by Beecher Threatt
Two local candidates' forums each attracted well over 100 attendees on Sept. 26 and Oct. 2. Ouray County Cattlemen's Association, host for the first forum, and Women in Support of Education, host for the second, ran efficient, lively programs with respectful and knowledgeable audiences. Participating in both were District 1 county commissioner candidates incumbent Lynn Padgett (D) and challenger Jack Flowers (R). District 3 candidates are Pat Willits (U) and Don Batchelder (R). (Willits is technically the incumbent, as the governor appointed him to fill the four-month unexpired term created when Heidi Albritton resigned in August.)
At the OCCA forum, held at the 4-H Center in Ridgway, moderator Don Latham gave each of the four candidates two and a half minutes to answer each of 10 questions, chosen by members of OCCA. At the packed Ouray Community Center, WISE moderator Nancy Wolkin first announced each speaker would get one minute per question, but when that received grumbles she suggested two minutes and fewer questions. Batchelder suggested one and a half minutes, which all agreed to.
Candidates' opening and closing statements were similar each night. Political newcomer Flowers recalled moving to Log Hill in 1969, when there were just 13 houses between his family's and Colona and the road to Ridgway wasn't maintained in winter. He credited his ranching background with giving him the ability to solve problems on his own. "Many people love Ouray County the way it is and my goal is to protect it," he said. "I'm happy to give it a go from the country perspective." Flowers said he believes in private property rights and few regulations.
Padgett has served on the BOCC for four years. She showed an understanding of the county's heritage in stating that she respects ranchers as the first environmentalists and resource managers in the county. Padgett also said she supports mining in the hardrock mining district. Thirteen years ago, she bought her first and only house in the Wisteria neighborhood of Log Hill, and she lives there with her family off-grid, hauling water every week. "I'm invested here," Padgett told the crowds. She has worked as a geologist, hydrologist and natural resources consultant. Padgett touted her advanced computer skills, understanding of planning issues, her work for federal and state governments and private landowners, her role in retaining federal PILT payments for the county and federal legislation she is advocating for that would allow non-profit groups to clean up abandoned mines without worry of liability. Padgett also said during her tenure the county has saved thousands of dollars by bringing in video arraignment, auditing social services and making changes to the homemaker program, among others.
Pat Willits, who served as mayor of Ridgway for 12 years and on the Ridgway Planning Commission for 13 years, helped found the Trust for Land Restoration, where he still works. He works with ranchers on win-win conservation projects all over the county, including in the Alpine Zone south of Ouray, where he helped save the Yankee Girl headframe. "I have great respect for those who work on the land," he said. "Protecting private property rights is important to you and to me, but good zoning regulations are necessary, too." Willits emphasized his professional business background with 25 years managerial experience and said he is committed to spending 100 percent of his time on county business as commissioner. "This is a special county," he said, "but what we lack is the ability to come together and collaborate."
Batchelder, a former county commissioner, told both audiences that they are interviewing candidates for a job in which many skill sets are required. "I am good at finding resolution for people with different ideas," he said. "I would never say one view is right and one is wrong." From 1980 to 2011 Batchelder held public office in Ridgway town government, on the school board and as commissioner, and he was Ridgway town manager. "I was taught to be part of the community you live in," he said. In each position, Batchelder said, he left the organization better off financially and operationally.
A multi-faceted issue front and center in both forums concerned makeup of the county planning commission (appointed by the BOCC), polarization of politics, visual impact regulations and private property rights.
Batchelder opined that the current planning commission does not reflect the diversity in the county. He said we need a cross-representation of the entire county's views to get things right. Polarization of politics is following national and state trends, and "it's silly." He said the current effort to revise visual impact regulations in the Land Use Code is not what was intended by the BOCC he served on that first looked at making changes. The current proposal is "huge," he said, has taken too long and has used too many resources. Batchelder said the county needs to look at the cost versus benefit of making major changes, which will take away the predictability in the current code. "Pick a few roads to add to visual impact corridors and set up a process," he said.
Flowers contended the planning commission is not diversified enough. No new roads need to be added as visual impact corridors, he told the audience, because the ones we have are the ones tourists will most likely see. He views new regulations as an unfunded mandate on the people, with the county essentially becoming a homeowners' association. Because he respects private property rights, he does not advocate changes to the Land Use Code. "I'm an old cowboy, so I would love to see the valley stay the way it is." Flowers said he has not experienced polarization. "I find that if you sit down and talk face to face you find out you have things in common with everyone."
