The Chaffee County Board of Commissioners recently referred a ballot measure for the November election that would increase the term limit for Commissioner from two, four-year terms to three. Some context for this question is helpful.
In 1994, 51 percent of Colorado voters passed Amendment 17, a citizen’s initiative establishing a two-term limit for all elected county offices. There are 64 counties in Colorado and Chaffee County voters quickly joined 45 other counties in voting to eliminate the new term limits for the constitutional offices of Assessor, Treasurer, Clerk, Surveyor, Sheriff, and Coroner (1997). Another five counties voted to allow an expanded three terms for these offices. Statewide, many voters acknowledged the technical expertise and largely non-partisan nature of these six offices. They also recognized that in smaller counties there may be fewer qualified candidates willing to serve.
The office of County Commissioner carries a broader spectrum of responsibilities than the other six elected county positions and is often perceived to be more inherently political. In 1997, the Chaffee County Board of Commissioners acknowledged this by not adding their own office to the local term limit elimination bill. They wanted to keep the measure as simple as possible, ensuring that it passed.
However, since 1994, Adams, Bent, Grand, Larimer, Pitkin, and Summit counties have voted to allow three terms for county commissioner. Twenty-five counties have eliminated term limits for county commissioners entirely. While many of these are small counties with a small number of potential candidates, counties on this list that are similar in size or mindset to Chaffee include Alamosa, Fremont, Garfield, Gunnison, and Routt. In addition to Adams and Larimer, large counties that expanded term limits include Arapahoe and Weld.
If there is a common thread to these county decisions, it is an emphasis on local control and a recognition that voters have enough information at the local level to determine for themselves which candidate will best serve their community. An arbitrary term limit may generate an unnecessary and unfortunate change in county government at a time when things are otherwise going well. One does not periodically terminate the high-performing employees in one’s business or engage a new family doctor or accountant at regular, pre-set intervals; why impose such a rule on your county commissioners?
In two years, we will face a situation that illustrates a problem with the two-term limit. In 2024, the winner of this year’s commissioner race will become the senior member of the board. They will be joined by two newly elected commissioners. We are fortunate to have some good candidates this year so we can imagine that this senior commissioner will work diligently to prepare for leading the board after two years. If the new commissioners elected in 2024 are highly qualified, experienced, and motivated, the transition will be difficult but manageable.
We can hope that there will always be quality candidates ready to run for local office. However, the highly partisan and frequently toxic nature of contemporary politics at all levels of government leads many to question the wisdom of joining the fray. People with strong life experience, who would make great candidates, are reluctant to wager their reputation, business success, family harmony, and privacy for a pay cut and a job that regularly requires difficult uncomfortable decisions. In this year’s races for Clerk, Assessor, Treasurer, Sheriff, and Coroner, you will find one name on the ballot for each position. This is partly because our incumbents are all doing an excellent job, but it is also because nobody else was sufficiently motivated to run.
For untested candidates, running a well-organized campaign is a way to demonstrate one’s competence. Once elected, a candidate then runs on their record. This can be an advantage for incumbents but it is also an advantage for the electorate. Good, bad, or indifferent, there is little mystery about what to expect from a current office-holder. When the incumbent is largely judged to have been effective when they are motivated to continue that service, and when there is no well-qualified candidate to replace them, how is the community well-served by limiting its options every eight years? That is the question we can answer for ourselves on November 8th.
Chair Chaffee Board of County Commissioners