Ex-sheriff: County needs to listen to its constituents
A.J. Johnson believes he has the pulse of Eagle County, so two years after leaving public office as a popular sheriff he hopes to return to county office again.Johnson, a Republican, is running against incumbent Democrat Arn Menconi for the Eagle County commissioner District 2 seat. Unaffiliated candidate Buz Reynolds is also in the race.Johnson, 58, was elected sheriff five times by voters in Eagle County, the first time in 1982. He was forced out of office in 2002 by term limits. The resident of Edwards now works as the Western sales manager for a telecommunications firm. “I think I was fair to the public,” he said, regarding his 20 years as sheriff. “It’s really about the citizens and what they want.”That forms the core of his campaign platform. Johnson bluntly states that the current commissioners let their egos get in the way of good governance too often. He questions whether they are effective representatives of their constituents.He said their internal bickering and difficulties working with municipal governments and special districts in the county show the need for change on the board.”The commissioners should get along and not do the things they’re doing,” he said. “It’s not about them. It’s about the community. We can get together and do better.”Johnson is a fiscal conservative who said he would take a hard look at all county programs, determine if they “add value” and if not, he would change or eliminate them. He also wants to review the various fees the public is charged and make sure they are affordable. He said he “doesn’t want government in my pocket any more than it is.”As sheriff, he oversaw 100 employees, including the jail staff, and an annual budget in the later years of about $10 million. He said that 20 years of service was good, hands-on experience in fiscal management that he would carry over as a commissioner.Johnson said his commitment to improve county communications means he would support holding regular public meetings in the Basalt and El Jebel area. Items that affect that part of the county should be heard in that part of the county, even if decisions must ultimately be made at the county seat, he said.As sheriff, Johnson said he used his “officers in the street” to keep in touch with constituents of the Roaring Fork Valley. If people in the Roaring Fork Valley had a complaint, he heard about it and, he claimed, made adjustments.As a commissioner, he would follow a similar philosophy. He said the commissioners should be the leaders but the ideas “should flow from the people.”Johnson’s positions on specific issues were more difficult to ascertain. He noted that he has never heard anyone advocate “bad growth” and that everyone always supports “good growth.”His position on growth, he said, is to study the impacts extensively and to plan accordingly. The commissioners must be certain that services like transportation, water, affordable housing and child care exist to match anticipated population increases.Also when dealing with growth, Johnson said it is important to rely on master plans and sub-area master plans because they represent what people envisioned for their neighborhoods.He said landowners have property rights that they should be able to rely on. When proposals meet the zoning and master plan criteria, they are difficult to reject regardless of how neighbors feel, he said.On the other hand, he opposes approving upzonings, or proposals that seek more development than zoning allows, unless there are clear public benefits.In addition to relying on master plans and zoning, Johnson said he would rely heavily on the recommendations of the Roaring Fork Planning and Zoning Commission, an advisory body that reviews land-use applications specifically in the western part of the county.Johnson also advocated creating a strategic plan for the county that would determine what residents want it to look like and what guidelines should be established to achieve those goals.Along with creating that strategic plan, Johnson pledged to form what he called a “community council.” He would recruit 12 to 14 county residents to sit on a committee that would meet periodically with a professional facilitator and set an agenda the county government should follow and review “if the county was going in the right direction.”Residents typically don’t have the time or energy to attend county commissioner meetings. But this special committee, which would have a revolving membership and would require only a small commitment, would be a way to generate community involvement, Johnson said.”I’m not a visionary but I think government needs to move in a different direction.”
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