What home rule could mean for Garco
December 10, 2006
A failed home rule election in neighboring Eagle County this year has got some tongues wagging in Garfield County.It seems like every time an election comes around there’s talk about Garfield County’s three-person commission. Political pundits wonder whether a commission of five members would give the widespread county better representation for all or be as dysfunctional as three members.What would the county look like if home rule was the name of the game? What would it take to get there? And why do it in the first place?What home rule looks likeFor a good view of what home rule at the county level looks like, you have only to look at Pitkin County.Home rule “gives the citizens of a community the ability to have governance that reflects the values of that community that’s not available under state statutes,” said Pitkin County manager Hilary Fletcher.Pitkin is one of only four counties to adopt home-rule charters, along with Weld County and the cities and counties of Broomfield and Denver.In Pitkin County, strong, some say excessive, land-use regulations reflect those values.The home rule form of government “allows you to be more restrictive,” Fletcher said.It also can change the framework of government. In contrast to Garfield County, where the county treasurer, assessor, clerk, sheriff, surveyor and coroner are elected positions, Pitkin County appoints its surveyor, coroner and treasurer. State statute sets the work of those county offices, Fletcher said, so there is no guesswork about how the departments are run. But as those positions have grown more complicated and specialized over time, it benefits the county to be able to interview candidates and choose someone who is highly qualified.Since county voters approved a home-rule charter for the county in 1980, there have been five commissioners on Pitkin County’s board. That’s been a plus, according to Fletcher.Five commissioners give the citizens “broader representation so you have a lot of choice. I truly appreciate the diversity and breadth,” Fletcher said.It also spreads out the workload and makes it more manageable, as well as gives the commissioners the chance to participate in regional and state issues she said.”They are heavily involved in regional collaborative initiatives,” she said, such as transportation, housing, growth and the pine beetle infestation.”I don’t mean to offend any sitting three-person boards, but … more heads are better than one,” she said.Home rule efforts in Eagle CountyIn 2005, Eagle County began a process that would have led to home rule if the voters approved. After a year of planning, the voters rejected those efforts in November.What drove the move was a belief in a county divided – literally – between the Eagle and Roaring Fork river valleys, that the less populous Roaring Fork side was not getting equal representation.”Eighty percent of the voters are over there [in the Eagle River Valley]” said home rule commission member Jacque Whitsitt, who lives in Basalt. “None of the districts are specific to this side.”Decisions for the entire county don’t include Roaring Fork residents. “There is no one from the Roaring Fork at the table ever,” she said.Last year 22 people ran for 11 seats on the home rule charter commission, Whitsitt said. Once in place, it went to work on framing a home rule charter for Eagle County.”We proposed a five-person commission elected by a nonpartisan vote,” she said.Under home rule, commissioners would have to live in the district they represented, but the election would be at-large, meaning all county residents could vote for all five commissioners. Garfield County has three commissioner districts spanning the entire county, and all three are elected at large.The Eagle County home rule commission also crafted a strong ethics code “because people on the other side have issues with conflict of interest,” she said.Proponents of home rule like Whitsitt felt three commissioners did not represent a good mix.”Two people can’t have a conversation because that’s a quorum. There’s always one person voting one way and one person voting another, so the [third] person always makes the decision,” she said. “It’s not a democratic process.”The home rule vote failed in November for a variety of reasons. The ballot was complicated with numerous state and local questions, voters didn’t fully understand the benefits and process of home rule, and a sign campaign against the move put voters off, Whitsitt said.Under state statute, the home rule commission has the option to bring the question before the voters a second time, probably this spring.Home rule at homeIn the late 1980s the county commissioners “talked about it,” said former Garfield County commissioner Marian Smith. “Back then the county wasn’t so flush as it is now,” and it couldn’t afford to pay the salaries of five commissioners.Nor does home rule necessarily give the county more power, said Garfield County Attorney Don DeFord. “Municipal powers [under home rule] are very general and broad. I’ve always viewed home rule for counties as an administrative process rather than power,” he said. “Maybe that’s why there are so few.”As in Eagle County, the perception of lack of representation in areas of Garfield County has driven sporadic and short-lived movements toward home rule. Garfield residents in the Roaring Fork Valley have long complained about lack of representation on the three-person Garfield County Board of Commissioners. Discussions about home rule have originated there from time to time.”It was more of a district idea, that each district could have their issues represented,” DeFord said. “There has been the feeling the Carbondale has not been heard or represented.”Among the present Garfield County commissioners is a division of opinion about the advantages of home rule and the size of the commission.”We have always operated on the understanding that historically there is no advantage for the county to be under home rule,” said Commissioner Larry McCown.Democratic Commissioner Trési Houpt, who has had philosophical differences with her Republican fellow commissioners, has said a three-member commission is not the ideal.”Three is not very functional. It doesn’t work very well,” she said. She also has said she would support home rule in the county.There is now a movement afoot in the state Legislature to decrease the population threshold that governs the number of members on a county commission. Counties with less than 70,000 people have three members, and those with more have five. If those numbers change, counties such as Eagle and Garfield could see substantial changes in the structure of their governing commissions.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.