Padgett pointed out that the planning commission has two functions. First, it hears permit applications and applies the Land Use Code even when it may not result in what is actually desired. The second function, recommending revisions to the code, is more polarized and political now, she said, following the emotional national rhetoric. She explained that 40 years ago, when the county was first zoned, agricultural interests believed zoning would relieve development pressure and ag interests would be protected by low density zoning. Section 9 of the code served well during the development period but it was not consistently applied. "Visual impact regulations put tools in the toolbox," she said. "There is no one size fits all. I won't vote to end individual character of property." Padgett added that she will be looking for the planning commission's thought process in adding roads to visual impact corridors.
Padgett said her advocacy on the national level of the Good Samaritan bill is an example of bringing the extreme left and extreme right together. Her leadership positions in the National Association of Counties allow her to push for passage of the bill, which would allow abandoned mine cleanup projects without fear of liability for pollution.
Willits said his impression after sitting in on planning commission meetings is the members are well-meaning but the atmosphere is tense and hearted. He wants to explore how it can be more collaborative and suggested the commission does need more diversity because it is not a true representation of county. "I worked in Ridgway to get beyond partisanship," Willits said. "We need to get out of the 'gotta win' mentality. That's why I'm running as an Independent. I want to give everyone an opportunity to be heard."
Willits advocates letting the visual impact revision process play out. "Majority and minority reports will be coming out, and the BOCC will have to hold hearings. I hope we can build consensus before then," he said. "It is incumbent on the planning commission to give firm and good examples to justify (its proposal) adding more roads."
Resurgence in mining activity and job growth were other hot topics. Flowers said mining jobs are desperately needed and the BOCC should be a voice to the state to understand the importance of mining. He said federal and state governments will see that mining operations do not pollute the water, so the county will not have to be involved in that aspect. He believes that mining companies will do a good job maintaining roads, as they have in the past.
Padgett said she is excited to see mining return, but the county cannot grow one sector of the economy without affecting other sectors either positively or negatively. The community is creative enough to come up with solutions to having mining and tourism (OHV roads) co-exist, she said. Padgett is proud of her facilitation of the county Bottom Up process, which recognized diversification of the economy as a goal. To grow more businesses, she said, broadband infrastructure improvement is greatly needed. Padgett pushed for EagleNet to come into the county a year earlier than was projected to lay fiber optic cable.
Willits, too, sees mining resurgence as a great opportunity with both economic and psychological benefits. The county's responsibility, he said, through the BOCC is to hold mines accountable for best practices and to mitigate road impacts.
Batchelder said mining jobs pay living wages. He gave Padgett credit for the Bottom Up process that emphasizes diversification. He, too, sees road impacts as a priority, "because people are going to drive up those roads if they are open."
Speaking of roads, candidates were asked what they would do about the condition of county roads and budget shortfalls. Padgett said the main problem is old equipment and deferred maintenance. "We can pay now or pay later," she said. "Look at what we pay and what we are willing to pay." Fuel costs and population have doubled in 20 years but there has been no increase in county road employees, she said. Padgett would take a hard look at property tax accounts that are not paying a fair share. She has sat down with the county administrator many times and gone through the county budget line by line. Ways she has found to save thousands of dollars include auditing the social services budget and finding more state and national funds; putting a more efficient boiler system in the courthouse; decreasing costs of jailing by improving heating and by installing video equipment in the courtroom; and, pushing for retention of PILT (payments in lieu of taxes for non-taxable federal land).
Willits agreed the reality is old equipment and lack of capital funding, and he has heard concerns about training of employees. He would like to see development of new gravel sources and a solution to the problem of fly ash running out.
Batchelder faulted the grading of roads for their condition, because roads are not being crowned so that water can run off. "Applying mag chloride twice will almost equal the cost of chip seal," he said. Batchelder said he would look at all sources of revenue and "hold people's feet to the fire."
Flowers said road conditions will be a top priority for him. He understands the budget is tight, but advocates getting materials closer to the projects and not hauling it from Colona because it is not cost effective. He wants to look at ways to increase revenue for the road department. Other major priorities are emergency services and social services, he said. By embracing the mining industry, the county will gain revenue through royalties, personal and real property taxes, vehicle licensing, salaries, etc.
To read about candidates' statements on wilderness designation, Public Access Group map, water rights, renewable energy projects and the proper role of county government, go to www.ouraynews.com
The next debate will be Monday, Oct. 8 at the Divide Ranch and Club on Log Hill. The four commissioner candidates, District 59 state House candidates and Third Congressional District candidates will participate.