Fixing Commerce City’s unbalanced wards

While waiting for 2020 census results, City Council discusses voting fairness and representation

Scott Taylor
staylor@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 2/15/21

A plan to replace Commerce City’s four City Council wards with residency districts picked up some support Feb. 8 as councilors considered ways to balance voting power around the city fairly. City …

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Fixing Commerce City’s unbalanced wards

While waiting for 2020 census results, City Council discusses voting fairness and representation

Posted

A plan to replace Commerce City’s four City Council wards with residency districts picked up some support Feb. 8 as councilors considered ways to balance voting power around the city fairly.

City Clerk Dylan Gibson told councilors during a Feb. 8 study session that results from the 2020 Census will likely show that residency in the city’s wards are out of balance.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that the city has experienced a population boom, especially in the north and the east,” Gibson said. “That has likely led to an imbalance in our wards. This will require redistricting to meet charter requirements.”

The new Census numbers, which should be released this summer, will likely require the city to change the City Council Ward boundaries, Gibson said.

“They will provide the city with the most accurate information for us to redraw our Ward boundaries,” he said.

Councilors can also consider if they’d like to change how the city is divided up politically, electing all councilors in the wards where they live, making all the seats at-large or creating new residency districts for City Councilors.

Councilor Jose Guardiola said it’s time for a change.

“We’ve had discussions before about imbalances and fairness on this council, with the representation between the core city to the northern part,” Guardiola said.

Imbalance

Commerce City’s four wards are meant to be roughly equal in population — within a 10 percent difference, according to the City Charter. But voting results from November’s presidential ballot and the number of active voters show how unbalanced the wards have become since the boundaries were last adjusted in 2013. Wards 1 and 2 have roughly the same number of voters, with 5,998 active voters in Ward 1 and 4,991 in Ward 2.

Ward 3, however, has 9,113 active voters — almost as many voters as Wards 1 and 2 combined. And Ward 4, which covers the northeastern part of the city, has 12,835 registered voters.

Councilor Oscar Madera said it has an impact on voters.

“More than three-quarters of your tax base is down south, but the majority of people making decisions about those areas don’t live there,” Madera said. “It’s a legitimate concern for the people that do live there and are impacted by outfall and everything that comes with that revenue. All the benefits go up north and we get stuck with the trucking and pollution in the south.”

Four of Commerce City’s nine-member City Council are elected by ward, and four councilors and the mayor are elected at-large, by the whole city.

Guardiola said that the council is unbalanced as a result. Each ward has a least one councilor that lives within its boundaries, but the more heavily populated Wards 3 and 4 also have two at-large councilors each.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “For us to wait another four years, again, it’s frustrating that our residents have to live through this again. The solution is out there.”

Gibson outlined some solutions beyond keeping the current City Council structure in place. Commerce City could move to an all-ward council. Two councilors could be elected from each Ward or the city could create eight or nine wards, each with one councilor.

Another option is to have all councilors elected at large but require councilors to live in certain parts of the city, or in residency districts. Those districts could be drawn in such a way that they would not have to be changed every ten years to match population shifts.

City Attorney Robert Sheesley said any changes to the Council’s make-up would require changing the charter, and that would depend on a citywide ballot.

“You would put on a question modifying that section of the charter that separates it into four wards and four at-large seats to something, whether it’s as simple as those four at large seats will now be elected based on their residency in a district,” Sheesley said. “Or, you could do away with wards entirely and do all of it with at large elections. Or, you could do it all at large.”

At least four councilors and Mayor Ben Huseman said they wanted to hear more about voting districts.

“I think the only way to get a reasonable chance to have fair representation for old Commerce City is to have at-large,” Councilor Craig Hurst said. “As population grows to the North and shifting to these much bigger wards down south because of population density, you will not get the representation you are looking for down south. If we want to make sure that the southern side of the city gets some priority representation, we can’t lose focus on that.”

Timing

Several councilors said they want to wait until the city has census results in hand before making changes. A ballot question changing the charter would be on the city’s 2023 ballot, with councilors elected under the new rules in 2025.

Simply changing to a residency district model could go to voters this fall, Sheesly said.

Guardiola said it’s time to change.

“I’d like to see something happen this year, in 2021,” Guardiola said. “Get something on the ballot because Commerce City is changing every year. I think we have an amazing staff that can handle this in six months and then we can come back and do the outreach we need to do.”

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