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Reporter Corey Hutchins recently received a text at almost 3 o’clock in the morning from an unexpected sender: Arapahoe County DA and Republican candidate for governor George Braucher.

Keeping him up at night? Colorado’s Hospital Provider Fee. Corey sat down with Mr. Brauchler for the Indy’s second-ever podcast episode to talk TABOR, flip-flopping, and whether you should ever support something you think is unconstitutional.

 

Photo credit: Garry Knight, Creative Commons, Flickr 

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Readers,

We are thrilled and pleased to announce that we have been awarded Colorado Common Cause’s Champions for Democracy award for our reporting.

We hope you’ll join us in celebrating this honor.

Learn about the work being done in Colorado on the issues of voting rights, government accountability and transparency, and money in politics at Colorado Common Cause’s 2017 Champions of Democracy Awards Luncheon.

On Tuesday, June 13th from noon to 1 p.m., enjoy a free lunch while learning how Colorado Common Cause works to strengthen public participation and ensure that government serves the public interest. We will honor several special guests who are committed to strengthening our democracy in Colorado, including the Pike’s Peak Equality Coalition, Colorado Ethics Watch, and The Colorado Independent.

RSVP today.

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UPDATE: According to the Peetz fire department, the East Cheyenne well was capped at approximately 1:20 p..m. Saturday; all area residents under evacuation are being allowed to go home and roads in the area have been reopened.

 

A gas well, six miles west of Peetz in northern Logan county, just south of the Colorado-Wyoming state line, blew out on Thursday, forcing the evacuation of about 25 area residents.

As of 5 p.m. Friday the natural gas well was still leaking and is not expected to be fixed until Saturday at the earliest. A blowout occurs when pressure control equipment fails, and, in this case, the natural gas escapes in an uncontrolled manner. The well is part of an underground storage facility, according to its operator, East Cheyenne Gas Storage.

Kyle Moulton, emergency manager for Logan County, said the blow-out happened just before 5:30 p.m. Thursday near the town of 237 people.

The blowout triggered a reverse 911 notification with a request that residents within two miles of the facility evacuate, Moulton said. The American Red Cross was on standby for emergency shelter, but as of Thursday evening it wasn’t needed. He estimates there were 10 single-family homes within that two-mile perimeter of the well, and that most of the residents did evacuate.

Some residents are being allowed home temporarily, with escorts, to pick up pets, clothing and medications, Moulton said. The area perimeter is locked down and will remain in effect until at least Saturday.

The well, started up in 2011, is operated by East Cheyenne Gas Storage, a subsidiary of Midstream Energy Holdings of Houston. Moulton said the company has not yet identified an estimated time for when the leak will be fixed. An emergency response team has been dispatched to the area and that crew has been working to evaluate the site, which Moulton said included taking precautionary measures, although he did not know what types.

According to a statement from East Cheyenne Gas Storage, “contractors were working on one of 16 wells on the site that are used to inject and withdraw natural gas into and out of the underground storage facility. A safety device failed and as a result, natural gas from the single affected well is escaping into the atmosphere.”

East Cheyenne’s statement said that local, state and federal authorities have been notified, including Logan County, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the Colorado Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and the U.S. National Response Center.

Todd Hartman, a spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said such incidents are “uncommon” but he did not have statistics readily available. 

 

Photo credit: Jeremy Buckingham, Creative Commons, Flickr 

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The body slammer wins in Montana, meaning, apparently, we’re either one step closer to the apocalypse or to political reporters adopting concussion protocols. Or maybe both.

The critical post-election question, of course, is what it all means (other than Democrats losing yet another hyped special election, this one featuring Rob Quist, their banjo-playing cowboy candidate), and whether there’s any reason not to think it’s all Donald Trump’s fault.

Having watched any number of Trump’s political rallies, having watched demonization of the press rise to levels that Spiro Agnew never dared to dream, having purchased my very own “Enemy of the People” T-shirt,  I’m good with blaming Trump for helping to create an atmosphere wherein body slamming a reporter is seen as political sport. But I’m a little unclear whether Trump is the source of the problem or simply the living embodiment of it.

I mean, Rush Limbaugh, who called the body-slammed reporter Ben Jacobs a “pajama boy reporter,” and Laura Ingraham, who wondered who stole Jacobs’s lunch money, were around long before Trump got to office. Trump didn’t create the anger dividing America. Like Roger Ailes, Trump just grabbed latched onto it and, in his case, rode it all the way to the White House. So the anger, the tribalism, the divide aren’t new. The Trumpian version, newly triumphant, is what’s new and what promises only to grow worse.

As South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, a Trump critic who has suddenly emerged from the wilderness as a Republican voice of reason, argues: “Respectfully, I’d submit that the president has unearthed some demons…There is a total weirdness out there. People feel like, if the president of the United States can say anything to anybody at any time, then I guess I can too. And that is a very dangerous phenomenon.”

In some ways, the story is less about Greg Gianforte’s body slam — in Colorado, we remember Doug Bruce kicking a photographer and Ken Salazar threatening to punch a reporter — than how the assault was received by those in his party, many of whom had nothing to say and some of whom actually rose in his defense. You had only to turn on CNN (but please, only in moderation) to see the debate over incivility devolve into, yes, a screaming match. Or head to your nearest Twitter feed. On mine, I caught reports of Rep. Duncan Hunter joking, “It was inappropriate behavior. Unless the reporter deserved it.”

Mike Pence, who campaigned for Gianforte, hid out all day Thursday to avoid having to comment. Sporting his best hangdog face, Paul Ryan spoke regretfully of Gianforte’s behavior, but said he’d gladly support him anyway. And after Gianforte won, Ryan basically welcomed the creationist billionaire with anger issues to the House, saying he was sure he’d have much to contribute, right after his assault trial anyway.

In a great nugget from Italy, the latest stop on Trump’s world tour, we heard the president speak unprompted before a group of photographers of the “great win in Montana.” He did not elaborate. He just wandered away. But after the viral video of Trump in Brussels shoving the prime minister of Montenegro (yes, an actual NATO country) in a chin-jutting bid to move to the front of the photo-op pack, you’d expect him to appreciate the Montana political display of, as the sports announcers call it, physicality.

He must have been glad for the headlines anyway, temporarily distracting people from the Kushner news and from the chilly reception he had gotten for lecturing America’s longstanding allies on their defense spending. It was unfair, he said, to American taxpayers. Of course, the NATO spending goals were already under discussion, and Trump’s performance was pure theatre, for which the reviews, we have to say, weren’t great. The dark speech looked especially bad in light of the leak of Trump’s phone call with Philippine president/murderous thug Rodrigo Duterte. That’s the one in which Trump praised him for his “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”

We know what happened with the thug from Montana. Fox News reporters who witnessed the assault confirmed Jacobs’s audio version. We know Gianforte body-slammed Jacobs for the grave mistake of asking him about the new CBO score. We know he broke Jacobs’s glasses and that Jacobs had to go to a hospital for X-rays. We know, too, that Gianforte released a statement blaming “the aggressive behavior of a liberal journalist” and said that Jacobs had grabbed his wrist (he hadn’t). He must have been thinking of the Trump-Macron grip (and grip and grip) and grin.

In other words, Gianforte body-slammed a reporter and then, though his spokesperson, lied about it. And through the lie, he apparently raised $100,000 from energized supporters who supported Gianforte’s take on what some were calling Montana justice.

In his victory speech late Thursday night, Gianforte apologized to the crowd, sort of. He said owning up to your mistakes was the Montana way, sort of. Maybe if he said he’d donate the $100,000 to an anger-management clinic, we might have taken the apology more seriously.

“Last night I made a mistake,” Gianforte told the crowd, “and I took an action that I can’t take back, and I’m not proud of what happened. I should not have responded in the way that I did, and for that I’m sorry. I should not have treated that reporter that way, and for that I am sorry Mr. Ben Jacobs.”

The crowd cheered.  They cheered when he mentioned the fight. They cheered when he apologized. Some shouted, “We forgive you.” No one shouted, “Lock him up.”

There were a few problems, of course with the apology. It wasn’t “an action.” It was an assault in front of witnesses against a reporter who was doing nothing more than his job. And then there was the blame-shifting lie, which went unmentioned and unapologized for.

No one can be surprised by that. Unembarrassed lying is the new truthiness. And if you want to blame the new era of brazen political lies on Trump, it’s hard to see how anyone could put up a fight.

Image by Mike Licht, via Flickr: Creative Commons

 

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Two sessions have passed since Gov. John Hickenlooper rolled out Colorado’s first statewide water plan, yet lawmakers have made little progress toward the plan’s main goal – averting a massive state water shortfall in 2050.

The single biggest achievement in water policy these past two sessions is a feel-good law allowing Coloradans to use rain barrels to collect rain and snowmelt to water their gardens. Although the barrels carry some symbolic importance in a state whose water supplies aren’t keeping up with needs, the amount of water they collect toward solving Colorado’s water woes is the statistical equivalent of a drop in the bucket.

Lawmakers’ broader inaction underscores the limits of their authority on water policy and of their ability to put in place meaningful efforts – or at least a priority list for those efforts – to stave off a water crisis. Although the legislature has allocated $15 million to implement the water plan, some members complain their involvement is limited mainly to “writing the check,” without input into how, specifically, money might be spent other than on writing more water reports and holding more water meetings. Several admit they have no idea where the plan’s priorities lie or how, specifically, Hickenlooper expects it will be put into action.

Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican and farmer from Sterling and one of the General Assembly’s leading agriculture and water advocates, complains that lawmakers “do not have enough influence on the direction of the water plan.”

Rep. Jeni Arndt of Fort Collins, a Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture, Livestock and Energy Committee, has run a half-dozen bills that specifically address water plan issues, some successfully, some not. She points out that a published guide on moving forward, put out by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), said that most goals of the water plan would be accomplished by the executive branch, with a limited role for the General Assembly.

“That’s what they think,” she laughed. 

The Colorado Water Plan was initiated with much fanfare by Hickenlooper in May 2013 and finalized in November 2015. It seeks to address an alarming problem: Projections that, by 2050, the state will face a water shortfall of at least one million acre-feet per year.

An acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons of water. If not addressed, the one million acre-foot supply-demand gap would cut across all water uses in the state: affecting at least two million residents as well as recreational, environmental, industrial and agricultural water uses.

The swelling water deficit is born of several factors. One is growth and projections that the state’s population will jump from about 5.4 million residents this year to as many as 10.3 million by 2050.

Another factor is climate change. A 2014 report commissioned by the CWCB points out that average annual temperatures in Colorado have risen by 2 degrees between 1977 and 2006. A hotter climate increases the potential for drought in southern Colorado, and could also reduce the annual spring runoff from the mountain snowpack, which affects all of Colorado as well as some of the downstream states both east and west that rely on water that originates here.

An increasing reliance on water by Colorado’s oil and gas industry also factors in, as do demands by conservationists and recreational users to stop bleeding our rivers dry.

But the biggest factor in terms of actual water use is that farming and ranching interests, which use 80 percent of the state’s water, are motivated under the state’s “use it or lose it” water laws to continue antiquated and even wasteful water practices out of fear of losing their senior water rights.

The water plan identifies the size of the projected water shortage – drawn from a 2010 study that is being updated – but doesn’t offer a roadmap for addressing it, other than stating how much water the state needs to save through storage and conservation projects to meet its 2050 needs. It doesn’t spell out just who’s responsible for those savings: the executive branch, the legislature, or public-private partnerships. 

Hickenlooper’s administration has passed responsibility for charting the specific courses mainly to nine local, grassroots groups, known as basin roundtables, that include officials from water utilities and representatives of agricultural, industrial, recreational and environmental groups. The nine roundtable groups are centered around the state’s eight major waterways plus the Denver metro area. Each assessed how much water they would be short in the coming decades, broken down by recreation, environmental, agricultural and municipal needs.

The roundtables – with the South Platte River and metro Denver groups working jointly – each came up with plans that outline what they will do to meet the projected water shortages in their areas. Their wishlists for local water projects form the bulk of specifics within the 540-page statewide plan. But there is no greater design, no set of master priorities on which spending decisions can be based.

That leaves lawmakers scratching their heads when it comes to water policy and budgeting.

The legislature’s efforts on water fall to a joint interim committee, known as the Water Resources Review Committee, that meets every summer. The bipartisan group of 10 lawmakers – including the chairs of the Senate and House agriculture committees – starts its annual review of state water issues each August. Members then sponsor water-related legislation either as a committee or on their own.

In the past two years, water committee members have sponsored most of the 35 water-related bills proposed at the Statehouse. Of those, the vast majority deal with managing the state’s Byzantine laws on water rights. Roughly 15 were to varying degrees intended to address some of the nebulous goals laid out in Hickenlooper’s water plan.

Related: Path forward is murky in Hickenlooper’s final water plan

By far the most noteworthy among those 15 were the 2016 and 2017 annual water projects bills, which were written by CWCB staff and earmarked state funding for a variety of water projects. The 2016 bill put up $5 million to implement the water plan, but didn’t specify how that money would be spent. That line item became a bone of contention for some lawmakers, especially those on the Joint Budget Committee who tend to take a dim view of spending money without specifics on where it’s going.

The 2017 projects bill set aside another $10 million for implementing the state water plan, plus another $10 million more to the basin roundtables to pay for local water projects. The 2017 projects outlined how the $5 million from 2016 would be spent. That money will go to the CWCB for statewide projects, such as improved water supply forecasting, a grant program on agricultural water transfers, statewide training to water providers on water loss, and grants to water agencies that are developing feasibility studies for future water storage projects.

The $10 million in 2017 for implementing the plan includes $1 million to update a 2010 study that provided the initial projections for the state’s projected water deficit – estimated in 2010 to reach about one million acre-feet per year by 2050. That estimate is now considered low, and could possibly be as much as two million acre-feet annually.

Another $2 million will pay for water projects that serve multiple purposes (such as recreation and environmental needs). Another $1 million will develop long-term strategies on conservation, land use and drought planning. Another $3 million will help facilitate the development of water storage systems. Some $1 million will pay for water education, $1 million for “technical assistance for agricultural projects” and $1 million for watershed health (more about that later).

The $10 million for the CWCB’s 2017 costs for implementing the water plan and the $10 million for the regional roundtable groups will come from severance tax revenues that will be transferred into the CWCB’s construction fund. The rest comes from that construction fund, a revolving loan account that dates back to 1971 and makes low-interest loans for water projects throughout the state. Its revenues come from interest earned on outstanding loans, the fund’s cash balance, and federal mineral lease revenues.

The 2017 projects bill, which Hickenlooper signed into law on Tuesday, puts $10 million from the CWCB’s construction fund into a new loan guarantee fund that would help with regional water projects in which multiple water utilities are involved.

Another $5 million will pay for a watershed restoration program. Watersheds are areas of land from which rain or snowmelt route toward a common waterway, including the surface water from streams, rivers and reservoirs as well as groundwater found in underground aquifers. The water plan says healthy watersheds are crucial for environmental needs such as improving fish and wildlife habitats or reducing the impact of soil erosion, and for recreational purposes such as rafting and angling. Colorado’s watersheds match up with the nine river basins, and then are further subdivided by local waterways in each of those basins. The $5 million for watersheds is intended to advance the water plan’s goal to improve the health of 80 percent of those watersheds by 2030.

In addition to the annual projects bills in 2016 and 2017, lawmakers have over the past two sessions sought measures to do the following:

Improve forest health. A 2015 report by Colorado State University says healthy forests are key to providing clean water. But when the health of those forests decline, through wildfires or disease, for example, the quality of water flowing through them and on to waterways also declines.  “Forests are our largest reservoir,” says Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose, sponsor of a 2016 bill that directs the Colorado State Forest Service and CWCB to document the nexus between the state water plan and forest management as a way of protecting the state’s water resources. That report is due July 1.

Study possibilities to store water from the South Platte River: The General Assembly commissioned a report in 2016, and it’s due to lawmakers this December. Without waiting for that report, the water committee this year sponsored a bill to increase the capacity of reservoirs along the South Platte through dredging. The stand-alone bill sought $5 million in funding, but, in the end, the 2017 projects bill set aside $3 million for storage, including dredging the South Platte’s reservoirs.

Help streamline state permitting for water projects. Water storage projects take years, even decades, from start to finish, and much of that is tied up in regulations. Sonnenberg says that at the state level a storage project gets caught in a circular trap. First, a proposed project goes to the state Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which has authority on water quality issues. Then it heads to Colorado Parks and Wildlife for review on mitigating wildlife issues. After that, it heads back to CDPHE, but by then much has changed.

Lawmakers tried to set up a “one-stop shop” for water projects permits a couple of years ago. That didn’t work, so in 2016 they found a backdoor way to address the problem by telling the governor to hire someone to do it. Hickenlooper quickly put into place his water czar, former Ag Commissioner John Stulp. Under the law, the director of water project permitting coordination (yes, that’s the title) should work to speed up permitting for water projects financed by the CWCB’s construction fund or those required to obtain water quality certification from the CDPHE. Yet Stump said that so far, there hasn’t been a great need for his assistance in moving the permit process along. The water project closest to completion, the Windy Gap Firming Project southwest of Loveland, got its final federal approval earlier this month and is expected to begin construction of a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir known as Chimney Hollow in 2019. The projects bill includes a $90 million loan to the Northern Water Conservancy District for construction of Chimney Hollow.

There are two other storage projects in the pipeline, and the permitting assistance is available as needed, Stulp said.

Among the other water plan-related bills in 2016 and 2017:

• Successful legislation to continue a pilot program that would allow farmers and ranchers to temporarily lease their water rights to municipal water utilities.

• Bills to require local governments to incorporate water conservation goals, including those found in the state water plan, into local community master plans, particularly when new development is being considered. Those bills failed two years in a row at the balking of local governments who don’t want to be told what to do.

Sonnenberg, the water committee chair, looks toward hearings in August with an eye on building more water storage. He lives just a few miles away from the South Platte River whose water flows east to Nebraska for free. As many farmers and ranchers see it, dams and reservoirs need to be built to capture that water and save it for future use within Colorado.

Most municipal water districts and industrial users agree on the need for more storage. But conservationists and recreational water interests oppose that view, saying and flows need to stay in rivers – regardless of state lines – to keep them and their habitats healthy.

Sonnenberg has been particularly critical of CWCB and Hickenlooper’s administration for not taking a clear position on water storage and how it should figure in the water plan. He also criticizes CWCB for not welcoming lawmakers’ input on the water plan in general.

“We had to run a bill just to get the CWCB to listen to us” about the water plan, Sonnenberg grumbled.

That 2014 law reiterated that the General Assembly is responsible for water policy and that the CWCB has authority to implement that policy. The law also sent the water committee around the state in the summer and fall of 2014 to gather input from citizens on what the water plan should look like.  The committee then sent that input to the CWCB for consideration in the water plan, as well as its own recommendations strongly urging a clearly defined set of priorities and specific steps the state needs to take to meet its water needs mid-century.

From lawmakers’ perspectives, the final version of the plan doesn’t reflect their input.

Disappointed with the plan’s progress, Sonnenberg says, “The CWCB has not had conversations with the legislature other than to (say) ‘pass our projects bill, sit down and shut up.’ That communication has to change.”

Fellow committee member Sen. Matt Jones, a Louisville Democrat, is similarly concerned about efficacy of the plan, but for different reasons. His water worries are about conservation and river health – issues for which he says the plan lacks “a cohesive recommendation.” Progress on those issues has been very slow, he said, and certainly not fast enough to compete with increasing strains on the state’s water supply caused by population growth.

Jones has pushed a bill for the last two years that would require developers to submit plans for water conservation in their proposed developments. Despite bipartisan sponsorship and even without opposition from homebuilders, the measure twice has failed to make it out of the Senate.

He is especially frustrated that Colorado’s legislature hasn’t pushed the conservation side of the water plan. He notes that the state hasn’t updated its conservation statutes since 1991.

The water plan “is very aggressive on conservation planning, and the legislature should meet that need by pushing even harder to make it happen,” Jones said. Without such a push, conservationists say, the plan remains more of a statement of values than a call for action.

“The targets are there, and it has a lot of aspirational goals, but it’s not a defined implementation plan” that specifically says what needs to be done and who’s responsible for doing it, says Doug Kemper, executive director of the Colorado Water Congress.

Kemper says the clock is ticking toward 2050 and that the water plan needs clearly articulated priorities from the General Assembly no later than the end of this year. The water community, including local and county governments, water districts, and hundreds of individuals and organizations interested in water issues, also hasn’t set its priorities yet, either. Kemper expects that will happen when the Water Congress meets in August.

Bart Miller, who directs a program promoting healthy rivers for the conservation group Western Resource Advocates, says the progress so far has mainly been on the funding side – in particular the dollars coming out of the two projects bills in 2016 and 2017 – but that those amounts are too small to quench state water needs. Although, as Miller sees it, water projects from the Northern Water Conservancy District and Denver Water and under way to help meet the plan’s storage goal of 400,000 acre-feet, the goal of conserving another 400,000 acre-feet has seen far less progress.

Miller sees a lack of clear milestones as one of the plan’s bigger shortfalls. “It should be able to say where you need to be by 2020 if you’re working toward 2030 or even 2050,” he says.

CWCB has balked at setting such milestones and has been trying to lower expectations about the speed of the plan’s implementation. Nowhere was this more obvious than at a Joint Budget Committee meeting in December, when CWCB finance chief Kirk Russell told lawmakers only half-jokingly that, “I’m glad the question wasn’t  ‘Are you done yet and why not?’”

Feature photo of James Eklund, then head of the CWCB and Gov. John Hickenlooper, holding up a copy of the state water plan for its November, 2015 rollout. Photo by Marianne Goodland.

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez says she won’t seek re-election

Four of the board’s seven seats will be up for grabs this November

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Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Melanie Asmar on May 24, 2017. Photo by Nicholas Garcia. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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Another fatal oil-and-gas related explosion dominated headlines in Colorado today.

Today’s Greeley Tribune reported on the oil tank battery explosion near Mead that happened Thursday, which killed one worker and injured three others. Anadarko Petroleum also announced Thursday it would shutter three wells near a Firestone subdivision, after two pockets of built-up natural gas were discovered in the area. That buildup led to an explosion in April that killed two men and injured two others. “It was like two bombs going off,” a nearby resident told the Longmont Times-Call. The Loveland Reporter-Herald noted that no evacuations were ordered in the wake of the most recent incident, which is about four miles north of the site of the April 17 Firestone explosion. 

The Mesa County school district has hired a new superintendent, today’s Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction reports. The new superintendent, Ken Haptonstall, will make about $205,000 per year as a base salary, or about $35,000 more per year than his predecessor. Haptonstall, who is coming from the Garfield County school district, starts on July 1.

Steamboat Today reports that under a bill awaiting signature from Gov. John Hickenlooper, up to $1 million in state marijuana taxes will be used to fight the state’s opioid epidemic. The money would go into a medication-assisted treatment program for opioid addicts.

The owner of the popular Glenwood Hot Springs resort, Hank Bosco, has passed away at age 94, according to the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent. In addition to the resort, the Glenwood native was known for his philanthropic and civic endeavors. Bosco and 21 other families acquired the famous Glenwood Hot Springs in 1956, which was then in bad need of repairs and local fears that the world-famous pool would become privatized. Bosco died Monday.

The Pueblo Chieftain reports today on the 75 anniversary of the Pueblo Chemical Depot, which got its start in World War II as a producer of chemical weapons. Today, its activities are peacetime, as one of the nation’s leading sites for disposing of chemical weapons.

American Airlines will start daily service between Eagle County and Dallas, Texas this week and continuing through the ski season, according to the Vail Daily. The service is expected to continue until April of 2018. American briefly offered service to the Eagle County airport in 2008 and 2009 but stopped when the recession hit. The service is expected to boost not only ski-season travel but corporate travel off-season.

While its top stories of the day focused on the Mead explosion, the Boulder Daily Camera also noted that Cuba will have men’s and women’s teams competing in this year’s Bolder Boulder, a first. The 39th edition of the annual Memorial Day race also will have competition from China, the first time since 1998.

Recent snows will delay the official opening of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Fort Collins Coloradoan reports today. The road has been open sporadically during the past few weeks, allowing cyclists to take the trip over the top of the state’s highest-paved roadway. The road traditionally opens for the Memorial Day weekend but deep snow and high winds are preventing snow crews from being able to keep the road clear.

A forum that featured all five of Colorado’s living governors agreed that the current political climate is so threatened by polarizing rhetoric that it endangers the nation’s strongest institution – its democracy – according to today’s Denver Post. Gov. Bill Owens, the state’s last Republican governor, said he believes the problem is “the public and how they are participating in the process only at the margins. What we need is more civic involvement and engagement.”

One worker dead, three injured in Anadarko gas tank explosion near Mead

The equipment that exploded is owned by energy giant Anadarko Petroleum, which acknowledged earlier today that two pockets of gas from its wells have been found near the site of the fatal home explosion in Firestone on April 17.

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One worker was killed and three injured near Mead when an oil tank battery exploded this afternoon.

The facility, which stores extracted oil and gas awaiting transport, is owned and operated by Anadarko Petroleum, which also owns the improperly abandoned gas flowline that investigators say caused the deadly house explosion in Firestone last month.

In separate news today, Anadarko also disclosed that two pockets of high-concentration, fugitive gas had been discovered underground near the scene of the Firestone explosion. The company said it would be permanently shutting down three wells in that neighborhood.

The Mead explosion occurred at 3:15 this afternoon, about four miles from the Firestone site.

Mountain View Fire Battalion Chief Roger Rademacher said three workers working near the tank battery were injured and transported by ambulance. One has serious injuries and the two others are moderately injured. Sheriff’s officials confirmed early this evening that a fourth worker was killed in the blast.

By 6 p.m., police cars had blocked all access roads to the facility. A family, accompanied by a man in a hardhat, could be seen weeping near a road next to the site of the blast. They asked to be left alone and not to be photographed.

Police say “Preliminary information suggests that maintenance was possibly being performed on the site when the incident happened.”

Corporal Matt Turner, a public information officer for the Weld County Sheriff’s Office, told The Colorado Independent, “We don’t have any link between this incident and the methane discovered in Firestone.” Because this was a work-related accident and there is no suspected criminal activity, he said, the sheriff’s office will not be conducting further investigation. He called the explosion “an unfortunate accident.”

Tank battery sites store extracted oil and gas awaiting transport. Colorado’s oil and gas regulatory agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), did not begin recording or taking inventory of tank battery sites until 2009. The majority of sites predating 2009 remain undocumented and unregulated.

An intact Anadarko tank battery close to the site of the Firestone blast is pictured below. It’s four miles from the tank battery that blew up today.

Hours before the Mead explosion, Anardarko announced that two high concentration pockets of flammable methane gas have been found near the tank pictured here in Firestone’s Oak Meadows neighborhood. Soil samples show methane saturation at close to 14 percent. “That means the ground was drenched with the stuff,” says a source close to the industry.

Mitigation is under way, the company said, with PVC venting and extraction systems set up at the gas pockets in Firestone. Contractors have been testing the site since at least last week.

Craig Walters, vice president of Anadarko’s Rocky Mountain operations, told attendees at an Oak Meadows Homeowners Association meeting Wednesday evening that the company would be permanently shutting down three wells near the site. Inspections show the wells to be safe, Walters said, but that the company will plug and abandon them permanently because of the “special circumstances and sensitivity” around the equipment. Anadarko temporarily shut 3,000 wells earlier this month when an investigation linked the explosion to one of their wells.

The Firestone explosion was caused by an improperly abandoned flowline leading from the well, which leaked flammable natural gas into the ground near the home of Erin and Mark Martinez. On April 17, this gas caught fire in the basement of the home, critically wounding Erin and killing Mark and his brother-in-law, Joey Irwin.

Walters said Wednesday night that Anadarko is “actively participating” in an investigation into that incident. That probe is being led by the National Transportation Safety Board, because pipelines are considered a form of transportation. The company says it cannot answer questions about the incident itself while the investigation is underway.

At the HOA’s request, Anadarko is providing funding for the purchase of home natural gas detection devices. The gas that seeped into the Martinez home was unprocessed, without the additive mercaptan, which provides the telltale “gas smell.”

The company also has provided posters showing the location of its active underground flowlines in the neighborhood. Those maps aren’t kept by the COGCC, leaving the public in the dark about what lies beneath their homes, offices and schools.

The oil and gas industry recently worked to kill proposed legislation that would have required the state regulatory agency to map all active and inactive flowlines across Colorado. The line that caused the Firestone tragedy was considered inactive.

Both today’s blast and the fatal home explosion in April raise questions about Anadarko’s safety practices. Company officials gathered near the Mead site earlier this evening, but beyond the point where police would allow this reporter access to seek the company’s comment.

Heather Sawlidi, treasurer for the Oak Meadows Homeowner’s Association, told The Colorado Independent that Anadarko has not provided satisfying answers to all of residents’ questions. At the meeting Wednesday, she said, “A lot of it was, ‘Here’s what we can tell you — and you can try to make assumptions on the rest.'” Anadarko is not speaking about the Firestone incident while a federal investigation is under way. She added, “That doesn’t help us. That doesn’t make us feel any better.”

Both explosions also raise questions about the efficacy of the COGCC and the wisdom of  its dual roles as both a booster of oil and gas production and the industry’s health and safety regulator.

Weeks before the Firestone explosion, the Colorado Court of Appeals handed down a benchmark decision in March ordering the COGCC to prioritize public health and safety concerns above its role promoting the industry. The COGCC decided to appeal the case to the Colorado Supreme Court and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman filed on its behalf over the public objection of Gov. John Hickenlooper. Despite the governor’s insistence that his office should decide whether an appeal should go forward, he said he would not challenge either the COGCC or the the Attorney General’s decision. That has earned him further criticism from conservationists and residents of the gas patch who say the governor is insensitive to their concerns.

Hickenlooper is a former oil and gas industry geologist who made headlines drinking fracking fluid during a U.S. Senate Committee hearing. He asserted last week that the COGCC is doing its job protecting the public from health and safety threats posed by the industry.

 

Photo credit: Kelsey Ray

Susan Greene contributed to this report. 

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Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday filled two vacant positions on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), including a position for an environmentalist formerly held by Andy Spielman, an attorney whose firm works for oil and gas operator Anadarko.

Environmental attorney Erin Overturf, who serves as chief energy counsel for Western Resource Advocates, will fill the vacancy left by Spielman, who resigned on April 20 after serving for six years.

Per COGCC rules, Spielman’s position was intended for someone with “significant experience in environmental or wildlife protection.” In April 2015, Spielman joined law firm WilmerHale as chair of its Energy, Environment and Natural Resources practice.

WilmerHale recently made headlines when it was discovered that, in the wake of the home explosion in Firestone, law partner and former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar called Gov. John Hickenlooper, representing himself as legal counsel for Anadarko.

RELATED: Report: Colorado’s Ken Salazar was hired by Anadarko after Firestone explosion

According to the firm’s website, the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources practice represents “clients in a broad spectrum of industries—including oil and gas exploration, production, and transportation, renewable energy, gas and electric transmission and distribution, mining, recreation, aviation, defense, life sciences and pharmaceuticals, and financial services.”

Spielman’s own work with the firm, according to the website, has included securing land use approvals for nearly 4,000 megawatts of wind energy, assisting with development approvals of interstate pipelines for natural gas transmission, and representing mining companies before the US Department of the Interior.

Overturf, an attorney, wouldn’t comment on the work of her predecessor, Spielman, or WilmerHale’s recent work with Anadarko.

“All I can say is that I’m really excited to serve the people of Colorado in this role, and I’m really excited to dig into these issues,” she said.

As part of the new appointments, oil and gas attorney Howard Boigon replaced Winston Pearce, who resigned from the commission in March 2014. Pearce held one of three positions given to affiliates of the oil and gas industry.

 

 

 

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Gov. John Hickenlooper will not ask the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to reconsider its appeal of a recent court ruling requiring the agency to consider health and safety before approving drilling permits, Hickenlooper’s office announced this week.

We have made our position in this matter well known and believe that it would be inappropriate to apply pressure on this Commission to take further action,” the governor’s office told The Colorado Independent in a written statement Thursday.

In Martinez v.COGCC, filed in 2013, teenage environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and a group of other young plaintiffs proposed a new rule requiring that the agency not approve any permits unless science can confirm that the proposed drilling will not harm Colorado’s atmosphere, water, wildlife, and land resources, adversely impact human health or contribute to climate change.

After an initial defeat, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled on the side of the youth on March 23.

On May 1, all seven current members of the COGCC voted to appeal the ruling. Hickenlooper publicly called on the agency to let the ruling stand, but on May 18, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman filed an appeal on the agency’s behalf, apparently defying the governor’s wishes.

RELATED: Colorado’s governor said he didn’t want to appeal a controversial oil-and-gas ruling. The attorney general did it anyway.

Hickenlooper’s office does not believe the COGCC has the power to initiate an appeal, but the governor has said that his office will not seek to challenge the agency’s actions. Coffman argued that state law gives Hickenlooper the authority to appoint and remove members of the COGCC, but doesn’t afford him power over the agency’s decisions.

Coffman and supporters of the appeal have said that the ruling would dramatically alter the way Colorado regulates oil and gas. Presently, the COGCC interprets its mission as finding a balance between health and safety and oil and gas development.

Environmental groups have criticized the governor, arguing that he could have done more to keep the appeal from moving forward.

RELATED: GREENE: In opposing appeal of landmark oil-and-gas ruling, Hick is more talk than action

Namely, they said, Hickenlooper could have asked the COGCC to reconsider its vote.

We … believe that there is more the Hickenlooper administration could have done and can do to keep this case from moving forward,” wrote Conservation Colorado Director Pete Maysmith and attorney Mike Freeman of Earthjustice in a statement last week.

The pair sent a letter last Friday to Colorado Chief Medical Officer Dr. Larry Wolk and Bob Randall, director of the Department of Natural Resources, who are both commission members, requesting another vote. “COGCC members serve at the pleasure of the Governor … and (in your cases) are part of his administration, and certainly can be expected to give his goals appropriate weight in deciding whether to challenge the Martinez decision,” they wrote.

By appealing the ruling, they wrote, “The Governor and the COGCC are making the case that public health and safety are not the commission’s top priority in managing oil and gas development.”

Responding to a request for further comment, Wolk’s spokesman referred The Colorado Independent to the statement from Hickenlooper’s office.

We ask respected civic leaders to serve on our Boards and Commissions to exercise their independent judgment, and we value and respect their service,” that statement concluded.

 

Photo credit: Allen Tian

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Oil and gas operator Anadarko will permanently shut down the well linked to the fatal home explosion in Firestone and two other wells nearby, the company announced Wednesday.

Craig Walters, vice president of Anadarko’s Rocky Mountain operations, told attendees at an Oak Meadows Homeowners Association meeting that inspections show the wells to be safe, but that the company will plug and abandon them permanently because of the “special circumstances and sensitivity” around the equipment. Anadarko temporarily shut 3,000 wells earlier this month when an investigation linked the explosion to one of their wells.

The explosion was caused by an improperly abandoned flowline leading from the well, which leaked flammable natural gas into the ground near the home of Erin and Mark Martinez. On April 17, this gas caught fire in the basement of the home, critically wounding Erin and killing Mark and his brother-in-law, Joey Irwin.

Walters said last night that Anadarko is “actively participating” in an investigation into the incident. That process is being led by the National Transportation Safety Board, because pipelines are considered a form of transportation. The company cannot answer questions about the incident itself while the investigation is underway.

At the HOA’s request, Anadarko is providing funding for the purchase of home natural gas detection devices. The gas that seeped into the Martinez home was unprocessed, it didn’t have the additive mercaptan, which provides the telltale “gas smell.”

The company also provided posters showing the location of their active underground flowlines in the neighborhood.

The oil and gas industry recently worked to kill proposed legislation which would have required the state regulatory agency to map all active and inactive flowlines across Colorado. The line that caused the explosion was considered inactive.

 

Photo credit: Dennis Herrera

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Helping African-American families understand their children’s school choices, offering signing bonuses to prospective black teachers and making student discipline data count in school ratings are among the recommendations of a task force that tackled inequities faced by African-American students and educators in Denver.

“Once we were able to get past some of the hurts that people experienced, once we were able to come up with the root causes and understand this process is going to be uncomfortable, we were able to come together in a way to do the work we need to do,” Allen Smith, the associate chief of Denver Public Schools’ Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, said Wednesday at an event to reveal the recommendations and solicit feedback at Bruce Randolph School on the city’s northeast side.

 The DPS African-American Equity Task Force, which was comprised of more than 100 members, made 11 recommendations in all. They include directing the district to:

— Design a tool to assist African-American families in understanding which schools best match their students’ needs and interests, and “generate personalized recommendations.”

— Require every school to create an Equity Plan “designed to strengthen relationships between African-Americans and schools” through strategies such as home visits by teachers.

— Ensure curriculum is culturally responsive to African-American students.

— Develop a plan to increase black students’ access to “high value learning opportunities,” including the district’s gifted and talented program, and concurrent enrollment courses.

— Create a human resources task force that would, among other things, ensure African-American job candidates receive equal consideration and once hired, equal pay.

— Incentivize black educators to come to DPS and stay, and create a pipeline program to encourage black students “to return to serve their own communities.”

The recommendations do not include a price tag. Nor have they “been evaluated for legal compliance,” according to the document.

Thirteen percent of the district’s approximately 92,000 students are African-American. Last year, just 4 percent of DPS teachers were black. Seventy-four percent were white.

District statistics show that the percentages of African-American students who are proficient in English and math, as measured by state tests, trail district averages. Only a third of black students graduated college-ready last year, which is lower than white or Latino students.

Meanwhile, more black students are identified as needing special education. And African-American students have the highest suspension rate in the district.

The district has taken some steps to address the inequities. DPS is part of a multi-year campaign along with the mayor’s office and charter school operators to recruit more than 70 teachers of color and 10 school leaders of color to Denver.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg noted at Wednesday’s event that DPS is starting to see results; one-quarter of new principals hired to lead schools next year are African-American, he said.

For the first time this year, the district required its new teachers to take a previously optional three-hour course on culturally responsive teaching in which they were asked to share fears about working with students and families from different backgrounds.

DPS also added a new measure this year to its color-coded school rating system that takes into account how well schools are educating traditionally underserved students. However, the district has since tweaked its “equity indicator” in response to concerns from school leaders, and the task force recommended even more changes. In addition to looking at student test scores, it is calling for including discipline data, as well as teacher hiring, retention and promotion data.

And the district has announced plans to eliminate out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third-grade students except in the most serious incidents.

The set of 11 recommendations includes one overarching one: the creation of an African-American Equity Team to ensure the district executes the ideas it adopts.

The recommendations are scheduled to be presented to the Denver school board in June. Read them in full here.

This story first appeared on Chalkbeat Colorado

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

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The new politics: On the night before the special election for Montana’s lone House seat, the Republican candidate, Greg Gianforte, was charged with misdemeanor assault for allegedly body-slamming a reporter who had made the grave mistake of asking a question about the new CBO report. It’s unclear how the charge might affect the election, but more than half of eligible voters have already voted. Via The Los Angeles Times.

Where it all began: Over the summer, as American spies were investigating the possibility that Russia was trying to influence the 2016 election, they overheard top Russian officials and intelligence officers brag that they could exert influence over several Trump advisers who could, in turn, influence Trump. Via The New York Times.

Not surprisingly, the new CBO score is not much different from the old CBO score, but the just-released report is worth reading anyway. It states, with much detail, just how much of the GOP’s defense of the bill is completely false. You can start with the fact that it would raise payments for the old and poor by as much as 850 percent. Via Vox.

In getting to something like a balanced budget after 10 years, all the Trump administration needed was a $2,000,000,000,000 math mistake. Via New York magazine.

The president meets the pope and either Francis charmed the Donald or the Donald charmed Francis, but, however it worked, it seemed to work better than anyone thought it would. Via The Atlantic.

Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame tells The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza how the lessons of Watergate could apply to Trump: “Inevitably, unreasonable government secrecy is the enemy—and, usually, the giveaway about what the real story might be. And when lying is combined with secrecy there is usually a pretty good roadmap in front of you.” He added, “Yes, follow the money. But also follow the lies.”

From The National Review: The Seth Rich conspiracy theory is shameful and it is nonsense. And, yes, you can blame Sean Hannity. Unless you want to blame Newt Gingrich.

Five startling things that Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, has told Congress lately. Start with the notion that states should be able to decide whether private schools that take students using publicly funded vouchers can discriminate. Via The Washington Post.

While Trump’s team and the Saudi royals were busy sword dancing or orb rubbing, the women of Saudi Arabia were living their own version of The Handmaid’s Tale. Via The New York Times.

Ross Douthat: The Handmaid’s Tale may have it right that we’re heading toward dystopia, but the story has the villain all wrong. Via The New York Times.

 

Photo by Tim Evanson, via Flickr: Creative Commons

 

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The much-anticipated CBO score is finally out for the latest iteration of Trumpcare, the one that passed the House three weeks ago without Paul Ryan bothering to wait for the Congressional Budget Office to complete its analysis. And, as it turns out, it’s great news for the one million Americans who wouldn’t lose their health care coverage under this plan.

Unfortunately, it’s not such great news for 23 million other Americans who would lose their coverage by 2026, including the 14 million who would lose theirs by next year.

OK, it’s not much of an improvement from the 24 million the CBO had predicted for an earlier version of  Trumpcare, the one the House couldn’t even bring to a vote because, well, it was just that bad. And it’s still a long way from Donald Trump’s promise that “everybody” would be covered under his Obamacare replacement. Instead, according to the CBO, when/if we get to 2026, we’d be 51 million people short of “everybody.”

If the news is bad for Trump and bad for Ryan and bad for America, it’s mixed for Senate Republicans, who weren’t going to pass the House version of the bill anyway, and may not — according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — pass any version of it. Even as the Gang of 13 — including Colorado’s own Cory Gardner —  meet in private to try to hash out a transparency-free bill that could semi-miraculously get through the Senate and then be approved by the House, McConnell said he couldn’t find the 50 necessary votes for passage.

Here’s a guess: They are probably buried somewhere in that big pile of 23 million (but not 24!) loser insurance policies. Or maybe the missing votes are hidden under that huge stack of money being stolen from Medicaid — $830 billion was the last number I saw — which would literally rob from the poor to underwrite tax cuts for the rich, not to mention result in kicking 14 million off the rolls.

No wonder Gardner has steadfastly refused to do any town halls, knowing all the questions he’d get about repealing or replacing Obamacare, the one issue that, as much as any, got him elected to the Senate. No wonder Mike Coffman — who once strongly declared his support for Trumpcare — has strongly backed away. As has been noted many times, the greatest achievement of the Trump administration has been to make Obamacare popular — far more popular, according to the polls, than any version of Trumpcare.

There was an interesting statistic I saw in a Pueblo Chieftain story about the impact of Trumpcare on Medicaid recipients in Pueblo County. According to numbers collected by the state, an average of 41 percent of county residents — a little more than 67,000 people — received Medicaid payments in the 2015-16 fiscal year. And maybe an even more interesting number is this: 75 percent of those Medicaid recipients were employed.

Pueblo was, of course, the big Colorado success story for Trump, who was the first Republican presidential candidate to win the county since Nixon in 1972. It was an extremely narrow victory and one that depended on many of those working class people now eligible for Medicaid who wouldn’t be eligible if Trumpcare — or, for that matter, Trump’s  phony budget —  were to pass. Among the losers in the Trump budget, by the way, are, yes, Medicaid, food stamps, opioid abuse, rural health care, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and — my personal favorite — heating assistance for the elderly. The list goes on. And on.

