• Stephanie Vigil

Keeping a Sharp Eye on El Paso County Commissioners

One of my post-campaign activities lately has been to tune in for at least one meeting a week of the El Paso County Board of Commissioners, a five-member body that allocates state and federal dollars that come to our county, administers essential public services, handles permits and land use for unincorporated areas, and sends liaisons to various other boards throughout the region. County Commissions in Colorado get their authority directly from our Legislature, to serve as an administrative subdivision of state government. But you wouldn’t know that from listening to the folks in Centennial Hall, since our state government is Democrat majority and is therefore The Enemy.

For all our forward-thinking and pro-democracy ways in Colorado, we continue to have a serious electoral problem at the county level: County Commissions get to draw their own district boundaries. You can imagine how easy, and tempting, this is to abuse. With few exceptions, what ends up happening is that whichever party is the majority doesn’t simply hold the most seats; they hold all of them, each district drawn with surgical precision to ensure that not a single seat is lost to the opposing party. And yes, Democrats do it too. And no, they shouldn't be able to do it either.

In the case of the El Paso County, it means that a voting populace which votes approximately 40% Democratic gets to have 0% Democratic presence on our County Commission.

So our highest paid public servants, whose decisions are close to home and more directly impactful in our day-to-day lives than any federal office, are fully shielded from public accountability. They operate as if they owe absolutely nothing to non-Republicans, non-Christians, and non-wealthy people, because in a very practical sense, they don’t. What are we going to do if we don’t approve of their decisions? Vote in someone else? With the current map, and any map drawn by the board itself, they’re well protected from such consequences. They’re safe, they’re comfortable, and they know it. And if you don't feel safe and comfortable in the knowledge that five ultra-conservative, far right wing Republicans can auction off our county to serve developers’ and investors' short-term interests, make closed door deals at our expense, and show special treatment to their preferred citizens, well...I guess that’s too bad. They have no incentive to care what you think.

Every meeting starts with an Evangelical Christian prayer. Technically it is an “invocation” on the agenda, but I’ve yet to hear anything but a distinctly Evangelical Christian prayer. Sometimes it’s even led by one of the board members themselves. As they make their way through their opening remarks and liaison reports, several of them will even refer back to “the prayer this morning,” as if it's the most normal thing in the world for a public meeting of an elected body to be part church service that caters specifically to the personal religion of its members. It’s a clear violation of our First Amendment right to a religiously neutral government. But why would they care? No one is there to contradict them, and every Commissioner’s district has been finely sliced to keep them in the seat no matter how the county votes.

As the Commissioners get through their remarks for the day, it is standard for three or four of them to reiterate their disdain for Governor Polis and our State Legislature, casually referring to their purpose, as a board, as something along the lines of “fighting Polis and the Democrats.” Commissioner Bremer, in particular, really seems to have it out for government, that institution that one could say is, you know, her job -- it’s never the solution, it’s always a problem, there should definitely be a lot less of it, and we pay her six figures a year to tell us so twice a week.

Their collective contempt for Polis and Democrats in general cannot be overstated, and COVID-19 has only given them more ammo to fire at the big bad socialists in Denver. Commissioner Gonzalez has announced on more than one occasion that he thoroughly intends to break the law and defy public health orders (this an elected official we're talking about). The consensus across the board is that the pandemic has gone on long enough and that things should be back to normal by now, as if Jared Polis, of all people, is anti-business, has an inexplicable hatred for bars and restaurants, and is extending the pandemic on purpose.

Meanwhile, every single member of the board openly encouraged local residents to gather for Thanksgiving, contrary to the advice and pleading of public health officials, and has used their public platform to repeat various lies about the virus that put lives in danger and prolong the need for restrictive measures.

A couple of real whoppers just from last week:

- That everyone should simply use their "best judgment" and you really only need to physically distance if are already sick. Of course, we've known from the beginning that a major problem with this virus is that it's transmissible days before you show symptoms. If we couldn't pass it to each other before we're even sick, we could perhaps deal with this more like an especially harsh flu season (which I don't say to be flippant by the way, since we could also stand to take influenza a lot more seriously).

- That wearing a mask is a personal choice that everyone should make for themselves, only use if they really want to, and that everyone needs to respect other people's choice not to use one. Because Freedom.™ Except that's not how this works. Communicable diseases are not personal and this virus does not observe the ideology of American hyper-individualism. The pandemic, by its very nature, is a communal issue, not a personal one. Just like it's not up to a drunk person leaving a bar whether or not they want to risk driving home. The mask is only partly for the person wearing it and a lot more to protect everyone around them, just in case -- and again, we've known this from the beginning -- they're infected and contagious and don't know it yet.

Press coverage of the County Commission tends to be slim and they're easy to ignore, but this is important. If you've ever looked around the Pikes Peak Peak region and groaned at how short-sighted the development practices are, this is why. Any well-funded builder that comes to the El Paso County BoCC asking for re-zoning, or special use permits, gets what they want. People who are categorically opposed to government tend to rubber stamp the wishes of the wealthy in the private sector. And again, who's there to challenge them? Every meeting of this board essentially doubles as a Republican Party meeting and almost all votes are unanimous. We need more citizen presence to challenge this beast.

Meetings are generally Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:00am, though some parts of the year they’re Tuesdays only. They’re also streamed online, so you don't need to go in person. You can even sign up for public comment and give it remotely. Do you know which Commission district you're in? Not everyone in El Paso County has a city/town council member, but everyone has a Commissioner. Find out who yours is. It’s your right to bother them.

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