Denver residents might get to vote on whether to keep at-large members in the City Council after the council governance committee narrowly passed a ballot measure to eliminate the position Tuesday.
If passed, the ballot measure would convert the two at-large council member positions into two additional district seats, increasing the number of City Council districts from 11 to 13. The measure will have to pass two full council votes this month to be added to the November ballot.
The proposed measure split the governance committee Tuesday, passing with a 4-3 vote after nearly an hour and a half of debate.
Increasing the number of council districts was first proposed last month when the council discussed Denver’s growing population. Based on city estimates, next year’s redistricting will result in the largest district populations in Denver’s history.
"It’s pretty difficult to run our districts at that level,” said Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who sponsored the proposal with council members Kevin Flynn, Jolon Clark and Christopher Herndon. “The goal of this change is to further localize our democracy; to tailor and make more accessible representation.”
CdeBaca argued the record-large districts would make it too difficult for Denver residents to contact and be adequately represented by their council members.
The city estimates Denver’s population reached 735,538 in 2020, meaning each of the 11 districts would have approximately 66,868 residents. With 13 districts instead, the average district population would be 56,580 — still an all-time high.
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.
From 1950 to the last redistricting in after the 2010 Census, Denver council districts have ranged from 42,000 residents to 55,000, according to city data.
In addition, supporters argued this could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to pass the measure, since the council is in the middle of its every-10-years redistricting process and both at-large council members are set to be term-limited in the next election.
"Those circumstances will not occur again, if ever, in a Census year until at least 2080,” Flynn said. “And that pre-supposes that whoever’s elected to fill the at-large seats in 2023 continue to serve concurrently for 12-year terms. If they don’t, it may never reoccur.”
Opponents argued that eliminating the at-large members would reduce the number of council members each resident can contact from three to only their one district representative.
Councilwoman Robin Kniech, one of the at-large members, said at-large members have the freedom to focus on citywide policy and have traditionally absorbed constituent work of district offices, especially when vacancies occur.
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.
“The question is not whether district or at-large members are ‘better’; each is important to our city and community,” Kniech said in a statement. "The question we should be asking is whether the city and people of Denver are better off with only a single district representative?”
However, other members argued that district members also tackle citywide issues and already handle the vast majority of constituent work themselves.
Flynn said he analyzed the city council structures of 100 cities-counties like Denver and found that 63 did not have any at-large council members.
Other arguments against eliminating at-large members were that the council hasn’t done enough community outreach, Denver’s population is going to keep growing and cannot keep adding districts and at-large members help district members secure support and funding from the mayor’s office.
In the end, council members CdeBaca, Clark, Kendra Black and Stacie Gilmore voted yes on the proposal and Kniech, Chris Hinds and Deborah Ortega, the other at-large councilmember, voted no.
The full council will hold its first reading on the measure on Aug. 23 and the second and final reading on Aug. 30. Denver’s 2022 redistricting process will officially begin in September with the release of the new Census data, which is expected Thursday.