I think it’s safe to assume that McConnell’s pessimistic assessment on getting a health care reform bill passed is a way of preparing us for the fact that there won’t be a Senate bill to vote on. Breaking seven years of promises to repeal Obamacare is apparently a better Senate option than to actually have to stand behind a Republican replacement.

That would leave Trump and Republicans with an early legacy of legislative failure, despite the Rose Garden victory party, to compete with Trump’s continued battle with scandal. This is how bad it has gotten for Trump, who was even being trolled by the pope on the environment: He would much rather a bad CBO score command the headlines than the latest bombshell report on Russia from The New York Times or Washington Post.

The latest from the Times is that American spies had overheard senior Russian intelligence officials bragging last summer about how they could use Trump advisers to influence him. Those advisers? Michael Flynn, who would become Trump’s national security adviser until he was fired for lying about his contacts with the Russians, and Paul Manafort, who had not yet been fired as Trump campaign manager.

But, in any case, the Obamacare story won’t end here. For years, Republicans have been saying that Obamacare would falter under its own weight, and Trump, who keeps pronouncing Obamacare dead, has long said that’s his best option. And now, thanks to uncertainty about Obamacare’s future, insurance companies are pulling out of markets, meaning that if Congress doesn’t act, some Obamacare users will, in fact, end up without insurance. And we can guess who would be blamed.

If you can’t, just listen to John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican, telling The Los Angeles Times, “There clearly has to be a short-term solution. We have to do that. There’s got to be certainty in the marketplace. There has to be some certainty with the insurers.”

How would that be for irony — if instead of repeal and replace, Republicans ended up with retreat and (temporarily, anyway) rescue? It would promise to be nearly as humiliating as the next CBO score.

 

Photo by Yuya Tamai via Flickr: Creative Commons

As GOP El Paso County Commissioners redraw their own district lines, progressive activists have a message: We’re watching

Demonstrators will protest outside the county commissioner meeting in Colorado Springs on Thursday

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Democrats in Colorado’s heaviest Republican county are ringing alarm bells as a board of five GOP public officials sets out to redraw their own district lines.

Local government redistricting might typically be yawner, but El Paso County’s comes after a Democrat in November came within striking distance of winning a seat— which would have been a first in 40 years. Meanwhile, there’s a greater public scrutiny on redistricting in general in the wake of this week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down North Carolina’s congressional lines because they relied too much on race as a factor.

In Colorado, there are some laws county commissioners must follow for how they draw their districts, like keeping them compact and within certain population levels, but they also have wide discretion.

Basically the chief executives of a county, these public officials also have enormous power as policymakers and administrators in their respective areas and they control large budgets. County commission posts are also high-paying government jobs, and candidates running for them have no contribution limits for how much money they can raise in their campaigns.

El Paso County, which encompasses Colorado Springs, redraws its commissioner district lines about every two years because of the area’s booming population growth. And it is the county’s five commissioners, all Republicans, who vote on how those maps look. Each of them make between $87,300 and $113,490 per year.

Tomorrow, Thursday, May 25, those commissioners will review three options for their new district maps, according to an agenda item on the county’s website. And it won’t be without controversy. 

News that the county already drew up three options without public input irks local elections watchdog Gary Fornander who works on elections issues in Colorado Springs for Common Cause of Colorado.

Two years ago, he says, the county clerk reached out to members of the public before drawing up new maps. But not this time. “We cannot find that they’ve done any outreach to anyone,” Fornander told The Colorado Independent. “They certainly haven’t to us.”

El Paso County Clerk and Recorder spokeswoman Mattie Albert confirmed County Clerk Chuck Broerman only consulted with those who will vote on the maps.

“He spoke with each of the commissioners about their different needs and concerns,” Albert said. State law, she says, states the primary goal in redistricting county commissioner lines is to maintain a generally equal population distribution. Each district has about 130,000 people as of 2015.

Albert said 2015 was the first year the county clerk reached out to interested stakeholders early in the process. But the clerk didn’t this time around because he didn’t have time, given the large increase in voters coming on the rolls from the big 2016 elections.  

“We would like to reiterate that the commissioner district proposals reflect minor, technical changes of a few precincts, and that the goal of the proposals is to maintain an equal population distribution between the districts while adhering as best as possible to natural geographical boundaries,” she said in a statement.

After the county clerk presents his three map options tomorrow, the public can weigh in on them for the next 30 days. (The map options will be available online here.)

Republicans in El Paso County outnumber Democrats by about two to one with 162,733 registered GOP members and 84,607 Democrats, according to the most recent data from the Secretary of State. Unaffiliated voters make up about 135,000.

A Democrat has not won an election for El Paso County Commission since the 1970s, El Paso County Democratic Party Chairwoman Electra Johnson said. The way the district lines are drawn does not help, she added. “It would be more representative to have neighborhoods connected downtown and the northern part of the county represented by one commissioner.”

Johnson plans to speak at a protest at 9 a.m. tomorrow outside the county commissioner meeting at Centennial Hall to bring more public attention to the process.

During the 2016 November elections, Johnson herself gave El Paso County Republicans a scare when she ran for an open 3rd District seat on the county commission and came within about six percentage points of beating her Republican rival, stunning political observers in the area.

Recently, a wave election for Colorado Springs City Council swept in a more moderate to progressive majority to the once-conservative body. Some local progressives see a changing city as the area grows, perhaps beginning to shuck off some of its reputation as a conservative stronghold.

One local progressive group, Unite Colorado Springs, is helping organize tomorrow’s protest with local Democratic Party activists outside the commissioner meeting to draw attention to the redistricting process.

“I think it’s important that those of us who are concerned about these types of things, those of us who really are paying attention to these types of things, make our presence known,” says Unite’s Ryan Barry.

“Activists hope to use their presence to draw attention to the board’s continued gerrymandering and to inspire the community to participate in this comment period,” reads a statement from the El Paso County Democratic Party, adding, “the activists hope that scrutiny from the public will prevent the county government from again gerrymandering the commissioner districts without input from the people of El Paso County.”

El Paso County Clerk Broerman said in a statement he hopes people will see from the three options he’ll unveil tomorrow that his office “strove for balance in proposing changes that reflect the natural boundaries of our growing county and maintaining consistency between communities.”

Johnson wants to make sure the public is aware of the potential redistricting has to make the districts, especially the 3rd, less competitive.

“My message is our representatives are elected to represent all of us,” she says.

 

Photo by Sergey Norin for Creative Commons in Flickr.

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As GOP El Paso County Commissioners redraw their own district lines, progressive activists have a message: We’re watching

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