Greater voice at stake in Eagle vote?
October 7, 2005
Some midvalley political activists claim this election holds the key to gaining a greater voice in Eagle County government.Eagle County is asking its voters if they want to explore the idea of changing to a home-rule style of government. Currently the style of government and rules by which it operates are dictated by the state. Home rule does just what it says – it gives the home county more leeway in the operations of the county government.It’s a topic that threatens to glaze the eyes of many observers, but proponents are scrambling to show voters why they should care. For supporters Bob Schultz and Harvie Branscomb of Missouri Heights, Jacque Whitsitt of Basalt and Michael Bair of the Fryingpan Valley, it boils down to greater representation.”Do the math,” Schultz said. If the county is divided into five districts of similar population, the Roaring Fork Valley portion of the county is guaranteed a seat at the commissioners’ table, Schultz said. That part of the county has about 20 percent of the county’s overall population, he said.”That makes it so there’s a county commissioner living in the Roaring Fork Valley,” he said. “There’s a chance you’ll see them at the grocery store, the restaurants, the football games.”Whitsitt said having a seat at the commissioners’ table would ensure local issues and views received more exposure in county government.Rarely a seat at the tableCurrently, Whitsitt said, the commissioners might be willing to help the Roaring Fork Valley part of the county, they just don’t know what issues exist.”In my opinion, the commissioners aren’t leaving us intentionally out of the decisions,” she said.”They’re not blowing us off just because they’re out to get us,” Schultz said. Nevertheless, he feels this part of the county is neglected.Bair said representation for the Roaring Fork Valley doesn’t exist and hasn’t for some time. His grandfather, Dale Grant, was one of the last commissioners, if not the last, elected from this area, Bair said. Grant served as a commissioner in the 1970s. As the county evolved and places like Vail and Avon grew, it became tougher for a candidate from the Roaring Fork Valley to win election.Less direct representation has hurt this part of the county when it comes to Eagle County decisions, Bair said.Stone doesn’t buy itTom Stone, the Eagle County commissioner elected from the district that includes Basalt and El Jebel as well as Gypsum and some of the Eagle area, dismisses claims that the Roaring Fork Valley is the forgotten stepchild of the county.”It’s a tired old saying that I don’t listen to any more,” Stone said. “For every dollar we bring in from over there, we spend $2, plain and simple.”He said Eagle County spent close to $1 million to start construction of playing fields at the Crown Mountain Park and build a new office and community center in El Jebel. He said he personally considers a new road and bridge department facility in the Roaring Fork Valley one of the top needs in the entire county.As far as representation, Stone noted that the Roaring Fork Valley is the only sub-area within the county that has its own planning commission.Stone said he doesn’t believe the Roaring Fork Valley will gain representation by slicing Eagle County into five districts. Its elected official will represent one fifth of the board rather than one third. “It will be one against four,” he said.Plenty of room for improvementThe midvalley activists counter that there is plenty of room for improvement. Branscomb said he will propose in the charter that the commissioners be allowed to cast votes at the new office at El Jebel. Statutory law allows them to hold meetings and collect comment there but not vote.Branscomb also wants the charter to make it possible for neighborhood caucuses to play a more formal role in county government.Like Whitsitt and Schultz, Branscomb contended differences exist between the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys in development. Larger buildings and higher densities are more accepted in the Eagle Valley. He said having a commissioner elected from the Roaring Fork Valley would provide greater exposure for the views held there.Whitsitt said the Roaring Fork Valley would benefit in the areas of land use and expenditures of money if it had a direct representative. They are unaware of community needs in the Roaring Fork Valley, she said, so much-needed projects like sidewalks in El Jebel aren’t funded.”We are a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind,” Whitsitt said.Schultz said he has no idea what issues are top concerns for residents of Gypsum, so he cannot understand how a commissioner from the Eagle area can understand issues facing Basalt and El Jebel residents.Stone lives one hour and 15 minutes away, Schultz noted. The previous commissioner elected to represent the district that includes the Roaring Fork Valley lived two hours away.Bair said an elected official has a completely different perspective when he or she is representing the area where they live. That’s why he wants five commissioners, with one from the Roaring Fork Valley.Bair, Branscomb, Schultz and Whitsitt are all seeking election to a commission that will write a proposed home-rule charter for county residents to review and either adopt or reject.Whitsitt and Schultz are core members of a group trying to get voters interested in the topic. They are calling residents, placing signs in yards and writing letters to newspapers.”It’s a challenge because it’s not a very sexy topic,” Whitsitt said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org