Redistricting committee gets first public comments

The Colorado Statesman

LOVELAND — The Joint Select Committee on Redistricting hit the road Saturday for its first two public meetings on how it should draw the maps that will set new boundaries for the state’s congressional districts.

And it became apparent quickly that the battle lines in the 4th Congressional District might come down to how the committee deals with Longmont, or whether it decides to move three communities in the Northeastern part of the 2nd Congressional District into the 4th.

The committee met in the Loveland City Council chambers early Saturday morning, drawing an audience of about 70. That audience also drew three members of the General Assembly who represent the area: Sens. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins and Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley; and Rep. Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley. The committee then went to Fort Morgan High School for an afternoon session.

According to 2010 census data released last week, the 4th District needs to lose about 6,600 people, in order to bring it to the required size of 718,456. Committee Co-chair Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, pointed out in the Loveland hearing that federal law requires that each district be exactly the same size in population, allowing only for larger districts when the population cannot be divided exactly equally. The 2010 census said Colorado’s population is 5,029,196, which means there will be three districts with 718,456 and the last four with 718,457. “We are definitely going to make all seven districts even down to one person,” Balmer told the audience.

That drew murmurs from some in the crowd, and an explanation from committee member Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, who said the reason for the precision is the “one man, one vote” principle embodied in the U.S. Constitution.

The second federal law that must be followed in drawing the maps is the federal Voting Rights Act, according to Jeremiah Barry of Legislative Legal Services, who explained that a redistricting plan cannot prohibit a citizen the right to vote based on race. “It’s unlikely that a plan would be enacted that would violate…the Voting Rights Act,” he said.

In addition to those legal requirements, the Colorado General Assembly will want to consider traditional redistricting principles, such as contiguous districts, district that are as compact as possible, districts that respect county and/or municipal boundaries, and “communities of interest,” which became the talking point for many who testified in Loveland Saturday.

Communities of interest can be defined as almost anything, Barry said: a neighborhood around a school, racial or ethnic interests, agricultural or water interests, or an urban corridor. One of the purposes of the committee’s forums is to find out what communities of interest need to be preserved, or communities or interest that should be brought together, he explained.

And that became the difference Saturday, with some testifying that they didn’t want to see Longmont, and its population of more than 85,000, moved into the 2nd Congressional District; and those who want to see the communities of Frederick, Firestone and Dacono taken from the 2nd and moved into the 4th.

Much of the comments about Longmont also came down to its residents not wanting to be associated with its Southern neighbor, Boulder.

Longmont grew more than Boulder in the most recent census, pointed out Travis Whipple of the Longmont 9.12 Tea Party. Longmont “is not Boulder, despite the fact that it’s in Boulder County, and aligns more closely with Frederick, Firestone and Dacono,” he said. Among the differences, he said, is Longmont’s Hispanic population of 20,000, while Boulder has 8,000 and its Eastern neighbors have even less. “If you include Longmont as part of Boulder, 20,000 Hispanic votes will be lost,” he said. And there’s enough of an “ideological difference” to keep Longmont and Boulder in separate districts, he added.

What also separates Northern Colorado from Boulder is the Northern communities’ joint water and power districts, transportation, and even its high school athletic conferences, said Rich Ball of Loveland.

Jeff Maxwell of Fort Collins, in arguing for the inclusion of Frederick, Firestone and Dacono in the 4th District, pointed out that the healthcare system in Northern Colorado also creates a community of interest that should be kept together. He explained that moving any Northern Colorado community into the 2nd Congressional District would ignore the fact that many 4th Congressional District residents use medical facilities in Larimer and Weld counties. The Northern Colorado healthcare facilities have reached out to the rural communities, and doesn’t see patients from Denver or Boulder, he said. As a result, Northern Colorado has its own healthcare economy, and “this unique relationship demands the committee identify Northern Colorado as a community of interest. It’s your job to ensure the haves and have-nots enjoy an equal voice in the system.” The three communities are underserved and their residents travel into the 4th for healthcare, he said.

Judy Bigger of Longmont pleaded for the committee to keep Longmont whole in the 4th, which she said has a quality of life that isn’t Boulder. The city will lose its identity if it’s put in the 2nd, she said, which lead committee Co-Chair Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, to quip that he was getting “a complex” from the Boulder-bashing.

The committee’s hearings do allow for anyone in any district to attend and offer comment, and they heard from Mikel Whitney of Castle Rock, who noted the changes that need to take place in the 6th Congressional District. According to census figures, that district will need to drop nearly 80,000 residents to get down to the required number.

Whitney suggested that Greenwood Village, Genesee, Morrison, Evergreen and parts of Golden should be moved out of the 6th, and while he did not have a suggestion on where they should go, moving them into the 1st Congressional District would be an obvious choice.

Fair competition in the districts was on the mind of Robert May of Denver, who noted that there is no competition for seats in either the 1st or 6th districts. “That’s not democratic,” he said. “If we look at reorganizing the whole area, it’s important to maintain cohesion of cultural and racial communities, but give us competition, so that Republicans have a chance in the 1st district and Democrats have a chance in the 6th,” he said.

Mel Hilgenberg of Fort Collins gave the committee a map of his own design that would put four districts into the seven metropolitan Denver counties, one covering Pueblo and El Paso counties, one covering the Eastern Plains and one on the Western Slope. Drawing the maps this way would make every district competitive, and require candidates to run on issues, rather than partisan advantages, he told the committee.

The mood of the audience and committee was often light and included friendly banter over rivalries between the University of Colorado and Colorado State University. Torstein Eckstein of Fort Collins pleaded for a map that would keep Boulder and Fort Collins separate, which he said would make it easier for congressional reps to choose up sides for the football games. “Well add football games to our criteria,” said Balmer, to the laughter of the audience.

Longmont has historically been tied to Northern Colorado, according to attorney Richard Lyons of Longmont, who noted that Highway 287 has tied Longmont, Loveland and Fort Collins together as the main street for all three communities since the road was an historic covered wagon trail in the 1800s. Longmont wasn’t tied to Boulder by the Longmont Diagonal Highway until 75 years ago, he said. In addition, the three communities are tied together by school districts, agricultural interests, medical facilities and even their athletic conferences. In addition, Longmont and Loveland are working together to get a new NASA project in the area. “Our demographics align with the Northeast,” he said.

Rep. Daniel Pabon, D-Denver, asked why it wouldn’t make sense to have the communities in two districts, giving them twice the representation. Lyons explained that federal funding is a “zero sum gain — if someone gets it, someone else loses it. It’s not in the best interest of local governments,” he said.

The 4th District has the “smallest need for change of any district,” said Ed Haynes of Fort Collins. “You can do [the district map] with some fine-tuning and leave it whole.”

Longmont City Council member Katie Witt also advocated for Longmont to stay in the 4th, based on keeping the school district together, and she asked that Lyons be included in the 4th. She also asked that Frederick, Firestone and Dacono be included in the 4th. “These communities have overlapping interests and we’re looking for areas to cooperate,” she said.

The committee heard a lot about what people want to keep or to add, but not much on what to lose, noted Carroll. If all of Weld County is kept together, for example, the map will have to be drawn to exclude other areas, and after raising that issue the committee got a few suggestions on what to lose. John Nicholas of Estes Park said that if Otero and Weld counties were kept whole in the district, the 4th District map would be within 1,360 of the ideal number, but it would have to lose Longmont. Witt suggested moving out the Southeastern counties of the district, which could include the small section of Otero and all of Baca County. Those counties could go to the 3rd District, which needs to add 12,000 residents.

Ray Nelson of Weld County suggested that the I-76 corridor, from Denver to Roggen, is now a bedroom community for Denver and could be sliced out of the district. “It’s becoming more urban than rural,” although it does include a lot of good agribusiness, he said.

“This is not going to be an easy ‘cut and paste’ program,” said Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, who lives in the 3rd District.

Those who are unable to attend the public hearings can e-mail their comments to the committee to CongRedist2011@state.co.us. The public comment period closes on March 25.

The committee will meet Feb. 28 in Denver, in the Old Supreme Court Chamber, beginning at 6 p.m. On March 3, they will be at the Jefferson County Administration and Courts Facility in Hearing Room 1, also beginning at 6 p.m.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com