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Aspen Fire board election: Seven people vying for three seats

Three incumbents being challenged by four newcomer candidates

There are seven people vying for three seats on the Aspen Fire Protection District board of directors, with four people challenging three incumbents. Ballots must be returned via mail or dropped off at the downtown station on Hopkins Avenue by May 3.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times archive

There are seven people vying for three seats on the Aspen Fire Protection District board of directors for next month’s election, four of whom are challenging three incumbents.

The board oversees the fire department’s budget, which is largely supported by roughly $6 million annually in property taxes, as well as makes decisions about staffing and balancing a relatively new volunteer-paid firefighter model.

Incumbents Denis Murray, Steve Wertheimer and David “Wabs” Walbert are defending their seats against newcomers Charles Cunniffe, Emily Taylor, Ritchie Zah and Parker Lathrop.



Over 8,200 ballots were mailed last week to registered voters in the district and those who own property in the district and are registered to vote in Colorado, said Nikki Lapin, the department’s designated election official.

Ballots must be returned either via mail or dropped off at the downtown station on Hopkins Avenue by 7 p.m. May 3. There is a drop box in the front door of the station, Lapin said.




Special districts don’t get the same attention as governments when it comes to elections. In the last election in 2020 when three candidates ran for two seats, about 1,500 ballots were returned, according to Lapin.

A lot has changed since that election, with the board taking a more active role in managing the performance of Fire Chief Rick Balentine and addressing issues within the firefighter ranks, which has transitioned from an all-volunteer department to more than a dozen paid career responders working alongside those who are unpaid.

The board voted in August of 2021 to give Balentine an annual contract through this year rather than the multi-year ones he has had since becoming chief in 2014. He also received a 5% pay increase to his $161,832 salary.

The last time there were several candidates running for a board of directors seat was in 2014 when 10 ran for two seats.

Lapin said a call for nominations was placed in the Aspen Times public notices Jan. 27 and although not required, she ran an extra ad for more exposure.

Self-nomination forms for the three-year terms needed to be submitted by Feb. 25. With seven candidates submitting, a lot drawing was held March 4 to determine the order in which names would appear on the ballot.

 

The Aspen Fire Department celebrates the arrival of two new fire trucks with a traditional "Wet Down, Push Back" ceremony on Saturday, April 9, 2022, in downtown Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

The Aspen Times caught up with the candidates and posed three questions to them. Here are their answers in 100 words or less:

THE CHALLENGERS

Emily Taylor

Age: 34

Profession/qualifications for the job: Currently I’m the marketing director for Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES). Before ACES, I was the executive director at the Woody Creek Community Center.

Why are you running for a seat on the Aspen Fire Protection District board of directors?

I’m passionate about the environment and want to be more involved in our community. Working with ACES has made me realize that now is the time to be proactive about protecting our community from the realities of climate change. I think one of the most important things we can do in Aspen is mitigate the threat of wildfires.

I’ve been in the valley since 2012, working in leadership capacities such as the executive director of the WC3 and marketing director at ACES. I participated in Roaring Fork Leadership to strengthen my leadership skill set, as well as “Our Community Listens.” I believe that with my background and skill set I would be a valuable member of the board.

What do you see leadership of the organization looking like next year and throughout the rest of your term, if elected?

As the only female candidate running, I’m excited to bring some gender diversity to the board.

I believe that leadership at the Aspen Fire Department is strong, and I believe they currently have a really great team. I’m excited for the opportunity to be a part of it!

What is the single biggest issue facing the fire district and how as a board member will you address it?

The biggest issue facing our fire district is the threat of wildfires. In Colorado, four of the top five wildfires have occurred in the past five years.

Today, the Aspen Fire District protects $33 billion in property value. We are at a historical moment when fire danger in our community has never been higher. I will bring my experience in environmental communication to the board to help educate our community about these potential threats and support community preparedness. I believe that with a great plan for wildfire prevention, mitigation and emergency preparedness (and communication around it) we can work proactively to protect our community.

Ritchie Zah

Age: 34

Profession/qualifications for the job: A graduate of The Juilliard School (BM 2009 and MM 2011), musician (16 years), Aspen Police Peace Officer (10 years), and Aspen Fire Protection District Volunteer Firefighter (five years).

