Denver Government

Unlikely Partnership Pushing to End At-Large Denver City Council Seats

Kevin Flynn and Candi CdeBaca have formed an unlikely partnership.
Kevin Flynn and Candi CdeBaca have formed an unlikely partnership. Denver City Council
As Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca stepped away from the podium at a Denver City Council governance committee meeting on Monday, August 10, Councilman Kevin Flynn, an unlikely ally, stepped up to take her place.

"Somebody once said — and I think it was I, actually — that if Flynn and CdeBaca were proposing something, it had to either be the greatest idea to come along or the absolute worst," Flynn said.

The two have had major clashes in the two years since CdeBaca joined Flynn on the city council, but now they've formed a partnership with a common goal: eliminating the at-large seats on council and switching from eleven to thirteen district seats.

"The goal of this change is to further localize our democracy," CdeBaca explained.

By the end of the meeting, the two members had secured a 4-3 vote in favor of advancing the proposal to the full council for a final vote at the end of August. If approved, the proposal would appear on the city's November ballot, and Denver voters would get to decide whether they want to keep the at-large seats or expand the number of districts in order to keep up with growing constituency levels.

The process to get the proposal on the ballot has been rushed. But the time is right, according to Flynn.

"It's simply a moment in time, with the convergence of redistricting with two open at-large seats, that says we need to have the discussion,” he says.

On August 12, Denver will receive the official 2020 U.S. Census numbers that will help guide the council as it charts out changing district lines in accordance with the state's redistricting process. During the last redistricting process ten years ago, Denver's population was under 600,000; it's now over 727,000, according to 2019 Census estimates.

While Denver had nine council districts throughout the 1960s, the city moved to eleven districts and two at-large positions in the 1970s. Until a few years ago, the per-district constituency count averaged between the lower 40,000s and the mid-50,000s. But with Denver's population boom, that count could soon jump to an estimated 66,868. If the city was split into thirteen districts, the per-district constituency count would be an estimated 56,580.

One of the main arguments in favor of keeping the at-large seats, however, is that they give Denver residents three voices on council: two at-large members and a district representative.

"Growing up in the neighborhood system, I’ve always heard for the past 25 years I’ve been involved how powerful it is to know that you always have three councilmembers not only to vote for, but then to turn to when the topics align or when you’re not getting the attention of your local councilmember, which unfortunately does happen," said Joel Noble, chair of the Denver Planning Board, speaking on his own behalf during the public-comment period of the August 10 committee meeting.

The current at-large members, Debbie Ortega and Robin Kniech, are both term-limited, and both strongly oppose getting rid of the positions.

"I fundamentally think that we should not be taking representation away from the people of Denver right now," says Kniech.

While Flynn and CdeBaca were able to get their proposal out of committee, they recognize that they may not have the necessary seven votes to secure a majority and get it on the ballot. Council President Stacie Gilmore and Councilwoman Kendra Black both voted in favor of advancing the measure out of committee while also noting that they had concerns about the concept. Jolon Clark, who is co-sponsoring the measure, also voted for the proposal. Although he, like Flynn, is not a member of the committee, Councilman Chris Herndon has also indicated that he supports eliminating at-large seats in order to decrease district constituency size.

The co-sponsors are going to keep pushing for the rest of the votes they need by the late-August vote.

"This is the opportunity, late as it is in the game," says Flynn.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.