John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly

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January 16, 2009
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Dorothea Farris: Penchant for politics

ASPEN " After serving for 12 years as a Pitkin County commissioner, on top of 19 prior years on the Aspen School District board, one might think Dorothea Farris had earned a rest.

But at age 73, having been forced to step down due to term limits but with plenty of items remaining on her to-do list, Farris said she is far from done with public service.

A Google search for her name brings up dozens of hits detailing a long list of government positions over several decades, not to mention newspaper articles and profiles on a variety of sites.

As evidence that her service is not a thing of the past, she was appointed to the Colorado Wildlife Commission last year by Gov. Bill Ritter, which sets regulations and policies for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, related to hunting, fishing, watchable wildlife, and non-game species.

"I represent the non-consumptive user and conservation groups," she said proudly of her post, although technically she has yet to be confirmed by the legislature.

Although the seat representing wildlife-watchers and similar groups is written into the state code, the spot had been vacant until Farris applied, at the urging of Pitkin County Democratic Party co-chair Camilla Auger.

Farris also serves on the West Elk Scenic Byway committee, which oversees the highway connections from Carbondale to Crested Butte, and is hoping that those in charge of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association will grant her wish for membership in the organization. She said the organization's mission is in line with her own political philosophies.

"It's true, I believe in preserving the environment, saving the environment," she said, "but I know that we live here, and we're part of the environment. I want to tread lightly, but I know that I walk on a trail, and so the trail has to be there to accommodate me."

The upshot, she said, is that she believes in striking a balance among competing interests, such as certain recreational users of the backcountry " mountain bikers, snowmobilers, etc. " and wilderness advocates, who seek to expand areas where such devices are banned.

"I think I offer a sense of balance, in that I am more of a " I would be referred to as an environmentalist, a liberal, but I don't use those terms very well," she mused.

Speaking hypothetically, she sketched an image of an environmental activist who rides a mountain bike in the backcountry and espouses environmental preservation, "and yet he uses vanadium to have a lightweight bike. I mean, it's all so blended. I think I see more of a blend than a lot of people; maybe it's because I'm a tree hugger but my husband's a logger."

Farris has been described as a paragon of public service from those she has worked with.

"Dorothea is an inspiration to all considering public service as a calling," wrote Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, who served with Farris on the BOCC before he was elected mayor. "She was fair, honest and resolute in her efforts to make Pitkin County and, before that, the Aspen School District, agencies for the common good."

At the National Association of Counties (NACo), a national organization of county officials, Farris was one of 129 board members for the past two years and a member of the Public Lands Steering Committee for the past five years.

Larry Kallenberger, executive director of Colorado Counties, Inc., noted that Farris, as a CCI steering committee member and president of the CCI board of directors for the past year, "attended every single steering committee meeting ... she never missed an opportunity to make sure that the other points of view were heard."

He said Farris, along with fellow Pitkin County commissioner Jack Hatfield, was instrumental in ending the dominance of what Kallenberger called "cliques" of Front Range county representatives that he said limited the effectiveness of the organization and ostracized rural representatives.

"Dorothea really brought CCI back from going down a path that would have been exclusive of people instead of inclusive," he said. "She's totally willing to work with others and recognized completely that her opinion isn't the only one."

He called her "a joy to work with," and someone who is "intellectually bright" and "acts like she's 16 when it comes to being energetic and keeping up with young people."

"I thought what Dorothea brought to the county was a passion about the issues and a tremendous dedication to public service," said Hilary Fletcher, Pitkin County manager. Fletcher further described Farris as possessing "a commitment to furthering the quality of our lives and a deeply rooted passion for preservation of the environment." County staff members also appreciated Farris' commitment to fair working conditions and treatment of employees, Fletcher added.

Naturally, Farris did not make only friends during her years of public service.

Tom McBrayer, a Crystal Valley resident who often clashed with Farris and ran against her one year, said of Farris, "I see Dorothea Farris as the second worst commissioner that's ever been afflicted on the rural residents of Pitkin County. The first is now the mayor of Aspen."

McBrayer said he voted for Farris in her first bid for office, when he believed she opposed the "rural and remote" zoning restrictions on downvalley growth and would work to protect what he sees as the rural lifestyle of the area.

But, McBrayer said, Farris did not represent the views of Crystal Valley residents, but "would make decisions [on policies or proposals] and try to force them on the people." As an example he pointed to a survey of local residents that indicated the prevailing preference for putting a bicycle trail alongside Highway 133. The county's preference, he said, was to put the trail along portions of an abandoned rail bed on the other side of the Crystal River from the highway, which he and others opposed.

"It seemed like the decision was made in the proverbial smoke-filled room," he said of Farris' tenure, accusing Farris of following her own feelings rather than those of her constituents.

"How they personally feel shouldn't be part of the equation," he declared.

Although Farris has no plans to stay active in elective politics, she declined to rule out the possibility of a second run at being a Pitkin County Commissioner at some point in the future if she sees a need for her particular skills.

In the meantime, she recently stepped down from office to make room for commissioner-elect George Newman of Emma. But it is a safe bet that the valley has not heard the last of her.

In fact, on her last formal day in office, Jan. 13, Farris missed the BOCC work session and swearing-in ceremony because she was on her way back from Denver, where she attended a meeting of the wildlife commission.

