Departing Basalt Mayor Whitsitt reflects on eight years in office
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Mayor-elect Bill Kane and three new council members will be sworn in at 6:50 p.m. at the Basalt Town Council meeting. The new council members are Glenn Drummond, David Knight and Elyse Hottel.
It will be a swearing in like no other. The council is holding its meetings via video conference because of social distancing requirements and prohibitions on gatherings. The public can watch live on Grassroots TV.
Current Mayor Jacque Whitsitt and council members Jennifer Riffle, Auden Schendler and Katie Schwoerer are leaving office. They will have a chance at parting comments at 6:40 p.m.
Jacque Whitsitt will step down as Basalt mayor Tuesday after two terms and eight years of sometimes turbulent times.
Her tenure included a community political battle over how to use the former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park property near downtown, the Lake Christine Fire and now a pandemic. Whitsitt, 66, said she enjoyed serving despite the challenges. After 20 years as an elected official in Basalt and sitting on countless boards and initiatives, she said she looks forward to taking a break from politics.
Aspen Times: How would you sum up the eight years you were mayor?
Jacque Whitsitt: There were lots of challenges, but I feel like given everything, it was almost all positive memories about getting lots of projects done and landing on our feet after fires and floods and I assume with COVID virus, we’ll come out OK on that, too. For the most part I have happy memories of my mayorhood.
AT: Knowing what you know now, looking back, would you run for two terms?
AT: What are two accomplishments that you feel seal your legacy?
JW: Definitely closing the deal on the Pan and Fork. That was tortuous at times. I think that although a lot of people on the extremes, including me probably, would have had it end differently, I think that the result was a good compromise. I would just like to see it get on the ground now. Get the park going, get that fence down.
I would say the other one is a group of three pedestrian safety issues. The No. 1 for me is the underpass at Basalt Avenue and the Willits Trail — people were definitely pushing baby carriages through the snow in the street before that trail was there. That is a Bill Kane monument for sure, he had that happen (when he served as town manager) with lots of pushback. The other one is the other underpass (at Willits). There is eventually going to be something on the other side of the road and it will be a great safety thing.
AT: Your critics accused you of not listening to the broader community, especially on the Pan and Fork issue. It’s an issue that split the community about 50-50. What was your strategy or philosophy in handling it?
JW: I think that a lot of the issues with the Pan and Fork initially were (us) getting conversations but not (land use) applications. Part of the community saw those as applications. We couldn’t process anything. We had some pressure to do something with the conversations, so I think maybe it could have been more clear to the community that discussions from developers are not the same as applications and you have nowhere to go with them. I think maybe that communication could have been more clear, but in the long run there were some people that were just angry that we weren’t approving something. The truth is government has to be methodical. We have to be pragmatic. We have to look at everything. We have to have an application before we can do anything. In the end, despite the fact that it was long and grueling, I think we came out with a better answer because of how long it took and how many ways we looked at it.
AT: Just about everybody had to compromise to bring the Pan and Fork issue to a close. Are you pleased with the development proposal and the plan for the town to acquire 1 acre for expansion for the park?
JW: I am pretty pleased, yes. I think the developer had to have residential although I would have preferred not to have seen as much high-end residential. There is no way for a developer to come in there with limited development and make any money without the residential component, so all in all, I think it’s just about what it had to be minimally to get improved. In the end, I think having that expanded park is going to be a huge jewel for the community.
AT: The town’s not going to recoup anything from the property owners, Roaring Fork Community Development Corp., for the work the town did to prep the site and relocate the residents (of the mobile home park). In retrospect, was that an error made in not making some type of arrangement?
JW: There has to be an agreement between two parties in order to invest money in a property. Honestly, we didn’t have those agreements in place. The town just went ahead and did the improvements without any contracts or agreements from the private property owners. We really didn’t have a leg to stand on to recoup anything.
AT: Transparency became an issue with some people who protested the executive sessions of the Town Council and communications among council members via social media. Do you think the town government has improved in those areas?
JW: Yes, definitely. Honestly, governments were functioning and some still are functioning lackadaisical on some of those issues, but when you get attention called to it because of lawsuits and things like that, you do have to raise the bar and I have to admit as soon as we were challenged with those issues — I also have been sitting on the RFTA board — RFTA raised the bar, as well, so I think it was a good thing for local government in general to have these issues because we were sort of operating in a vacuum on these things. If your staff doesn’t set you right, there’s no way you know.
AT: So just give one example of how you think the bar has been set higher.
JW: We clearly explain what our executive session is about unless we cannot do that. But even if it’s about a personnel issue, we can say the job title of who we are talking about. Many of the executive sessions were totally legal, we probably just didn’t announce them properly and definitely on the issue of communication between elected officials, we probably needed to be more strict on that, but we were not having illegal meetings. We had an occasional communication between more than two people but generally it was not about a decision-making kind of thing. It was just administrative.
AT: You won election in Basalt five times: three for council and two for mayor. You campaigned consistently on a slow-growth platform. Basalt still grew by a significant amount since 1996 when you were first elected to the council. What does your repeated election say about voter preferences on growth issues and what does the rate of development say about efforts to slow growth?
JW: I think the majority of people in the midvalley are concerned about the rate of growth. They’ve seen things happening very fast. They’ve seen traffic issue escalate, taxes going up. Taxes are going to go up if you keep approving development, and so I think in general, the midvalley is still concerned about growth. I’m not sure they know what we should do about it because, generally, elected boards don’t say no. They mitigate it down to what you can stomach and approve it.
AT: Is slow growth a myth?
JW: It’s not a myth in the entire world because there are definitely European nations that approve five units at a time. That’s slow growth. Here in Colorado there seems to be an argument that if you don’t have a huge development, you don’t make any money and honestly, money still talks. That’s what this is about, is money. The people who really, really desire slow growth don’t have any standing.
AT: The debate over the Basalt shooting range, owned and operated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, rears its head every so often. Its use was the source of the Lake Christine Fire. Could the town government have pushed harder to close it in the dry summer of 2018?
JW: I think the town government did everything they could and we pushed harder and harder as time went along. The state government is a much bigger bureaucracy. They’re not used to dealing with the people in a very democratic process. I think the town has done a lot to get a resolution to the gun range and I think they continue to push but the truth is, state government is big and they have their ways they do things. It’s been helpful that there has been citizen pressure as well on this, but I think it’s going to be a full-court press forever to get a resolution.
AT: You served in elected government in Basalt for 20 of the past 24 years. You did run for Eagle County commissioner in 1998 but fell just short. Any desire to run for any elected public office again?
JW: I think I’ve had my fill for now. I’m trying to figure out how to put my feet up for a little while.
AT: What will you miss must about serving?
JW: I really like the challenge of a board of seven getting to an answer in a legitimate way. I’ve always enjoyed interactions with the council and love the staff that we have now. They are the best. I will miss them terribly. They probably can’t keep me out of Town Hall, with sharing cups of coffee and stuff. One of the obvious ones is the celebration of the students in Basalt (once per month during the school year in council chambers). That never, ever gets old for me. I’m hoping it’s meaningful to them to the extent that they remember it and have a positive goal for whatever they got acknowledged for and that it sticks with them as it has stuck with me.
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.