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Scott Bayens: The trouble with Trulia and its friends

I have trouble with Trulia. I have a beef with Zillow, which bought Trulia back in 2014 for $3.5 billion. Realtor.com also stinks. The same goes for any other of the dozens of similar online services.

Yes, I realize the average consumer absolutely loves these tools and is hooked on their power and convenience. They literally put the MLS in the hands of buyers and sellers, which is not necessarily a bad thing. And I agree, the data these programs provide are amazing and very useful. Nonetheless, my opinion of sites like these and their related apps is lukewarm at best.

Full disclosure, my wife and I use Zillow often when browsing through neighborhoods both here at home and while traveling. It's as fun as it is informative and allows us to see the price, many of the details and interior photos, all while parked at the curb after a few clicks and swipes. The real genius is the immediacy of it all and the ability to take action or move on down the block to the next for sale sign.

In the "old days" one had to call a broker or brokers, set up appointments, ask for photos and so on. It certainly seems like an archine system in light of what's possible now, and in many ways, a welcome improvement.

But like any of the revolutionary, disruptive innovations of our age, there's always a price to be paid. Certainly this technology has become invaluable, is here to stay and will only evolve over time. But I would argue there's a significant downside for those of us on the other side of the sign, and in turn, unwitting consumers, as well.

It might be surprising to know Zillow characterizes itself as a media company. In fact, thanks to its numerous online channel partners, it is one of the largest advertising networks on the web. Bottom line, it generates enormous revenue by selling advertising — not by selling real estate.

Who buys those ads? It's real estate brokers, mortgage professionals and others looking to connect with new buyers and sellers. The subscriptions they purchase result in their names appearing as "experts" or "preferred agents" associated with properties within a specific area or zip code. The higher the price of the average home in those areas, the more Zillow and similar sites charge. Here in our valley that can easily be in excess of $1,000 a month for placement on just one of the many available platforms. The enticement is the potential leads to those that pay to play.

But here's the rub and the inherent problem: The listing agent is shown below those that pay to be "featured" with the bolder and colored type and hype. There are no personal photos or enticing client reviews for the broker of record for the seller, which effectively separates the real expert from those who choose to subscribe for the elevated ranking.

This artificial hierarchy has two significant effects. It algorithmically alienates those with the most knowledge of the subject property from those who might be interested in buying it. Second, it essentially "blackmails" brokers with the real expertise in a given neighborhood to compete financially with an agent that could be in, well, Timbuktu.

In my view, this new system does not serve the public good. Despite their popularity and proliferation, something gets lost with the use of these new technologies. Certainly, the personal touch, knowledge and service aspect of the broker client relationship are a few of the causalities. — not to mention the phenomenon of what I would describe as an overload of "impersonal information."

Info on these platforms also can prove to be inaccurate. Take the "zestimate" for example, Zillow's artificial intelligence's guess of market value, frustrating to sellers and delightful to buyers. It certainly does not accurately reflect what the market will bear.

I was reminded this week after talking with the wife of a fellow veteran broker just how much the business of realty has changed in the past 20 years. Back in the day your broker likely lived in the same neighborhood as you, their kids went to the same school, you likely saw each other on the street walking the dog and might have seen each other at church or the weekly scout meeting. He or she was able to maintain a personal and business relationship as a result of friends, family, marriages, births and birthdays, new neighbors and departures and, yes, even deaths and divorce. The point is brokers like me used to operate in the center of their communities, were trusted advisers and friends and stayed face to face and belly to belly throughout it all.

That's still the goal today and the secret of success for top producers. The genie is out of bottle on this issue and we all need to adapt to and adopt emerging trends and technologies.

But it is the experienced broker with his or her feet on the ground who can put the data in perspective and even sometimes dismiss them. How does the property make them feel? Does it fulfill a life-long dream? How many memories will be born with family and friends here? Real estate is a tangible asset but it can be the intangible that can be the most salient. So the next time you click, take a second to scroll down and find the real pro who actually secured the listing and who might know something your hand-held device might not.

Scott Bayens is a broker with Aspen Snowmass Sotheby's International Real Estate in Aspen-Snowmass with more than a decade of experience with buyers and sellers. He's been a renter, a homeowner, a landlord and investor through every kind of market. Scott can be reached at scott.bayens@sir.com

Sturm: Reflections of an Anti-Trump GOP Delegate

It's been a rough past few months, and I'm not just referring to the alarming presidential contest between the two most egomaniacal, morally compromised and disliked candidates in electoral history.

Perhaps it's divine intervention that I've been intermittently away from my column to care for, mourn and deal with the affairs of my mom, who passed away before I attended the Republican National Convention as a Colorado delegate.

A staunch critic of GOP elites, I ran to be a delegate (at my mom's urging) because I wanted to help select a presidential nominee who'd unite the "Party of Lincoln" around its bedrock principle: the democratic self-government of a free people.

My pre-convention column argued for allowing delegates to vote their conscience — for Donald Trump or whomever — yielding the strongest nominee to oppose Hillary Clinton, whose Espionage Act violations and cover-up make her the most brazenly dishonest presidential candidate since Richard Nixon. Her election would advance the banana-republic notion that the powerful are above the law.

The column elicited severe rebukes, the most scolding from Trump supporters. While Clinton backers played the "liar" card, Trumpsters told me to Think Again, grow up and get over my "high-falutin ideals." I was called an airhead, globalist and RINO, and my columns were bashed for being "so formulaic they're almost unreadable."

In Cleveland, I was among the troublemakers who protested the RNC's Mao-like suppression of dissent regarding the party rules, which had produced the weakest presidential nominee in modern GOP history. I left dispirited, feeling like a Republican in name only. Now with Election Day nearing, my swing state's mail-in ballot awaits my vote for president, the most gut-wrenching of my life.

As expected, the election has been an ugly slugfest punctuated by predictable surprises — leaks about Trump's taxes and the 11-year-old video of his grotesque, predatory boasting, and WikiLeaks disclosures revealing Clinton Inc. corruption. The biggest shocker is that each party nominated the one candidate the other could beat.

Meanwhile, a real electoral bombshell hit: Obamacare premiums are skyrocketing nationwide as consumers, providers and more insurers desert the law that's hurting those who can least afford it. It's a debacle foreseen by critics, though not their media "fact checkers."

In steamrolling his signature policy reform, President Barack Obama relied on "the stupidity of the American voter," as Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber notoriously boasted, getting away with false claims including: premiums would decline, illegal immigrants wouldn't get subsidies, not one dime will be added to the deficit and "if you like your plan, you can keep it."

In an illuminating New York Times interview, White House aid Ben Rhodes (whose brother is president of CBS News) boasted similarly, describing the manipulative tactics used to sell Obama/Clinton foreign policies, including the unpopular Iran nuclear deal, which guarantees the mullahs will eventually get their nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Describing the White House spin machine, Rhodes bragged, "We created an echo chamber" of "prominent Washington reporters and columnists" to "carry our message effectively … saying things that validated what we had given them to say." Hence, "warmonger" was the smear assigned to Iran deal critics.

Here's the undemocratic playbook used to short-circuit the honest debate on which national consensus depends: make false claims, spin the media, co-opt the bureaucracy to evade laws/break rules, stonewall investigations, smear adversaries, and label self-inflicted controversies "phony scandals" until the truth becomes any story that sticks.

Consequently, no one's ever held accountable for the resulting wreckage: unaffordable health insurance, dying vets, terrorist attacks, sanctuary city tragedies, IRS harassment and murdered U.S. diplomats and border guards. Not surprisingly, only 19 percent of Americans say they trust the government most of the time, down from 73 percent in 1958, according to the Pew Research Center.

That's because Washington is so politicized, even institutions charged with equal enforcement of laws have been sullied. Dueling media accounts of the FBI probes into Clinton's national security-imperiling violations and the Clinton Foundation's pay-for-play practices reflect the smoldering rift between disgruntled FBI agents and their higher-ups at the Bureau and Justice Department.

Filmmaker Michael Moore described Trump as a Molotov cocktail thrown at the self-dealing ruling-class system. Clinton, who preaches redistribution of wealth while living like a monarch off her public office, personifies the politically corrupt status quo. Worse then her sense of entitlement and lying is her quarter-century of behaving as if laws are for the little people, not the echo chamber's aristocracy.

Unfortunately, inside the echo chamber the aristocrats can't hear the Molotov cocktail-hurling legions outside. Though I shudder at the thought of President Trump, and worry about his authoritarian inclinations, I'm rooting for the little people to burn down the chamber.

Think Again — at the risk of sounding formulaic, might the introduction of an aggressive pathogen like Trump provoke a healthy antibody reaction, helping restore the checks and balances necessary for the democratic self-government of a free people?

Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at melanie@thinkagainusa.com.

Gallagher: Basalt’s library a nonprofit in its own right

Editor's note: The following column will appear in Sunday's print edition of The Aspen Times.

"Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present." — Albert Camus

So here we are. We have almost made it through another crazy, confusing and cantankerous general election period. In just a few days, it will all be over except for the good, the bad and the ugly from the outcome of the polls. If you have not cast your ballot yet, make sure you do. And if you do not cast your ballot, shame on you.

I struggled with regards to my topic for this column as I vowed to keep my political positions and views to myself as best I can this political season. This is also a column regarding philanthropy and giving back, and I am not sure there is a relative connection to be made or a bridge to be developed between politics and philanthropy. Or maybe there is.

Here is my question: Can a small-town library that is funded as a special district and receives the majority of its funding from mill levy revenues be viewed as a philanthropic organization similar to a nonprofit? I have come to the conclusion that it surely can be. I believe that necessary nonprofits are centered around providing solutions to real-world issues and concerns and focused on the betterment of the overall community.

While the formation and funding may differ from the traditional nonprofit, the Basalt Regional Library provides many similar programs to a typical philanthropic organization. Continuing education and other relevant programming are alive and well at the Basalt Library. The setting is inspirational, the atmosphere positive and engaging. Enrichment, for all ages, is a daily happening. It truly symbolizes that of a caring and involved community and shines bright as a priceless community asset and amenity.

The Basalt Library is currently challenged to make ends meet. It has been 10 years since the Basalt Regional Library District has asked the voters in its district for an increase in funding. Every effort has been made to effectively manage costs and expenses without compromising services. Day-to-day operations and building maintenance have been managed in a fiscally responsible manner, but the decrease in the mill levy based on property values that have dropped nearly 46 percent in the last seven years, have left a dark hole in its funding needs. If the ballot measure does not pass, the result will be a decrease in staff, operational hours, programming and the capital reserve, which provides building and grounds maintenance and repairs.

That's the bad news. The good news is that community demand for library services has continued to grow. Since 2010, the number of library cardholders has more than doubled, from 9,887 to 22,933. The library has become a community institution, continuing to serve our diverse population, from toddlers to seniors, diverse ethnic and socioeconomic groups with a wide range of interests and needs. For more information on the facts as they relate to Ballot Measure 4A, please go to the Basalt Library website at: basaltlibrary.org.

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to cast their vote. But try this thought process: Consider a positive vote for the Basalt Library a part of your personal philanthropic platform that will continually give back to our extended community, for generations to come. Now that's what I would call a magical ending to a great book.

R.J. Gallagher Jr. is a three-decade resident of the Roaring Fork Valley community. He has served and continues to serve on numerous nonprofit boards including the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, Aspen Community Foundation and Komen Aspen. His firm, Forte International, is a supporter of local philanthropy that makes a difference on a global level. You can reach out to him at rjg@forteinternational.net.

Writer: Thinks locals first for housing

Editor's note: The following commentary will appear in the print edition of the upcoming Saturday edition of The Aspen Times.

I am Scott Writer and I am running for Pitkin County commissioner because of my love for this community and my deep concern for our future.

I am not worried about the old-timers who have their piece of the rock. I am worried about the future old-timers, today's youth, and how they will make this their home. Current polices leave no room or opportunity for them. I care about their future, which is the community's future. Self-sustaining communities plan for, and care about, those generations coming behind them and how they might fit in and make it. Who are our next community leaders? Our current policy effectively tells successful young adults here to move downvalley, be a part of those communities — and I don't like it. There isn't room for everyone, but there should be room for some.

I also count myself as a slow-grow to no-grow advocate. I think my policy ideas make me slower grow than current policies. Because of the history I have in the real estate business, I am being falsely painted as a pro-grow guy. It is not true. In fact, it is my experience in real estate that is in part what inspires me to be slow- to no-grow. When I say slow- to no-grow, I mean this: There are free-market units that have not been built yet, our "legal capacity" still suggests that there are 1,000 to 1,200 units still to be built in the county, so the county is only about 55 percent "built out." Aspen is about 90 percent "built out." So no matter what kind of "grow" you say you are, there will be growth. To pretend otherwise is to really lie to the electorate.

I asked my opponent what he was going to do about those "to-be-built" units and he said he "didn't know." So on the one hand, we all want to be no growth, yet on the other there are property-rights owners out there who do not deserve to have their rights taken from them. So "no grow" or not there will be growth. Acknowledging that doesn't make me a supporter of it; it makes me a practical guy trying to tackle real issues, and unlike my opponent, I have deep experience in this arena and have been living it for over 30 years policy-wise.

