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A Reform to Consider

Essay by Ed Quillen

Water Conservancy Districts – April 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT TAKES THOUSANDS of words to explain Colorado water conservancy districts and the mechanics of selecting their directors — that says something about the need for some changes.

So, what about changing the law so that elections are automatic, the way they are in school, fire, or hospital districts?

In a Jeffersonian sense, that sounds like the American way. But in a practical sense, there are so many special districts that it’s hard for any citizen to pay attention to them all. And the customary low turn-out does mean that the election results may represent “the will of an organized faction with some campaign money” more than they represent “the will of the people.”

(Because teachers’ unions were able to dominate school-district elections in large districts when they were held in May, the legislature moved those to the general election day in November, so there would be more voters, and presumably a more broad-based electorate.)

The most important consideration is political accountability. Water conservancy district boards levy taxes and make political decisions about allocating public resources (our Colorado Constitution says all water belongs to the people, and so water is by definition a public resource), and they should operate like political bodies, rather than like directors of a private corporation.

As it is, the directors are appointed by judges, who are also appointed.

The most sensible reform would be to have conservancy district directors appointed by the appropriate county commissioners, with provisions for an election when citizens really want one. This fits with the original method of appointment by elected officials, because when the conservancy district law was adopted in 1937, judges were elected.

County commissioners are elected and are directly accountable to the public, in that they can be recalled from office. They’re also accessible. If you didn’t like their water-board appointments, you could go to a session and complain; if you tried that with a district judge, you might end up in jail after being found in contempt of court.

At-large members could be selected by all of the county commissioners within the water district, or elected by the water board.

The procedure for petitioning for an election for a board seat could remain much as it is now, so that if citizens really wanted an election, there would be one.

However, in case an election is called for, the terms of water conservancy district board members should be adjusted so that they coincide with regularly scheduled elections: either special districts in May, or general elections in November. This would reduce costs and simplify the administration of conservancy district elections, and help insure against the dominance of special interests.

Such elections would be non-partisan, and follow the procedures for other Colorado special-district elections: school, hospital, fire-protection, etc.

These reforms would make water conservancy districts more responsive to the people who pay the bills, while preserving many of the benefits of the current system — and its original intent, of having elected officials make the appointments. District taxpayers would get as much or as little democracy as they wanted.

Will this, or something similar, ever happen? It would take an act of the legislature. Water conservancy districts are very much part of the state’s water establishment, and that’s about as powerful as a lobby gets in Colorado.

BUT THE DAY for reform will probably come, and likely within the next decade. The current election process is so complex that it’s difficult for the conservancy districts to administer.

If people keep petitioning for elections, then the district boards and managers will want some changes in the law. And appointment by county commissioners, with provisions for elections when desired, seems like a reasonable compromise that might emerge from the legislature.

As for the current petition and likely election in the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, it concerns only one seat out of nine. How much could it change the district’s policies and procedures, no matter who got elected?

But this process has made the board and district much more visible. One of the primary problems leading to water conservancy elections is the perception that such boards are not accessible or accountable to the public. Whether that perception is true or not, elections can stimulate public awareness and input.

As for my own opinion, presuming the board believes that the district has been acting in the public interest, then I think the board should actually welcome this attention and the election — because elections confer political legitimacy in a way that courts never can.