by citizen councils called “caucuses.” Those groups have the power to draft land-use plans for their neighborhoods, among other things.”They really help us manage the fragmented areas of the county,” Smith said.Elected or appointed?Both Pitkin and Weld counties have turned jobs that once were elected offices into jobs that are appointed by the county commissioners. Both counties have turned their treasurer and coroner into appointed jobs, but voters don’t seem to want too many offices eliminated.That was the case in Summit County. Voters there formed a charter commission in 1996, then overwhelmingly rejected the charter that group sent to the ballot in 1997. Part of the reason was turning too many elected offices into appointed ones, Summit County Attorney Jeff Huntley said.”The county assessor at the time came out in favor of doing away with her job as elected,” Huntley said. “But the clerk and sheriff were against it.”That was one of the reasons the charter failed, Huntley said. Another was including a system of fines if commissioners missed too many meetings.Developers and others also campaigned against the Summit County charter, in large part because of what it would have allowed to be challenged or changed by popular vote.Government by ballot boxLike Pitkin and Weld counties, the proposed charter for Summit County would have exempted specific land-use decisions from special election challenges. But the charter in Summit County would have allowed voters to challenge changes to the county’s land-use regulations.”A certain amount of predictability is needed for people,” Smith said.In hindsight, “Our restrictions weren’t broad enough,” Huntley said of Summit County’s proposed charter.Government by the ballot box was a central argument against home rule in Summit County, and was mentioned last year by home rule opponents in Eagle County. But both Smith and Barker said it hasn’t been an issue in either Aspen or Greeley.”Since we adopted home rule in 1976, we’ve never had a referendum on a land-use issue,” Barker said. “It’s expensive, and it’s easier to do through the courts.”On the Web: http://www.eaglehomerule.orgStaff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14624, or Daily, Vail Colorado

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