Council districts shift before possibly contentious April election 

The district shuffle

click to enlarge City Clerk Sarah Johnson outlines new Council district boundaries at a Sept. 28 news briefing. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • City Clerk Sarah Johnson outlines new Council district boundaries at a Sept. 28 news briefing.

A proposal to change boundaries of City Council districts was released last week, setting the stage for the April 2017 city election when voters will choose a majority of Council by electing the six district members.

While the boundary changes are minor, they serve as a reminder of what might lie ahead in an election in which councilors seeking re-election might have to defend their votes on issues ranging from Colorado Springs Utilities to parks.

For example, four voted in favor of the mayor-endorsed land swap with The Broadmoor that traded away the city's 189-acre Strawberry Fields open space in North Cheyenne Cañon. And all defied wishes of an influential business group by refusing to change oversight of Utilities from Council to a separately elected board or one appointed by the mayor and/or Council.

The six seats up for election next April 4 are held by Don Knight, northwest District 1; Larry Bagley, north District 2; Keith King, southwest District 3; Helen Collins, southeast District 4; Jill Gaebler, mid-city District 5; and Andy Pico, eastern District 6. Council's other three seats, elected at-large in 2015, are held by Merv Bennett, Tom Strand and Bill Murray.

All except King reportedly plan to seek another term. No currently serving Council members would find themselves in a new district due to the proposed boundary changes, which would shift 12 precincts into other districts. Those are 107, 108, 111, 163, 178, 601, 196, 453, 650, 125, 148 and 152.

The boundary shift change is required by the City Charter every four years to keep the districts balanced in population. No precincts are split, and the goal is to keep neighborhoods within the same district.

For example, the new plan would mean areas comprising the Organization of Westside Neighbors would be together in District 3, and more of the Mid Shooks Run Neighborhood Association would lie within one district — District 5.

Under the plan proposed by City Clerk Sarah Johnson with input from a citizens advisory group, each district would contain roughly 73,000 to 74,000 people. Boundaries were adjusted most radically to compensate for the city's fastest-growing areas to the northeast and east in District 6, now held by Pico. That district also would grow the most, geographically, by extending it southward to encompass Colorado Springs Airport and all of the 20,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch. The ranch's developer, Nor'wood Development Group, is in the process of negotiating a new annexation agreement to change developer obligations for development.

Pico, who's retired from the military, notes he looks forward to representing the new areas, which also encompass Peterson Air Force Base.

Collins, herself a military retiree, would lose some of those areas but inherit a precinct from District 3 that straddles Lake Avenue and lies west of Nevada Avenue.

Knight's district would gain about 9,200 residents on his district's far east side, east of Academy Boulevard and south of Vickers Drive, now part of eastern District 6.

To partially offset that gain, Knight's district would lose three Westside precincts with roughly 7,873 people, located northwest of Interstate 25 and Uintah Street.

That's important, because, as King notes via email, "The boundary change will make it a more balanced district and one that can be won by a person living on the Westside" instead of the Broadmoor area.

Though more of a tweaking than an overhaul, the redrawn boundaries serve as a reminder that the city election is just around the corner and might focus on some controversial votes.

Sure to be a campaign issue, the Strawberry Fields debate drew more emails to Council than any other topic in at least a year. Most who wrote opposed the deal, which gave the city about 400 acres of wilderness and trail easements.

Council approved the swap on May 24, with Collins, Gaebler and Murray voting "no."

In voting against the deal, Gaebler cited her desire to do the right thing for future generations by retaining Strawberry Fields, but now political watchers say she's on the radar for defeat by certain political powers, including Colorado Springs Forward, a business advocacy nonprofit that spends liberally on city elections. (Steve Bartolin, The Broadmoor's chairman, is a CSF board member.)

CSF, formed in early 2014, spent $173,200 in last year's city election and mayoral runoff when voters elected the group's choice for mayor, John Suthers, and two of its three endorsed candidates for at-large Council seats — Bennett and Strand. Jariah Walker lost but later took a $72,500-a-year job with the city. (CSF also donated to Bagley's campaign to be elected to the unexpired term of Joel Miller, who resigned to run for mayor.)

That $173,200 is more than four times the combined amount spent in that election by PACs run by the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs and the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.

Some citizens who protested the land swap say Gaebler's seat is safe. "She's very popular, and she should be," says Mike Dorsey, who opposed the swap. "People love her."

He also notes land-swap opponents plan a ballot measure for the April election that would bar the city from sales or trades of park land in the future, which could help Gaebler's re-election bid gain traction.

Asked whether Gaebler can withstand opposition from moneyed interests, Dorsey says, "They're only powerful with the people they can buy."

For her part, Gaebler says she has no inside knowledge of whom she might face but reaffirms she stands behind her votes as "the right thing for this community" and vows not to decide issues "based on getting some influential group's endorsement."

CSF executive director Amy Lathen says in an email that the group "has not yet chosen any candidates for the April 2017 elections."

But word on the street is that CSF will hand-pick a slate that, if elected, will be expected to reverse the Utilities governance vote.

"They were really pushing for a separate board that was appointed," says Knight, who resisted that because he believes the board "has got to be responsible to the citizens, not the Council and mayor."

Pico is undeterred by the prospect of being opposed by CSF, saying, "I take the issues as they come and what I think are the right decisions. I have on occasion both agreed and disagreed with CSF."

As for Collins, she voted against both the swap and a Utilities governance change. Although she survived a recall last year, she's since been censured for an ethics violation due to a land deal with her friend, tax activist Douglas Bruce.

Also, Collins, who's white, represents a district with the greatest minority population. In 2013, she defeated three black candidates who split the minority vote.

Bagley didn't respond to a request for comment.

Clerk Johnson will issue the final version of the map in November following a 1 p.m., Oct. 18 public hearing at the City Administration Building, 30 S. Nevada Ave. Comment by email (election@springsgov.com); via SpeakUp! COS (coloradosprings.granicusideas.com/discussions/2016-districting); by mail or in person (City Clerk's Office, 30 South Nevada Ave., #101, Colorado Springs, CO 80903); by phone (719/385-5901, option 4); and by fax (719/385-5114).

Information on redistricting is at coloradosprings.gov/redistricting.


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