True, practical slow-growth advocates like me have plans to reduce/eliminate those remaining undeveloped free-market opportunities. It is a multi-prong approach that follows two general paths: 1) buy development property and sterilize it (eg with Open Space funds) and 2) convent as much of the growth we can't escape from "bad growth" to "good growth." As commissioner, I want to pursue development plans that are good for the county — its people, environment and economy.

Good vs. bad development. This is probably over stated, someone building a free-market home isn't really "bad," and I respect the dream of owning a home here — It was always my dream. But I don't see how more free-market homes help the community. I think we need more affordable-housing opportunities in the county. People hear this and think I mean "more" total units — no. I mean, we as a county should change our land-use code to fairly incentivize those remaining undeveloped units to be affordable when they are developed. This doesn't necessarily mean more.

Look, reducing the number of available units increases prices. That is inescapable. Our values will always be high and we can't change that, but we can create a real estate market that identifies locals as the primary market. Right now codes promote free-market homes, not on purpose, but that is what we are getting. The codes should reflect our values and reach for our goals. My goal is more locals living in Pitkin County (not downvalley where my opponent wants them), so change the codes to promote affordable housing in the county replacing undeveloped (or convert existing) free-market units. I think this is good for us as a community and good for our economy. My goal is for locals to be able to participate in the local real estate market. I say to have any chance of retaining a true, multi-generational and self-sustaining community we must have affordable housing in the county, too. Every kind of unit we can think of to replace free market units. It is not about more; it is about better.

Locals first. Peace. Vote Scott Writer for Pitkin County commissioner.

Guest commentary: Basalt’s tax and deficit denial

"I recently participated in a three-hour budget meeting where we tried to cut costs by over a million dollars to keep the town out of deficit spending. I can tell you that Basalt isn't running fat. We had the unpleasant task of mulling whether we could afford a needed extra police officer, a replacement for an aging snowplow, or a planner to help our overwhelmed planning department of two."

As if that weren't enough, town staff "had already made painful cuts to their budgets."

With those observations in a recent blog post, Basalt Councilman Auden Schendler brought to light the discomforting fact that Basalt is plunging over a fiscal cliff.

Yet many of Basalt's residents and elected officials don't seem to accept that the town has a budget crisis.

Consequences are beginning to emerge. For example, two years ago, the town pledged $500,000 toward affordable housing. Yet now that the bill has come due, the Town Council, as this newspaper reported, has no idea how to come up with even that modest amount of funding for a critical need.

Inattention to meeting basic needs is starkly evident in the nature of the ballot measures Basalt is considering Nov. 8. Money for child care? Not on the ballot. Senior services? Nope. More than a million dollars to "keep the town out of deficit spending," as Schendler cited? Uh, no. Additional staff for the Police Department, a replacement snow plow, or help for the town's "overwhelmed planning department?" No, no and no.

Instead, ballot measures 2F and 2G ask voters for $8.85 million in tax increases to further expand the existing river park the town already owns. In light of the town's budget cliff and unmet basic needs, this is a clear case of misplaced priorities. Or perhaps it is simply denial.

Regrettably, the town also is seeking $800,000 in Eagle and Pitkin County Parks, Open Space and Trails funds to help add more park to the existing river park. But accepting county Parks, Open Space and Trails funds requires a devil's bargain: In exchange for the $800,000, the town would be asked to cede control of all but a single acre of the Pan and Fork parcel, in the heart of downtown Basalt, to Parks, Open Space and Trails, which has stated that it would hold a conservation easement on the land.

This willingness to surrender control of a prized downtown parcel for a pittance demonstrates the depths of the town's financial desperation. It also helps explain why the town didn't bother to develop a plan for the park before asking voters for $9 million more on top of the $6.5 million already approved in 2013. Why devise a plan or conduct research regarding the dubious claim that downtown open space will revitalize businesses, when the town's intention all along was to hand control of taxpayers' $15 million investment to Pitkin County Parks, Open Space and Trails?

But back to denial: Proponents of 2F and 2G have devised a series of implausible scenarios that magically reduce the cost of the bond measures to insignificance. Even the town, under the heading "Cost to Voters" regarding 2F and 2G, assured: "The town believes it will have enough surplus property tax and Parks, Open Space and Trails revenues saved by the end of 2020 to allow it to pay off all the remaining 2013 bond principal at that time — avoiding the last three years of interest expense on those bonds."

Those rosy pictures don't add up. The Nov. 8 ballot asks voters for $8.85 million in tax increases to expand the existing park. Total park tax increases (2F, 2G and the 2013 bond) equate to nearly $10,000 per Basalt household. If the town really thought it would need less, it would ask for less. Besides, to "believe" that it can pay its debt down early is patently ludicrous, given that the town can't even honor existing obligations or meet basic needs.

Rather than an imaginary "surplus," Basalt can expect even more tax increases. Park management, marketing and maintenance costs will further burden the budget. And most urgently, basic needs remain unfunded. As Schendler counseled in his blog post, "Perhaps the best bond tax we could pass would be several million dollars to ensure we meet these basic needs — road repair, park maintenance, public safety, affordable housing, child care facilities, and perhaps some money for streetscape improvements or, say, a new skate park, and improvement to other parks (Arbany) and open space parcels."

Basalt must soon confront painful realities, indeed.

A golden opportunity for Basalt

I would like to clarify some misinformation regarding ballot question 2F in the Basalt election regarding the purchase of the Pan and Fork property by the town for a mix of park and other uses. The purchase of these 1.3 acres is specifically for a park, not for development.

To that end, the Pitkin County and Eagle County commissioners have committed $400,000 toward this effort in the hope the residents of Basalt will take advantage of this partnership to vote "yes" on ballot question 2F. Along with both counties' open space and trails boards, all understand the tremendous opportunity to help acquire and preserve this unique property for a Town River Park.

I have heard from a few residents as well as those opposing the purchase of the property that Pitkin County would control the use of this property. This is simply not true!

Each $400,000 contribution comes without any stipulations other than that a conservation easement be placed on the property that would become a river park. These contributions are meant to make the purchase more affordable for the community; in return, a conservation easement will ensure that the park portion of the 2.3 acre Pan and Fork property remains a park in perpetuity. In fact, the town of Basalt will draft the conservation easement. Pitkin County will act only as the holder of the conservation easement. The acceptance of the conservation terms in order to donate the public open space funds does not make either the county a player or even a participant in the planning process or in determining what the town approves — that is a permitted park use. In addition, the conservation easement has no applicability at all to the adjacent commercially zoned parcel. The Basalt community will have full control over this piece of land in terms of its amenities and uses.

The reason a conservation easement is held by a second party is to provide an additional layer of protection to ensure the conservation easement is not undone by future elected boards.

I, along with my fellow board members and our Open Space and Trails board, encourage Basalt residents to use our contribution along with Eagle County's to take advantage of this opportunity and vote "yes" on question 2F. This is an opportunity for the town of Basalt and your visitors to enjoy a unique park landscape that will enhance the environment and economy of the community. As with our other joint partnerships with the town of Basalt, including the Grange Conservation Easement, Emma Open Space, Glassier Open Space, the Basalt Community Garden and BMX course, we all realize the long-term values of these purchases. We support this purchase because open public spaces and river access are vital to all of us living in the Roaring Fork Valley. Current politics aside, I ask that you take the long view of what this purchase will mean now and for future generations.

Vote "yes" on question 2F.

George Newman

Pitkin County commissioner

A very bad election in a really good village

It would be really hard to actually rig an election in this country. We have too many opportunities to speak our minds for anything like that to happen. If someone is going to the polls and stuffing the box with ballots using phony drivers' licenses with dead peoples names on them, someone is going to figure it out and write a letter to the editor, unless you live in a country that has a region like Siberia handy and all available winter clothing is made of cheap wool without Gortex lining in government factories instead of by The North Face and if the people raising votes from the dead have the power to ship you to such an inhospitable region if you dare to speak up. That's a lot of "ifs."

Ironically, it is the same power of free speech that prevents our elections from being able to be easily engineered that allows our elections to be steered. At first glance, an election that is influenced sounds as bad as an election that is rigged, but while the outcomes of each could be potentially disastrous, they are not nearly the same thing.

A rigged election comes at the hands of tyrants, while the influenced election is freely decided by fools who allow themselves to be lied to and who are too lazy to do a minimal amount of studying on the issues and the statements made by the candidates that would most likely reveal the obvious truth.

Steering an election can be done by lying, and lying is protected, in most cases, under the tenets of free speech and, so, politicians lie and we know it, and if they can sneak a few fictions as facts past us and earn our vote in the process, who are you going to blame?

All said, there are possible exceptions. Could a national election in the United States be rigged? That's doubtful. Could a local election in a town of a couple thousand voters be set up to produce an outcome that goes against the will of the people legally entitled to vote there in the grand spirit of free elections and respect for the process? I think so.

I look back on the Base Village approval election through which voters, by a razor-thin margin, awarded Aspen Skiing Co. a free pass to all building codes and zoning laws on their supposed way to constructing the largest mass of timeshares this town will never see in exchange for what I'll never know. We basically approved development anarchy for them.

There were the allegations that Skico shuffled the leases in the employee housing they owned in the village to temporarily remove the tenants who were not eligible to register to vote and filled them with allies who would qualify. It was trading housing for votes. If true, was there anything wrong with this? Of course there was! This is not to say it was illegal.

Then there was the re-registering of second-home owners. Although I never saw them, I know trustworthy people who said they were "asked" by the homeowners associations who employed them to circulate memos outlining the step-by-step process of re-registering to vote from the places people lived to this place where they spent winter break and the Forth of July in. They justified this by saying they were property owners, which was the equivalent of resident status in their minds, and completely ignored the fact that, by this reasoning, Russian mafia members owning two weeks at The Snowmass Club could justifiably vote here, too.

I'm not alleging widespread corruption here. I am only alleging enough corruption to subvert the will of the Village People that resulted in the decade dormant monstrous construction catastrophe formerly touted as the Renaissance of Snowmass and now known as Baseless Village, The Whim of Jim, or The Crowning Blow.

It will never be known if an eency weency bit of playing fast and loose with the election rules and only a little disrespect for the voting process resulted in the mess created with the best intentions that is the only center of town our children ever knew growing up here. All we know for sure is that Skico hasn't hosted a single free beer party for the town since that fateful election so many years ago and the community pumpkin carving parties and Easter egg hunts are things of the past. The first person to spot Jim Crown in town ought to win a million dollars.

Roger Marolt wonders if Aspen Skiing Co. would ship him to Siberia in a Helly Hanson snowsuit. Email at roger@maroltllp.com

Colson: Is James Comey a Trump mole?

Tired as I am of politics, I was thinking about writing about something closer to home this week, perhaps the news that Aspen and the upper-valley governments are once again looking seriously at the idea of bringing passenger-rail service back to the valley, or musing happily on the return of Chekhov's play "Uncle Vanya" to the Aspen stage thanks to local impresario Kent Reed.

But, no, I just couldn't do it, not while Donald Trump continues to threaten the very fabric of our political system.

There's only a week to go before we learn whether we've given over rule of our country to a paranoid, ruthlessly untruthful demagogue, bigot, woman-hating, spoiled rich kid whose real goal seems to be to set himself up as head of a new Fox-type cable television empire.

That would be Trump, for those of you who have been hiding under a rock for the past year and a half.

But for now, regardless of what his deeper plans are, The Donald is still running for the U.S. presidency.

And last week James Comey, the man selected by President Barack Obama as head of the FBI, seemed to hand Trump a new bludgeon with which to hammer Hillary Clinton and the thinking members of the U.S. electorate — a letter that sets out, in the vaguest possible terms, the possibility that the FBI's probe into Clinton's private email server has not ended but has found new indications of improper activity.

Now, I've been reading as much as possible about Comey's letter, and was amazed to learn that a former Bush administration official, an attorney who worked in the governmental ethics office (wait a minute, isn't that a dichotomy in terms — Bush and ethics?) has lodged a complaint against Comey based on a belief that the FBI violated the Hatch Act by releasing the Comey letter.

The Hatch Act, to explain, prohibits federal officials from using their positions to influence an ongoing election.

Which is precisely what Comey has done, whether he meant to or not. Though it's hard to imagine that he had no idea that the release of this letter would ignite Trump into a renewed frenzy of attacks regarding an issue that we all thought was decided months ago — Clinton's email troubles, that is.

No, for whatever reasons it was done, I cannot view Comey's move as anything but a calculated one.

As soon as I heard about it (I was on vacation, by the way, in a relatively remote part of a Caribbean island, and thus was somewhat out of the mainstream of daily news), the first thought I had was that Comey is a Trump mole in the FBI, who somehow escaped the net of investigators who vet presidential nominees for high posts.

My next thought, though, was that if Trump managed to insert Comey into the Obama administration, I need to re-evaluate my views about his political abilities.

I mean, Comey is a Republican and a former corporate hack (as well as having held several legal-adviser type jobs at the state and federal level), so it's probably not in his DNA to be friendly to Democrats.

When Obama nominated him for the FBI job back in 2013, I figured it was nothing more than expedient — a way to win approval from a Republican-controlled Congress for a critical job in a year when any Democrat nominated for the post might have been doomed to the same fate visited upon Obama's recent Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. The U.S. Senate has refused to even hold hearings on Garland's nomination, a seeming violation of that body's constitutional mandate.

Anyway, Comey had some credibility with Democrats after Comey prevented Bush-era Attorney General John Ashcroft from being bamboozled into reauthorizing the infamous NSA data-gathering program (Ashcroft was hospitalized and disoriented at the time, and Bush administration operatives tried to sneak the reauthorization past him).

But this back-stabbing attack on Clinton is something new.

It is not, for one thing, a clear-cut case of "we found these damaging emails and we're telling Congress about them."

No, Comey (as of this moment on Monday) apparently had not even seen the emails in question when he wrote the letter.

So why did he write it, in contravention to advice from his own staff, who felt it was premature, at best?

Well, he might simply be afraid of Trump, whose treatment of the FBI earlier this year was explosively derisive after Comey declined to prosecute Clinton for the email mess.

And it may be that he is trying to hedge his bets (that's a pun, by the way — Comey was a hedge-fund manager prior to being hired for the FBI job) yet again, possibly based on a belief that Clinton was headed toward victory next Tuesday, at least as things looked a few days ago.

If that were to happen, Comey might be thinking, he'd be shoved out of the Justice Department and be looking for a job in a much-depressed Republican world. So maybe he's just feathering a possible future nest with this act.

But the fact is, as even some Republicans will admit, this latest move of Comey's smacks too loudly of politics, and that is against the law.

Of course, Trump already has shown he has little regard for the rule of law, so it could be that Comey is actually hoping his little game could give The Donald the election and keep Comey in his comfortable Justice Department office.

Any way you look at it, this stinks, and I hope Comey gets the comeuppance he deserves.

I also can only hope that, come next Tuesday, we learn that Comey's ploy was in vain.


Andersen: Yes: Open Space, Basalt Park

When authorities shut down Central Park this summer because of the crush of unprecedented crowds seeking sanctuary from city stress, it said volumes about the importance of planning enough open space and parks.

The Roaring Fork Valley is not New York City. But unprecedented growth pressures in Colorado make open space and parks critically important to our communities far into the future.

Already blessed with expansive public lands, we are equally blessed with visionary conservationists who have understood the value of the land. Not only do we locals benefit, so do vacationing city folk seeking an antidote to high density, fast-paced, stressed out lifestyles.

Voting "yes" on reauthorized funding for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, and "yes" on purchasing the Basalt river park are "yes" votes for accessible public lands that guarantee places of respite and recreation for generations to come.

Accessible public land is unique to democratic cultures and needs protection as privatization of the commons threatens public access and development pressures expand urban boundaries. Demand for parks and open space will only increase as Colorado is expected to double in population by 2050.

Anyone who has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley long enough to witness the boom of the midvalley recognizes that open space, trails and parks should be aggressively established as relief valves for urban growth.

Imagine explaining to your grandchild that we once had the opportunity to preserve beautiful open lands and parks, but that we paved paradise for another parking lot.

This is our watch. It is our time to set aside open lands and establish parks while we still have the options. It is our turn to protect the future from values based solely on monetary expediency.

The land underscores all else — water, environment, economy, recreation. We live on it. We walk on it. We eat from it. We come from the land. We return to the land. We protect the land because the land is all. We are dependent on the land and the land is dependent on us.

Human endeavors give the land significance by revealing humanity's critical role as co-dependents with all of life. The land provides us sustenance. In return, we act as responsible stewards. A caring relationship with the land is an ethical necessity.

Open space and parks should define our legacy. They should become the inheritance we leave our successors, whether they be our children or visitors who praise our foresight in voluntarily giving tax dollars to consecrate land for public uses.

In the 25 years since Pitkin County Open Space and Trails was established by voters — and reauthorized in 2006, by 72 percent voter approval — it has preserved through inclusive partnerships over 18,000 acres of scenic open space, wildlife habitat and agricultural landscapes — and built many miles of user-friendly trails.

Synonymous with this achievement are "founding fathers" Tim McFlynn and Connie Harvey, whose values and commitment are written in landscapes enjoyed by thousands today. Supporters have included many of Aspen's most prominent conservation visionaries, people who looked to the future, not to their bank accounts.

"What we do is more than a job," said former open space and trails Director Dale Will. "It's a cause. And that's unusual in government."

In Basalt, the river park has become a flash point for division and acrimony. How sad that a potential amenity should evoke disharmony in a town that needs unity if it ever hopes to become a solid community.

