HomeNews Candidates for County Commission, HD61 make their case for election
Candidates for County Commission, HD61 make their case for election
Written by Alissa Johnson
Wednesday, 24 October 2012
Even Snodgrass got a mention
The six candidates for Gunnison County commissioner made their case for election in Crested Butte last week at the Crested Butte News Candidates’ Forum. With two seats open on the Board of County Commissioners—one in District 1 and one in District 2—and an independent candidate running in each district, it’s possible that the winners may not earn a majority of the votes.
In District 1, incumbent Commissioner Paula Swenson is running for reelection against Republican Stu Ferguson and Green Party candidate Steve Schechter. In District 2, Gunnison Mayor Jonathan Houck is running against Republican Warren Wilcox and Independent Polly Oberosler. After brief opening statements, moderator Denis Hall took questions from the audience. He set the stage for the evening by asking the candidates to name specific ways to fill seats on airplanes and bring tourists into the valley. Schechter jumped right in, saying it was time to “think outside of the airplane.” He’d like to see experimentation with subsidizing luxury buses and shuttles from the Front Range. Oberosler said a $600 season ski pass would go a long way toward bringing people to the valley. Houck, on the other hand, tried to broaden the discussion beyond winter by saying “a year-round challenge needs to be met with a year-round answer.” He believed generating more sales tax revenue throughout the year would provide more dollars to invest in the air program and would create new markets. Ferguson said, “If you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door.” He wants to see more seamless cooperation between the players that market the valley and added, “We need to rally around the opportunities [the ski resort] has given us. When they come forth with an idea such as Snodgrass, it’s important to support that.” Wilcox spoke of the need to make things “seamless” for visitors and to create a strong and diverse product. He said that could include a plan for Snodgrass. “Growth such as Snodgrass could be done positively with a good plan,” he said. Swenson boiled it down to cooperative marketing, saying she had made strides in getting CBMR and Western State Colorado University to partner on marketing. “When we market holistically, people find us and they love us,” she said.
Negative campaigning Things seemed like they might heat up early in the forum when Maureen Hall, co-chair of the Gunnison Valley Democrats, asked Wilcox to explain some of his advertising, which she felt used “negative adjectives” to describe Houck as a “career politician.” Wilcox said that throughout the election, Houck had made references to his own connections to state senators and congressional leaders. That, Wilcox said, made it seem like Houck aspired to having those types of connections. “I did not personally write those ads,” Wilcox said, “but I had no problem with the truth filter when I looked at it.” Houck countered the idea that connections with state representatives were bad, particularly when state leaders are involved in local issues, and developing legislation like the Gunnison Public Lands Bill. “If you’re not taking time to do the work asked of you when the people voted for you, then you’re missing out on something,” he said. The future of Red Lady The discussion returned to the issues, however, when Steve Glazer asked the candidates whether or not they would support a mine on Mt. Emmons. Moderator Hall expanded on that question by asking them to weigh in on the idea of a land exchange that would remove Mt. Emmons from future mining. An idea is in the works to trade U.S. Energy other federal lands if they give up their mining claims on Red Lady but this would leave the water treatment plant and its associated costs in the hands of local control. Several candidates, including Swenson, Houck and Schechter, spoke to the benefits of the land exchange, while also citing the need to tread carefully with the liability associated with the wastewater treatment plant. The plant operates to the tune of more than $1 million per year, and that liability could be assumed by Crested Butte should a land exchange go through. “If there is a negotiated buy-out there has to be a big pot of money to run that plant in perpetuity,” said Schechter. He added that it would be unfair for the taxpayers of Gunnison County to pay for a mess left behind by mining companies. Oberosler said as long as Crested Butte was willing to take over the water treatment plant, the exchange was a great idea. In general, she added, she doesn’t believe Mt. Emmons is the right place for a mine. “These high mountain drainages are a bad spot to be doing large-scale mining because there is so much surface water.” Ferguson said the Mt. Emmons deal has merit because it could serve the interests of everyone involved. And, he said, “County commissioners have a responsibility to investigate every opportunity.” Wilcox spoke about the complexity of property rights, particularly when comparing mineral rights to surface rights. “Will a trade be made, or is this a moot point? If it is not moot, then I say show me a plan and show me how the public reacts to that plan and let me see the logic of that plan,” he said. Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum director Glo Cunningham, however, wasn’t quite satisfied with any of their answers. “As a person who likes to deal with the heart, in your heart, yes or no to a moly mine on Mt. Emmons?” Every candidate except Ferguson said, “No.” Ferguson said, “Neither.” Oil and gas regulations Cunningham also wanted to know if each of the candidates would continue the work of previous boards by continuing to fund legal counsel to negotiate strong regulations for oil and gas development. While every candidate supported the work that has already been done, they did not all see eye to eye on whether that process needed to continue. The Republican candidates both said the new county regulations had gone far enough, with Wilcox arguing that enough money has been spent and “We’re in a good place now.” He didn’t want to see too many overlapping regulations, saying “If we find a problem we can fix it.” Ferguson called the work to date “outstanding,” but thought that from here on out, enforcing state and federal regulations was the way to go. Houck, Swenson and Schechter were on the other side of the issue, with Schechter pointing out, “Good money paid up front that keeps air and water clean is money well spent.” Oberosler wanted to take it a step further and make personal connections with the oil and gas companies so they could be held to a “T.” “I want to be with those guys,” she said. “I want them to understand why we’re upset. I want to talk to them and work with them so we don’t have to spend money in court.” Harmony for ranching and recreation Gunnison Valley rancher Greg Peterson wanted to know what each candidate would do to help ranching and recreation coexist, and Oberosler was ready for him. She thought the Hartman Rocks Recreation Area was a great example of the two groups using the same space—why not create four or five other areas like that? The popular answer for the night was to bridge the groups together. Ferguson wanted to foster a healthy respect from one side to the other, and Houck pointed out that the two groups face a lot of the same challenges—access to land, the potential listing of the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species, and seasonality. Swenson focused on what she sees as the current hot spot, the East River Valley. “I facilitated a meeting last winter with CBMR and Bill Trampe, who both have leases on the East River Valley. That is probably the biggest burden area right now,” Swenson said, adding that Dr. Ian Billick at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory is helping continue those discussions. All candidates seemed to be in agreement that commissioners are in the perfect position to foster relationships and understanding between the two user groups.
