Politics

Denver Voters Could Dump At-Large Council Seats in November

Denver City Council may ask voters to change its composition.
Denver City Council may ask voters to change its composition. Denver City Council
Three Denver City Council members are co-sponsoring a measure that would eliminate the two at-large seats and change the council’s composition from eleven district representatives to thirteen.

“The intent of the proposal is to convert the two at-large seats into district seats so that, in the face of Denver's substantial population growth, representation remains closer to the people,” says Councilman Kevin Flynn, who is working on the measure with colleagues Candi CdeBaca and Jolon Clark. Chris Herndon also supports the measure.

Those four will have to quickly persuade at least three other councilmembers that the proposal is a good idea, since a majority would need to approve putting the measure on the November ballot by the end of August.

Despite being term-limited, the current at-large members of council — Robin Kniech and Debbie Ortega— definitely won’t be supporting the measure, which a council committee will consider on August 10.

"I fundamentally think that we should not be taking representation away from the people of Denver right now," says Kniech. "They have three people they get to choose, three people they get to go to."

The rollout of this proposal has been rushed relative to other charter change measures that Denver City Council has already referred to voters for the November 2020 election. The first public mention of the idea came at a July 13 committee meeting.

Still, the time is right, according to Flynn, the rep for southwest Denver. “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 explains.

But will it move beyond discussion? “I do agree that, especially being a new councilperson, the intensity and energy both in constituent response and trying to be visionary for our districts and our city, it's a lot. I think there's still a conversation to be had. I don't know if it can happen as quickly as this timing needs it to happen for the November ballot,” says Councilwoman Jamie Torres, who represents parts of west Denver.

By mid-August, Denver will receive official 2020 U.S. Census numbers that will help guide the council as it charts out changing district lines in accord with the state’s redistricting process. During the last redistricting a decade ago, Denver’s population was under 600,000; it's now over 727,000, according to 2019 Census estimates.

Proponents of adding two districts and getting rid of the at-large seats, which would first apply to the 2023 municipal election, argue that it would help keep constituent numbers at a manageable level.

“There needs to be a recognition that there’s a point that districts are going to be too large," Herndon, who represents east Denver, said at the July 13 meeting.

While Denver had nine council districts throughout the 1960s, the city moved to eleven districts and two at-large positions in the 1970s. Over the decades, the per-district constituency count had averaged between the lower 40,000s and the mid-50,000s. But given this city'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 argument against the switch is the concept that at-large members can focus on broader issues and not get bogged down by district-specific issues.

"It does make sense to me that the at-large position provides a more citywide perspective," says Councilman Paul Kashmann, who represents parts of central and south Denver. "While I vote on issues affecting all of Denver, my focus is certainly on District 6 and the interest of District 6."

But Flynn doesn’t buy that line of thinking. “Cities without at-large councilmembers have passed many of the same citywide progressive policies as Denver, and some have done more," he points out. "Our district councilmembers have also managed to pursue citywide policy initiatives.” 
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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.