Why are you running for a seat on the Aspen Fire Protection District board of directors?

It’s been a privilege to serve many in a variety of line level capacities as a musician, peace officer and volunteer firefighter. Sitting on the AFPD board would give me the opportunity to affect change beyond line level interactions.

What do you see leadership of the organization looking like next year and throughout the rest of your term, if elected?

The AFPD leadership is a hard working crew of open-minded professionals whom I believe have the community’s best interests in mind. The transition from a volunteer department to a combination department was essential to staying professionally relevant. Additionally, the AFPD has successfully addressed employee housing and succession planning. If elected, I look forward to continuing these efforts.

What is the single biggest issue facing the fire district and how as a board member will you address it?

The single biggest issue facing the AFPD is fine tuning the combination department approach. We are fortunate to have a community with an incredible volunteer spirit and we owe it to our community to channel that volunteer spirit responsibility. As a board member, I would continue to encourage the organization to seek innovative solutions to harnessing our greatest resources — our people, both volunteer and career — in the pursuit of providing the highest class of service to our community.

Charles L. Cunniffe

Age: 71

Profession/qualifications for the job: Resident of Aspen for 44-plus years. Involved with numerous city and county commissions and nonprofits, including nine years as elected Pitkin County representative on Colorado Mountain College Board of Trustees. Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Why are you running for a seat on the Aspen Fire District board of directors?

I have great admiration and respect for the work of the Aspen Fire Protection District and its firefighters. The experience of designing several fire stations has provided me with important insight to the day-to-day fire district operations and their exceptional personnel.

I believe the best way I can support and serve the Aspen Fire Protection District would be through my professional and volunteer experience, which has given me deep understanding of navigating the necessary listening and communication skills, relationships and decision-making processes required to improve and strengthen the organization.

What do you see leadership of the organization looking like next year and throughout the rest of your term, if elected?

I believe the leadership should focus on good fiscal management, maintaining high quality staff with a healthy mix of career and volunteer firefighters, and listening to the team members to determine what they feel will be essential to their success and safety, and the safety of the community.

What is the single biggest issue facing the fire district and how as a board member will you address it?

Protecting our community from the immense risk of wildfires due to climate change and the increasing dryness of the environment around us.

Making sure the Aspen Fire District has the tools and measures it needs to enhance community wildfire education, prevention and safety. An example of important tools would be the introduction of the rapid detection wildfire cameras and working with insurance companies to get the best fire insurance for our community.

Parker Lathrop

Age: 41

Profession/qualifications: 18 years in the fire service, eight as Aspen Fire’s deputy fire chief and five as Aspen Fire’s fire marshal.

Why are you running for a seat on the Aspen Fire Protection District board of directors?

In my 18 years with Aspen Fire, I was fortunate enough to serve in just about every role, growing through the ranks from firefighter to fire marshal and deputy fire chief.

Life has its surprises and I was presented with an opportunity that I could not pass up. I knew, however, that my service to Aspen Fire and the community it serves was far from over.

If elected, I would use my many years of related experience, extensive knowledge of the district and dedicated commitment to the community to further contribute to the betterment of the district for the residents and visitors it serves.

What do you see leadership of the organization looking like next year and throughout the rest of your term, if elected?

Best value. When best value is mentioned people often jump to a monetary focus but that is only a single part of a much bigger picture.

I think leadership needs to look at what is right, in terms of directives, equipment, staffing, community outreach, future planning and organizational goals.

The leadership needs to see the bigger picture and how each item, concept or goal complements or contrasts with each other, but in a way that can identify what is of best value. My hope is to find a balance among the organization’s attributes in a way that provides for the best value to the residents of the district.

What is the single biggest issue facing the fire district and how as a board member will you address it?

The Aspen area is changing and with that, so are the needs and expectations of the people the district serve.

As a board member you must be willing to look at that change and find what parts of the baseline have moved and what has not and then work to adjust what it is you do and how you do it.

Having worked in the district’s administration, prevention and operation elements I have had a front-row seat to this change and the impacts to district services.

THE INCUMBENTS

Denis Murray

Age: 62

Profession/qualifications for the job: I am a plan examiner for the city of Aspen building department. I have applied the building and fire code for 23 years. I have been on the fire board for eight years.

Why are you running for a seat on the Aspen Fire Protection District board of directors?

I want to give back to the community in which I live. I take this responsibility seriously. I have not missed a meeting in eight years of service.

My understanding of the built environment in regards to fire and life safety help guide my decisions at the board level. I am on the housing committee, which has added a significant amount of additional time commitment.

I have learned a great deal about managing our budget, which has grown tremendously over the years. I do my best to spend taxpayers’ money effectively to provide the best service possible.

What do you see leadership of the organization looking like next year and throughout the rest of your term, if elected?

Our current leadership has a long history of dedication and commitment to the community and to our mission and deserves to be recognized.

The oversight of an all-volunteer department change to a combination one is not simple and our transition seems to be going well.

There has also been conflict with other agencies that required the board to set improvement milestones to make corrections.

These milestones by most accounts have been met. I do feel there may be some lingering issues to address with other agencies and I believe a new perspective could help make these improvements a reality.

What is the single biggest issue facing the fire district and how as a board member will you address it?

Housing volunteers in district. For the volunteer model to work, firefighters need to live in the district. The addition of paid career staff in 2020 has allowed for a more immediate response to events and availability to train volunteers with their required increased shifts.

We need volunteers to respond as well to be able to provide an adequate force to cover an event. We have constructed a housing project at the North Forty property and it is near completion.

I am proposing more housing with some of the same funds to construct additional units at the Aspen Village property. We have a few proposed options to choose from.

David ‘Wabs’ Walbert

Age: 75

Profession/qualifications for the job: 46-year permanent resident, raised son here, owner of Pablos and The Red Onion 31 years, Aspen volunteer firefighter 30 years. I know firefighting.

Why are you running for a seat on the Aspen Fire Protection District board of directors?

Aspen Fire has gone through enormous changes in the last six years. Having been on the board for much of that time, I was involved in many discussions, arguments, compromises and very hard decisions.

It is a better organization now but I feel there is more I’d like to accomplish.

What do you see leadership of the organization looking like next year and throughout the rest of your term, if elected?

Leadership has never been better but due to the changes we’ve experienced, leadership needs time to grow and transition with the changing department.

What is the single biggest issue facing the fire district and how as a board member will you address it?

As most Coloradans have seen in the last five years, wildland and the urban/rural interface fire is by far our biggest problem.

Aspen could be a good definition of that interface. I’m very proud of our leaders’ aggressive and early engagement in this area with total support of the board.

We will keep making it better.

Steve Wertheimer

Age: 70

Profession/qualifications for the job: I have had a career in investment banking and private equity over the past 35 years. During that time, I have served on the board of directors of over two dozen companies both public and private. I am currently the treasurer of the Fire District Board.

Why are you running for a seat on the Aspen Fire Protection District board of directors?

I have served on the Fire District Board for the past two years and would like to continue with the projects that we have initiated.

The district has made tremendous progress in the operational area and has built a sound financial base that I would like to see maintained. Having moved to Aspen in the last five years, I believe I bring a fresh perspective to the board.

What do you see leadership of the organization looking like next year and throughout the rest of your term, if elected?

The leadership team is currently working well. Together as a team it is building firefighter housing, has implemented qualification-based officer requirements and is bringing technology-based tools to address the threat of wildfires along with spearheading a wildfire prevention coalition.

Leadership is a team effort and it will fall to the board to find the right people to fit the positions on the team when necessary.

Based on my previous experience, I believe I will be able to assist the board when it needs to make those choices.

What is the single biggest issue facing the fire district and how as a board member will you address it?

There are two big issues which the board must address in the near term: preparedness and independence. The board needs to assure our constituents that our personnel are the best trained and best equipped to handle any situation that might threaten our community.

We also need to assure our community that the district is operationally and financially independent enough the accomplish our mission. Having put the district on a firm financial foundation, the board has the tools available to make this happen.


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