16th Street (copy)

People walk along the 16th Street Mall Friday, Feb. 19, 2021 in Denver. (Michael Ciaglo/Special to The Denver Gazette)

Adding two extra seats to Denver's City Council is among the proposals being mulled as city leaders consider how to redraw political lines after population growth documented in the 2020 Census.

The proposal for new seats, which would bring the council to 15 members, came as the panel debated alternatives, including converting the body's two at-large seats to council districts representing a slice of the city and increasing the office budgets of council members to account for growing population.

Denver’s 2022 redistricting process will officially begin in September with the release of the new Census data. Councilman Chris Herndon said the city can expect the data to show record-breaking district population sizes.

"If numbers are trending, we’re going to have the largest council districts we’ve ever had,” Herndon said. “As we are going to start moving forward with redistricting, do we need to have a conversation about council district size?”

The discussions Tuesday were informal, with no official proposals on the table. Any significant change to the council's structure would require voter approval to modify the city charter. To reach the November ballot would mean deciding on a change in the next seven weeks, before election deadlines.

Political districts across Colorado are being redrawn ahead of 2022 elections after the Census, conducted once a decade, showed the state had grown by nearly 750,000 residents, earning it an eighth seat in the U.S. House.

Based on city estimations, Denver’s population reached 735,538 in 2020, meaning each of the 11 districts would have approximately 66,868 residents. The Census bureau is expected to release exact figures in the coming weeks.

From 1950 to the last redistricting in after the 2010 Census, Denver council districts have included as few as 42,000 residents to as many as 55,000, according to city data.

Denver’s highest council district population was in the 1960s when there were 54,876 residents in each of the nine districts. After that, the city added two more council districts, bringing the total to the current 11.

Herndon suggested the council could add two now, bringing the total districts to 13 and the number of council members to 15, including the two at-large members. That would set the average district population to 56,580 —  still an all-time high.

Some council members argued that keeping district populations low has a minimal impact on council members’ workloads.

“The number of committees we serve on stays the same, the number of bills filed on Monday nights, the number of agency proposals,” said Councilwoman Robin Kniech. “I think there are many metrics we should be thinking about.”

Kniech also pointed to data collected by her staff that shows Denver’s council district populations are lower than many of its sister cities, including Colorado Springs, Memphis, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and San Diego, which have district populations between 72,000 and 158,000.

Other council members argued that keeping district populations low is essential to providing adequate attention to the needs of all constituents.

Councilman Kevin Flynn expressed interest in adding the two new council districts, but said a 15-member council would be too large, especially when cities like San Diego with populations of over a million have only nine council members.

Another solution Flynn proposed  would eliminate the council's two at-large seats, which serve all city residents, and replace them with two new districts, with members serving specific areas of the city, keeping the number of council members at 13.

“One of the intentions (of at-large seats) was the at-large members could be a breeding ground for a future mayor of Denver. Of course, that hasn’t worked out," Flynn said. "Has it served its function and should we look at converting to 13 district seats instead?”

Flynn said his staff analyzed the city council structures of 94 cities-counties like Denver and found that 60 did not have at-large council members.

The council's at large members — Kniech and Councilwoman Deborah Ortega — will be term-limited in the 2023 election, the first after redistricting.

Kniech and Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer argued that at-large council seats allow residents access to two extra other council members in addition to their district representative.

Others on the panel looked at leaving the council more or less unchanged, while providing more money and staff for council members.

When broken down by population, Denver’s city council budget is $8.68 per resident. The average city council budget of more than a dozen of Denver’s sister cities is $11.86 per resident, according to data collected by Kniech’s staff.

“There’s no real way to serve our constituents in any kind of way … with the budgets that we have right now,” said Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. “I can’t even pay for a survey to find out what my constituents want as far as policy, let alone try to help them with their issues.”

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