Jefferson County has the largest unincorporated urban area in the United States; the area known as “South Jeffco” alone contains more than 100,000 residents. If it were to incorporate as a city, it would be among the largest cities in the state.
When the Colorado Constitution was enacted in 1876, such an urbanized unincorporated area was never imagined. Consequently, the structure of county government in our state makes it difficult for counties to enact ordinances to regulate graffiti and other urban problems.
If a county wanted to fine people to discourage them from defacing the property of others with graffiti, the request would have to go through the state legislature for a change in the law statewide.
Most Colorado cities are “home rule,” which enables them to adopt ordinances to address problems specific to their areas. A change in county structure to “home rule” would allow counties to adopt their own ordinances to regulate such matters and impose penalties for violations.
Current procedures to form home rule are cumbersome and costly. They require two separate county-wide special elections — one to establish a charter-writing commission and elect 18 people to serve on it; and then one to decide whether to become “home rule.”
Two state legislators from Jefferson County — Sen. Betty Boyd and Rep. Jim Kerr — have sponsored an amendment that would reduce the number of elections needed to become “home rule” from two to one. With the amendment, boards of county commissioners would appoint the charter-writing commission and appoint the commission members with broad geographic and party representation. It wouldn’t mandate counties to become “home rule,” but it would make it easier and less costly to do so.
Avoiding one special election would save Jefferson County approximately $400,000 in election costs and would shorten the time to the election decision for home rule. Rather than holding a special election as now required, the issue could be on the ballot in the November election, increasing participation and reducing costs.
This amendment doesn’t cut out public involvement. It requires a board of county commissioners to have a minimum of four public hearings before establishment of a charter commission and appointing its members, allowing for extensive public input into the decision whether to go forward.
It also provides for a minimum of nine public hearings total before the election to determine whether a charter should be adopted, which would increase the participation of the general populace in the process of determining whether home rule is desirable.
Home rule status would allow a county to restructure its government to allow for better functioning. The charter, written and adopted by county residents, could set the county governance structure, determine which officials are elected or appointed; and set compensation, qualifications, and terms of office. It could also give residents more say by permitting initiative and referendum provisions, so if they didn’t agree with an ordinance a county board passes, they would have recourse to petition the matter onto a ballot.
The nearly 550,000 residents of Jefferson County stand to gain a lot from having more say in their own government. We urge the state legislature to adopt this amendment and let Jeffco residents determine their own governance.
Kevin McCasky is chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners.