Energy, Utilities & Water  February 18, 2022

The elections that weren’t

Water districts cancel elections routinely as candidate pools run dry

Voters in the Central Weld County Water District could be forgiven for being unfamiliar with the electoral process for the district’s board of directors.

The district hasn’t conducted an election for 20 years.

Like two dozen other such water and water and sanitation districts in Boulder, Broomfield, Larimer and Weld counties — along with many special districts overall — Central Weld routinely has applied a Colorado law that allows the quasi-municipal corporations to cancel elections if there are not more candidates than offices to be filled.

For Central Weld, which provides water service across 250 square miles of central Weld County and which recorded revenue of more than $62 million in 2021 — including $48 million in bond proceeds — it has meant that anyone who wanted to fill a board seat succeeded, for the past two decades.

While Central Weld is a prominent example of canceled elections, it’s not alone. A BizWest review of election records filed with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs for more than two dozen water and sanitation districts in the region found that 82% of scheduled elections — 111 out of 135 — were canceled since 2012 alone.

In addition to Central Weld, 12 districts have canceled every election since at least 2012,  including the Baseline Water District, Brownsville Water and Sanitation District, East Boulder County Water District, the Galeton Water and Sanitation District, the Knollwood Metropolitan District, the Lake Eldora Water and Sanitation District, the Niwot Sanitation District, the North Carter Lake Water District, the Olde Stage Water District, the Pinewood Springs Water District, the South Fort Collins Sanitation District and the West Fort Collins Water District.

In fact, every regional water district has canceled one or more elections during that time span.

Critics of the sometimes opaque electoral process for special districts say that the process of notifying the public about upcoming elections — and the process to self-nominate for board seats — has been inadequate.

Senate Bill 21-262, which passed the General Assembly in 2021 and was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis, included several changes to the election process for special districts, including water districts. For any district formed after Jan. 1, 2000, Calls for Nominations for board seats must be emailed to active registered electors, or mailed to those who lack email addresses. Public notices also must be filed in local newspapers.

Districts created on or before Jan. 1, 2000 — including most water districts — must publish notices in local newspapers and include the notices in another means of communication, such as publishing it on the organization’s website, mailing it to electors or including it as a prominent part of a newsletter, billing statement or other mailing.

Other provisions exist for smaller districts.

John Henderson, an attorney who voluntarily works with Coloradans for Metro District Reform, which works to improve oversight and transparency for special districts, said SB-21-262 “beefed up” election requirements.

“The kind of notice that these districts have been giving in the past was posting it on a fencepost in the middle of a field somewhere,” he said, referencing residential special districts.

Henderson’s focus has been on residential special districts, through which developers can pay for infrastructure for new housing developments, but which have been criticized for lack of transparency and accumulation of debt.

Water districts, on the other hand, were conceived decades ago as a way to bring water service to mostly rural areas, including to farms and ranches. Over time, they’ve become key players in the explosive growth seen in much of the region, providing water treatment and delivery for thousands of new homes.

Henderson, who now lives in Maine but formerly lived within a metropolitan district in the Solterra development in Lakewood, and who continues to work with Coloradans for Metro District Reform, said that barring some controversy, elections for water districts probably slip below the radar of most residents.

“I think as a general rule, it’s probably true that if the water district is doing its thing, and it’s not increasing fees and generating any controversy, people simply aren’t aware of it and largely don’t even know it exists,” Henderson said, “and unless somebody shakes them a little bit and says, ‘Hey, this is an important institution, and an important governmental body, and it would be good for people to pay attention to it and circulate new blood through the board, because that’s a good thing.’ But unless there’s an outreach, I tend to agree, if there isn’t any controversy, they’re just going to cancel the elections.”

Controversy does exist for some local water districts:

  • The North Weld County Water District faces at least one lawsuit and threats of others over a moratorium on new taps imposed Sept. 29, 2021. That moratorium was partially lifted Monday, but with strict limits. North Weld canceled elections in 2016 and 2018.
  • The Central Weld County Water District faces a lawsuit from the town of Firestone, which sued the district in August 2021 for $8.6 million, alleging breach of contract and negligence. The town claims that Central Weld continued to collect certain payment surcharges that were to have ended in 2011.

