The ups and downs of a home-rule county
EAGLE COUNTY – There once was a county, lead by a powerful commissioner who seemed to have control of everything. He had a crony on the board with him, who did everything he said. The county staff were hired more for their loyalty than their merit for the job. And they spent taxpayer dollars like crazy.One day, a group of concerned citizens decided to do something about it. They wanted more control over their government. They wanted to expand the board from three commissioners to five. That way, no one person could have so much control. It took two elections, but finally it worked. In 1976, Weld County became the first county in the state to adopt what’s called a “home rule” charter. With this new status, Weld County could expand its board from three members to five.That is the story of how Weld County decided to go boldly where no other Colorado county had gone before, as told by Don Warden. Since 1978, Warden has been Weld County’s director of finance and administration, a position similar to our county administrator. It’s been so long since Weld County made the switch, it’s hard to find anyone who remembers how it was before, Warden said. Only two members of the committee that wrote the new charter are still alive. Attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.For the most part, most residents seem to like how Weld County is run, Warden said. “I do like the fact that you can control your own destiny a little bit,” he said. Eagle Countians may soon be asked to consider changing the county to a home-rule government. County Commissioners Peter Runyon and Arn Menconi say they support the idea. Runyon, in particular, has championed the idea of expanding the board to five members. Because Eagle County’s population is less than 70,000, adopting a home-rule charter is the only way to change the board. A meeting is scheduled for next month to get the public’s take on it. The concept of designing your own county government may sound like a good idea. But praise for a home-rule county is far from unanimous. There have been drawbacks in Weld County, Warden said. And attempts to change those perceived flaws have failed, he said.Michael Kinsley served on Pitkin County’s Board of Commissioners before and after the county’s switch to home rule. You could say he longs for the old days.”I think it is a huge mistake,” he said. Weld CountyThose who have gone through the process are quick to point out that the term “home rule” is a bit misleading. Home rule counties don’t get to make up all of their own rules, Warden said. Instead, citizens have the ability to reorganize their county government. Weld Countians did that by expanding their Board of County Commissioners from three members to five. Three represent districts and are elected only by voters living in their district. Two represent the entire county and are elected “at large” by all the county’s voters.
The intent of expanding the board was to dilute the power of one particular commissioner, Warden said. That commissioner died shortly before Weld County changed to home rule, he said. There have been few complaints about how the board of commissioners is organized. But there have been plenty about the watchdog council the citizens created to supervise the commissioners, Warden said. That council, which is made up of five nonpartisan Weld County residents, has few powers, he said. It can appoint people to fill vacancies on the county commission. It also can order “performance audits” if they think a particular county department is mismanaging money. The council meets only once a month, and doesn’t do much, Warden said. Attempts to dissolve the council have failed twice, however. “It’s a real oddity,” he said. “There’s nothing like it in the country.”A more common aspect of a home-rule county, however, is turning some elected positions into appointed positions. In Weld County, the county clerk, treasurer and coroner are appointed, rather than elected. Before, unqualified people were elected to those positions, Warden said. For example, the elected coroner was not a board-certified forensic pathologist. So whenever there was a death, Weld County had to bring in a forensic pathologist to determine if an autopsy was needed, Warden said. Those changes, as well as adopting a merit-based hiring system for county employees, has created a more professional workplace, he said. If the intent of a adopting a home-rule charter was to allow Weld County to control its own destiny, few actually rose to the task. Only 21 percent of Weld County voters turned out to vote on the charter the year it was adopted. And it passed narrowly.”That means 11 percent of the voters put in the home-rule charter,” he said. “Once it was put in, it became the constitution.”Pitkin County The case for Pitkin County’s change to home rule sounds familiar.”I think one of the issues was representation and feeling that Aspen was kind of dominating the county,” said Tom Oken, Pitkin County’s chief financial officer and treasurer.Residents in the more rural parts of Eagle County – such as the Roaring Fork Valley – feel similarly about the communities along the Interstate 70 corridor. Runyon, who has emerged as the main proponent for the home-rule concept, wants to correct that by expanding the board to five commissioners. He has suggested Eagle County model Weld County’s method of electing three board members by district and two by the county as a whole. That’s a bad idea, said Dwight Shellman. Shellman was a Pitkin County commissioner in the early ’70s, just before the county adopted a home rule charter.At one time Pitkin County’s commissioners were elected only by district. Land developers would play commissioners – and essentially, communities – off each other to get projects approved, Shellman said. Pitkin County revised its charter and now all five commissioners are elected by all the county’s voters.
Rather than changing how commissioners are elected, Shellman said, Eagle County should consider treating the Roaring Fork Valley differently. “The problem with Eagle County is that the commissioners just do things countywide where a one-size-fits-all doesn’t fit very well,” he said. In Pitkin County, communities have their own review boards, called neighborhood caucuses. These neighborhood groups play a formal part when the county commission considers approving a development, Shellman said. On several occasions the county commission has denied projects because of the neighborhood groups’ recommendations, Shellman said. Developers learn that they need to work with local communities to get their projects approved, he said. But while Shellman believes having a larger, five-member board could help Eagle County, Kinsley doesn’t. Pitkin County undertook a sort of regime change in 1974 when the “old boys” were replaced by a “progressive” board of county commissioners, Kinsley said. Not everyone was happy about it though, and talk of becoming home rule and expanding the board began.”It was people who were attempting to reduce the power of the effectiveness of the board,” Kinsley said. “They were appalled that we were taking progressive action.”The quality of the county’s charter is only as good as the 11-member commission elected to write it, he said. “It became therefore a real roll of the dice what happens,” he said. “We got, in addition to thoughtful people who were generally trying to make the county better, several folks who opposed what the county was doing and sought to undermine the authority of the county commissioners with this mechanism.”The charter was adopted in 1978. Pitkin County has a larger board, but it’s less accountable, Kinsley said. Commissioners in Pitkin County can “hide” their position on certain issues with a larger board. For example, a commissioner may cast a politically popular vote even if it’s not the outcome he or she wanted. That commissioner may know the majority of the board will approve the desired outcome, anyway.”I got what I wanted but the voters didn’t get to see what I wanted,” he said. Kinsley agrees with Shellman that it’s time Eagle County start considering projects on a case-by-case basis. But rather than changing the Eagle County’s structure, Kinsley suggests Eagle Countians change their approach to government.”The Eagle Valley portion of the county will always have the capability of outvoting the Roaring Fork Valley,” he said. “It behooves the Roaring Fork to organize. That’s democracy.”===========================================================Weld County # of commissioners: 5, nonpartisanHow are they elected: Three are elected by voters residing in the district they represent; two are elected by voters living anywhere in the county
What formerly elected positions are now appointed? Treasurer, coroner, surveyorKey characteristics: Weld County has a citizen’s advisory committee that is supposed to act as “watchdog” for the Board of County Commissioners. County charter: http://www.eaglecounty.us/uploadedFiles/weld_charter.pdfPitkin County# of commissioners: 5, nonpartisanHow are they elected: All are elected by voters living anywhere in the countyWhat formerly elected positions are now appointed? Treasurer, coroner, surveyorKey characteristics: Pitkin County has neighborhood caucuses which play a formal part in the approval of any development project. They may recommend approval or denial of a land-use application. County charter: http://www.eaglecounty.us/uploadedFiles/PitkinCo-charter.pdf===========================================================Want more information? Log on to http://www.vaildaily.com and type “home rule” in the search engine box for a complete list of stories.===========================================================Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado