A grassroots organization believes that Jeffco, the fourth most populous county in Colorado, needs more than three commissioners to adequately represent residents in a county with diverse landscapes and issues.
Former Golden City Council member Karen Oxman is a founder of Jeffco5, which maintains that five commissioners would better represent the county’s half-million residents and more effectively grapple with its urban and rural political issues.
Oxman asks: If the Jeffco school board has five seats, why does the Board of County Commissioners have just three?
“There were quite a few issues where I felt when I sat in on meetings with one of the commissioners — usually only one. I felt there was a disconnect between city representatives from other areas of the county and the representatives serving that committee,” Oxman said.
“People weren’t feeling represented, and I spherically felt this from mountain communities and some of the municipalities. They were not feeling a strong connection to the Board of County Commissioners.”
The county currently has three commissioners who serve four-year terms; they represent three geographic districts but are elected by all Jeffco residents. With a five-person commission, each member would be elected only by voters in his or her district.
The Colorado Constitution allows for counties with more than 70,000 people to have five commissioners — as do El Paso and Arapahoe counties, which also rank in the top four in population.
For the board to expand in Jeffco, the three current commissioners would have to vote to put the proposal to voters, or a grassroots group like Jeffco5 would have to collect enough petition signatures to get it on the ballot.
Idea gets cool reception
Two of the three current commissioners — Republicans Don Rosier and Faye Griffin — gave Jeffco5’s proposal a cool reception at a staff briefing on Aug. 27. Only Commissioner Casey Tighe, a Democrat, indicated that the idea was worth more discussion and study.
Griffin and Rosier cited cost as one reason they oppose expanding the board by two commissioners. A report from County Administrator Ralph Schell indicates the two additional salaries and benefits packages would cost an additional $325,000 per year. There also would be a one-time cost of $420,000 to add more office space.
In addition, Rosier and Griffin questioned whether there is widespread public demand for adding two commissioners — Jeffco voters have twice rejected the idea, once in the 1990s and once in the ’70s.
“The number of comments we’ve received — how many is the threshold? Is it 50? Is it 100? It’s still minuscule when compared to the number of people in Jefferson County,” Rosier said. “Where is the point where it makes sense to have more government and more cost? If we’re talking about accessibility, I’m still struggling with where’s it broken? Is it a perception of availability, or is it a perception of voting a certain way?”
Tighe said that because the county’s demographics and population have changed in the 20 years since the question was last put to voters, residents’ opinions should be gauged again.
“Our thoughts are that we were, way back at turn of the century, we were mainly a rural county. Especially over the last 20 years, that’s changed,” Oxman said. “So most of our county is urban, and there’s a lot of our open space that’s rural. Because of the change in demographics, this is the time to do this again.”
‘We represent everybody’
Griffin said that if residents feel under-represented, the commissioners are only a phone call away, a sentiment Rosier echoed.
“We represent everybody, whether they voted for us or not. If there’s a problem with representation, we live in a representative republic. If there’s a problem with the representative you’ve elected, vote for someone else,” Rosier said.
“Including more people into the mix doesn’t mean you’re going to be represented any better, if the representative is not listening to the people that put him or her into office,” he said.
Tighe pushed to have a public hearing on the matter but was outvoted by Griffin and Rosier. The board finally decided to hold a telephone town hall meeting in the next few months to discuss the idea, but additional topics will be on the agenda, and the participants will be limited to those called by the county.
Ray Goodhart, another member of Jeffco5 who was at the Aug. 27 staff briefing, sees the telephone town hall as a watered-down way to gauge the public’s true interest.
“I believe, in essence, it’s just a token gesture, but any publicity for it will be welcomed. It’s just not in a manner that it’s conducive,” Goodhart said. “If this is all we’re able to get from this process, well certainly take it, and hopefully there’s a response that creates a sort of epiphany with the other two commissioners.”
Contact Ramsey Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-933-2233, ext. 22, and follow him on Twitter @RamseyColumbine.