The Colorado Department of Local Affairs maintains a website listing all local governments, including special districts. Its election information dates back to 2012, showing that Central Weld canceled every election back to that date.

Stan Linker, Central Weld’s district manager, said he doesn’t believe the district has conducted an election for 20 years, which he said shows voter confidence in the district and its governance.

“Say you’ve got an election for a district and there’s twice as many candidates as there are seats available, what does that tell you about the election or the way the district is performing, what does that tell you?” he said. “To me, if you have a lot of people running for boards, there’s got to be something wrong. They want to have a change, they want to make a change.

“For Central Weld, it’s pretty obvious for us. This district has run so well and so efficiently that there’s been no reason for people to want to replace those current board members because they’re doing a great job,” he said. “Board member … it’s a lot of work. Unless you have something that’s absolutely upsetting you, or think is wrong the way things are being handled, you’re not going to want to replace somebody who is doing a great job.”

He noted that some districts have term limits for board members, which would increase the frequency of elections. But that can be a drawback, with the district losing experienced board members, he said. Central Weld does not have term limits.

“You lose a good person, and then you’re begging other people who don’t want the job to get on. So that’s one reason I’m glad we don’t have term limits,” he said.

Christopher Smith, district manager for the Left Hand Water District, which has conducted only one election — in 2014 — since 2012, said securing candidates for board seats can be a challenge.

“It’s definitely been sometimes difficult to find candidates, to be honest,” he said. “It can be looked at a couple of ways. I think districts that have some controversy going on or issues where people are unhappy probably have a lot more interest in their elections than a well-run district that has not had the same. I’ve always felt that things must be going well if people aren’t seeking out redress from their local government.”

Left Hand serves about 20,000 residents across 100 square miles, mostly in unincorporated Boulder and Weld counties. The district extends from Foothills Highway east to Interstate 25, south and around Longmont and north and around Erie.

Left Hand had received three nominations for four open seats as of Feb. 9, Smith said, so he wasn’t yet sure whether the district would hold an election May 3.

Lack of interest in launching a candidacy also can extend to lack of interest in voting, Left Hand’s Smith said.

“Not only do we not get a lot of candidates, but we sometimes get 50 or 60 votes. There’s not a whole lot of interest,” he said. “I think that’s true for a lot of these special districts.”

Election process

State law requires special districts to file Transparency Notices, listing the principal office address, contact person and phone number, along with other information, including names of board members and when their terms expire, as well as information on upcoming elections. Transparency notices are posted on a district’s website, on the Special District Association of Colorado website, or both.

For 2022, Colorado set May 3 as the date for special-district elections. Board members will vie for three-year terms rather than traditional four-year terms. That’s because of a state statute shifting special-district elections to odd-numbered years, beginning in 2023.

Eligible electors, including residents and property owners within a district, who to be candidates for a special-district board seat must file a self-nomination and acceptance form — or a letter — signed by the candidate and by a registered elector of the state as a witness or submit a letter with the district’s designated election official by close of business 67 days prior to the election. For the May 3 election, that’s Feb. 25. Write-in candidates have until Feb. 28.

The Transparency Notice also specifies how to obtain the nomination form. The form or letter must include the name of the special district, the director office sought, the term of office sought, the date of the election, full name of the candidate as it should appear on the ballot and whether the candidate is a member of an executive board of a unit owners’ association.

For some districts, would-be candidates must write, email or call a Designated Election Official, sometimes an outside law firm, to obtain the Self-Nomination form. Only a few post the Self-Nomination and Acceptance Form on their own websites.

Central Weld’s Linker said the district complies with the law by posting its Call for Nominations on the district website and in the Greeley Tribune.

“All we can do is post it on the website and in the paper,” he said.

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