Tell us what’s close to your heart Local resident Ceil Murray earned kudos from the candidates and the audience by asking not what the candidates would do if elected, but which projects were so “close to your heart you would continue working on them if you’re not elected.” That was an easy one for Houck, who wants to see the outdoor Discovery Center on Tomichi Creek become a reality. Oberosler wants to see WCSU nurtured because it’s the “cleanest industry” in the valley. Wilcox said he feels most passionate about the children, and wants to see them stay in the community and be able to make a good living. Ferguson has two main passions—the Gunnison Valley Observatory, where he’s a board member, and more seamless integration of the valley’s marketing arms. Schechter said he’s excited about creating clean, renewable energy by making the Taylor Hydroelectric Dam project a reality, and Swenson couldn’t limit herself to one or even two passions. There’s the new Housing Authority board, economic development and getting the new shelter built for the Animal Welfare League. As the incumbent, Swenson did get singled out for statements made during her last campaign. David Thompson pointed out that she’d named community values as the most critical issue facing the valley. Her opponent had cited economic challenges. Thompson wanted to know, “Do you regret not seeing what was coming?” “Community values are an important part of economic development,” Swenson responded. “My opponent four years ago talked about bringing in the new, bringing in the new. We need to grow our own way to sustain ourselves.”
Navigating the healthcare crisis When asked, every candidate agreed that Gunnison Valley Hospital could use a little extra attention these days. In particular, they spoke to getting a general surgeon back on board and appointing qualified people to the board of trustees. Swenson reminded everyone commissioners are for appointing board members, but do not oversee them. But a few additional ideas did surface, including Oberosler’s suggestion to hire a victim’s advocate who can help patients “get the funds they’re entitled to,” whether that’s through commercial insurance or programs like Medicare. Wilcox questioned the timing of building the new wing at the hospital.
“I know that we all want a world class facility,” he said, but it can’t always be about bragging rights. “Sometimes a large investment requires a great deal of consideration before entering into it.”
How will you represent me? The final two questions of the evening focused on how, as county commissioners, the candidates would represent and support the local community. Crested Butte town councilperson Jim Schmidt pointed out that with three candidates in each district, the winners could potentially represent more people who didn’t vote for them than those who did. “I would like to ask how, if you’re elected by, say, 40 percent of votes, you will represent the other 60 percent?” Schmidt asked. Ferguson, who has been mayor of Gunnison and served on the City Council, pointed out that “Town councils are nonpartisan, so when you’re elected you represent everybody in the community, and if I had a chance I would say the county level ought to be that way too.” Once you’re elected, he added, it’s not about party allegiance. It’s about representing all the people in the community. “It’s not about Democrat or Republican. All of us can say we disagree with things both parties have done,” Wilcox said. He also said he grew up in a time where respect and decorum were valued, and it was okay to disagree. Somehow, property rights also played a role. Houck called himself a political mutt, noting at one time he was a Republican and had also been an Independent. And while he’s happy in the Democratic Party, he’s never felt pressure from the party to do anything other than represent the people. Local politics, he argued, happen outside the county commissioners’ room anyway—on the ski lift, at the Bean, in City Market—that’s where the “rubber hits the road.” Oberosler said anyone who knows her knows she “will work with anyone, anytime.” Swenson pointed to her record, saying for as many times as she’s been in trouble with the far right, she’s been in trouble with the far left. And Schechter said the number one job of a county commissioner is to listen to the people. It was the final question of the evening, however, that highlighted the differences between the candidates. When Dr. Roanne Rouse Houke asked what county commissioners could do to help businesses like Acli-mate, which she said is on the verge of feast or famine even as it’s poised for national distribution, their answers spoke to the diversity in their perspectives. Oberosler wanted to bring outside grant money into the community and look for ways to incentivize WSCU students to create businesses here. Wilcox said it was critical to make sure the price of energy, taxation and regulation didn’t impede businesses. Houck, who in the interest of full disclosure pointed out Roanne is his wife, wondered if there were ways for local businesses to work together. He suggested pooling efforts to order business materials or arrange for shipping at lower rates. Swenson pointed out that she has been running businesses since the age of 22, and because of her experience, knows the right contacts to help businesses make it work. “So let’s get together and work on it,” she said. Ferguson said, “The most important thing we can do is ask you what challenges you encounter so we can do the things that are most helpful.” It was Schechter, however, who seemed most conflicted on the role of government in fostering business. He said that on a national level, subsidies for industries like oil and gas were a problem. “Government shouldn’t be there to throw more impediments in the way,” he said, “But it is a role of not the government but of others to help out with business.” He talked instead about creating local renewable energy, stopping the flow of energy dollars out of the valley and growing more local food. So the differences are clear—and with two seats open, voters can select the two candidates they feel best represent their needs.