Creating the biggest park possible at the former Pan and Fork offers Basalt a central feature with the prominence it deserves, a place of gathering for music, art, picnics, events, a place for all generations where old animosities might just dissipate.

Trading thematic developments for a beautiful park is an act of humility, generosity and foresight. It says that Basalt is willing to invest, not just in private commercial density, but in natural beauty for the most people.

Parks are cornerstones of communities, cherished places where children play and families meet. The river park should be as large as possible to accommodate residential growth at Southside, Willits and suburban satellites we haven't seen yet.

Vote "yes" for the land.

Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at andersen@rof.net.

Beaton: My spiritual journey with Donald Trump

"Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves." — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Donald Trump is not my spiritual adviser, but I find myself on an enlightening journey with the man.

From the beginning, Trump hasn't exactly acted like a statesman. In fact, he makes Ferris Bueller look like John Foster Dulles. But then, he beat my guy fair and square. So unlike the Republican establishment, I got behind him.

My doubts grew as I learned more. The disclosure of his shabby words about women was the last of a whole bale of ugly straws, and it finally broke me.

Initially, it felt good to break with Trump. He's just not a gentleman, I sniffed. I'm better than him, I boasted to myself.

Moral sanctimony is a buzz, and it's addictive. I was not just high on my horse; I was just plain high.

But I thought more about it. I talked with friends I've made in other journeys, with professional women and with religious people. I even prayed a little, which for me is praying a lot.

I realized that my feel-good trip was exactly the repulsive feel-good that I'd seen earlier in the Republican establishment. It was a pose. It was self-bestowed. It was a cheap grace.

Yes, Trump is crude. I never want to be with him in a locker room or anywhere else. He's deeply flawed.

But so am I. As a deeply flawed man myself, I don't have the moral authority to judge Trump as a man. I can only judge him as a potential president, and in that I can only judge him in comparison with the other candidate.

That would be Hillary Clinton. Remember her? Assisted by countless establishment lackeys pleading the Fifth (the most recent being a State Department employee who did so 90 times last week alone) she's the person who did for emails what her husband did for cigars — made them disappear.

WikiLeaks found a few thousand of those emails (but still no cigar). In one, her staff suggested using "brown and women pundits" to lobby newspapers for more favorable coverage.

Another is about her cozy encounter with Wall Street bankers who paid her $220,000 for the ostensible purpose of hearing her talk for an hour. That alone is not news. It's well known that she and her husband monetized the public trust to the tune of $100 million with "pay-for-play" schemes thinly disguised as speeches.

(In the old days, before political correctness taught us to use words that disguise rather than describe, we called such arrangements bribery.)

But in this speech, she went further. She reassured the bankers that she has two different policy positions — a "public position" and a "private position." Smart bankers can connect the dots. They saw that Hillary's public bashing of them was a sham so long as they keep the protection money flowing.

When Hillary's duplicity came up in a debate, she compared herself to Abraham Lincoln. It reminded me of the 1988 vice president debate when a young Dan Quayle compared himself to a young John F. Kennedy. His opponent, a senior white-haired senator named Lloyd Bentsen, retorted, "You're no Jack Kennedy."

Well, Hillary, you're no Abe Lincoln. Lincoln didn't enrich himself with phony speeches to favor-seeking bankers; he enriched America with a speech about a nation "for the people." Lincoln united Americans; Hillary deliberately divides them. Lincoln gave his life to saving the country; Hillary devotes her life to looting it.

Hillary and her homebrew email server containing classified information is now the subject of a reopened FBI investigation. Hillary is making history but not in the way she advertised. She'll be the first candidate for president under an active FBI investigation at the time of the election.

After the debate, Hillary announced in an interview that she's "the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse." But maybe not for Trump's "basket of deplorables" that she's judged to be "irredeemable." For them, Hillary has evidently decided, it'll be fire and brimstone. And IRS audits.

I'm not sure about the apocalypse, but "irredeemable" is not part of my religion. (Other leaked emails suggest that she views some denominations as better than others; maybe mine is one of the bad ones.) In my religion, humans are deeply flawed but every soul is redeemable. The only authority in this universe to judge otherwise is God.

Hillary, you're no God.

I believe Hillary's soul is redeemable even if she judges that mine is not. But until the day of her redemption, she's shown that she wants to lie to us, judge us, loot us, divide us and rule us.

By voting against the rudeness called Trump, we could bestow a cheap little grace on ourselves. But the price paid by the nation — a president who thinks she's a queen — is too high.

I won't ask the country to pay that exorbitant price for my cheap grace.

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