Farris grew up as Dorothea Ike in New Jersey and attended college at New Jersey College for Women (now Douglas College). Intrigued by the idea of life in the West, however, she moved to the University of Colorado at Boulder and earned degrees in education, English, geology and geography, with the goal of becoming a teacher.

"It was called a distributive major," she said of her rather broad educational foundation. "They don't do it any more. It was very liberal arts."

Adventurous and politically astute, Farris was an editor of her high school paper when, as a senior in the early 1950s, she traveled to Upsala College (which closed in 1995) "to see what college life was like" and ended up meeting Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Recalling that the former first lady "was not terribly attractive, and she had a strange speaking voice," Farris continued, "she was just so intent to talk just to you " you knew you were the only person in the room she was focusing on."

Farris, eyes sparkling as she recalled the encounter, said the lessons she got from that chat included a sense that Roosevelt "was telling us how important we are," as individuals, a sense that reinforced her desire to go into education.

"Most of us wanted to be teachers," Farris continued. "Your choices [as a woman seeking a career] were secretary, teacher, nurses and stewardess was big if you were short enough. I was too tall [at five feet, seven inches]."

Her first taste of life in the Roaring Fork Valley came in the form of a magazine article in the long-defunct Look magazine, followed by a trip here in 1957 to take a summer job as a waitress at the Hotel Jerome.

At the end of the summer, she recalled talking with Jerome owner Don Elisha.

"I was sobbing, I said I didn't want to leave, so he said, 'My son'll give you a job [as a teacher] down in Carbondale,'" where the younger Elisha was superintendent.

But Farris decided to honor her agreement to teach school in Washington state for two years, after which she came back to the valley and taught English and math in the Carbondale schools for two years, 1959-1961.

In 1961 she married Carbondale-area native Doug Farris, and with him traveled all over the region on logging jobs. The two started raising kids, and ended up living in the upper valley " first at the Smuggler Trailer Court in Aspen, then the Gerbazdale trailer court, and finally at Woody Creek, close to the Lenado logging community and sawmill " for a quarter of a century.

Farris ran successfully for a seat on the Aspen School Board in 1969, which launched her to membership on the state school association board, which in turn got her "involved in all that on the state and federal level."

For the next 19 years she helped shape educational policies and philosophies in the Aspen schools, meeting and working with officials at all levels of government and becoming familiar with the give and take of governing.

In 1988, she and Doug moved to their present home in the Crystal River Valley, which is outside the Aspen School District but still in Pitkin County, for reasons mostly having to do with family finances.

"I was off nine boards overnight," she recalled with a wry grin. To fill her time, she took an office job at Aspen Valley Hospital as a way of maintaining her ties to the upvalley community, as well as at the Redstone Castle while it was owned by Grand Junction businessman Ken Johnson.

But all the while, she was watching the workings of local government and she believed there was something missing.

"I decided the lower valley " Redstone, Carbondale, Basalt, Thomasville " were not well represented" on the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners, she said.

Some of that lack of representation, she conceded, was because although they were residents of Pitkin County, the denizens of those communities did not think of themselves in those terms and had little in common with Aspen.

"We don't get out of town very often," Farris said, with a wry grin. "As Aspen grew, it was putting pressure on this part of the valley, and I thought I understood it better than others, so, with that ego, I decided to run for office."

She lost her first bid, to Wayne Ethridge of Snowmass Village in 1992, but tried again in 1996 and won. She believes she won in part because the county had redrawn the commissioner districts to more closely reflect the diverse drainages and communities within the county.

Prior to that, she explained, the districts were drawn so that each district at some point touched Aspen or the upper valley, which meant every one of the five commissioners could live close to or in Aspen.

Over the ensuing 12 years she has championed mass transit and preservation of the environment, pushed for extension of the trails system that serves Aspen and the more remote areas of Pitkin County, and argued strenuously in favor of a property tax to fund the county's road and bridge department.

Lately, she has strongly argued for improving the working environment of the county's growing staff, even if it means moving some county offices out of Aspen to give staff members more space and better organized offices. This has been a point of disagreement, among others, between her and board Chairman Jack Hatfield, which sometimes erupted into sharp words between the two.

"It's a difference of issues, not a difference of his commitment," she said of her recent clashes with Hatfield. "I do think he is committed, and he has integrity, but when you find you disagree with someone on five or so of the major issues, whether it's public transit, a [new county office] facility, or a budget for roads " I show it by being sharp."

Farris said she feels the county is in good hands with the current makeup of the BOCC, and is well prepared to take on the challenges ahead.

But she still bubbles with ideas that stretch beyond her current positions " such as a need to bring recess back to the public schools, so kids get outside and away from televisions and computers, or to be vigilant against the possibility of a dam on the Crystal River above Redstone (the idea was defeated once, but remains technically on the state's planning maps for water projects,) or to continue using tax dollars to acquire open spaces for future generations.

So, as many have said, it is not likely that Farris will soon take the rest that some would say she deserves.

"I can't imagine Dorothea just sitting around," noted CCI's Kallenberger.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jan 18, 2009 09:18AM Published Jan 16, 2009 05:04PM Copyright 2009 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.