He’s rude and arrogant. He’s smart and effective. He’s MICK!
September 19, 2006
Term limits will knock Mick Ireland off the board of Pitkin County commissioners in about 13 weeks – accomplishing something his foes tried unsuccessfully to do for 13 years.Ireland will surrender his seat in January 2007.For some people, that day won’t arrive soon enough. Others hope to see him resurrected on the Aspen City Council.Love him or hate him, most admit Ireland has been both a dominant and domineering force in upper-valley politics since he was appointed to office in 1993. Not since the days of firebrand commissioners Joe Edwards, Dwight Shellman and Michael Kinsley in the 1970s and ’80s has one elected official generated so much controversy – and accomplished so much.”He is brilliant. He is irascible. He is frustrating. He is challenging, sometimes maddening. He is so ethical and honest to his convictions,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris when asked what pops into her mind when she thinks of Ireland. She has served with him for 10 years.”We are really going to be at a loss when he is gone,” she said.Some say good riddanceOthers say goodbye and good riddance. Lorrie Winnerman, owner of an Aspen real estate company, helped lead an unsuccessful effort to recall him from office in 2000. She was on a committee of the Aspen Board of Realtors that worked on legislative and local political issues when she first encountered Ireland.”I think he’s very rude and abrasive,” said Winnerman. “He does not have a mediating personality.”She said she and others who supported the recall felt Ireland “did not like opposing opinions.” Particularly offensive was “rude and denigrating behavior” directed at people who live in what he judges to be big houses, according to Winnerman. He was critical of their lifestyle and essentially stirred class warfare by blaming the rich for the community’s problems, she charged.Winnerman said Ireland would never acknowledge that owners of free-market homes in and around Aspen pay the property taxes that make possible facilities like the Aspen Recreation Center, or that their support is critical to the success of Aspen’s many arts and cultural institutions.”The whole government is trying to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, and they don’t even know it,” she said.Ireland’s entry into elected office was more or less a fluke. When he was appointed on Oct. 13, 1993, to fill a vacancy created by Fred Crowley’s resignation, Ireland was a compromise candidate for the other four commissioners. They were deadlocked on whether to appoint Pat Fallin or Jim Breasted. They compromised by selecting Ireland.
The following year Ireland faced his first and toughest election. He edged Aspen native Max Marolt by just 43 votes.
Two recall efforts failedTwo years later, in April 1996, Ireland faced a recall effort when the big issue was “rural and remote” zoning, which limited development in the backcountry. He easily kept office by collecting 60 percent of the vote.In November 1998, at a regular election, he easily retained office again with about 60 percent of the vote. His challenger, Raymon Duvernay, was hospitalized shortly before the election and wasn’t able to mount much of a campaign.Ireland faced another recall effort in August 2000 over growth management and house-size caps. He again secured 60 percent of the vote.He won re-election to a third and final term in a contest against Steve Felt in November 2002. Ireland logged 60 percent of the vote again.That pattern indicates a 60 percent approval rating – not bad for an elected official who is often on the leading edge of his board’s actions, and one with a knack for getting under people’s skin.Ireland acknowledges that his style contributed to the acrimony that marked the first half of his 13 years in office.”Oh sure, when I was first in office I was more insecure, I was more defensive about what I was doing. I reacted more in anger to some things,” Ireland said. “I am subject to the whole array of weaknesses that a person can have – pride or arrogance, stubbornness – they’re all part of my personality, but they’re not the whole thing.”I also think I am broad-minded, open to persuasion and very sympathetic to people. I think that came out as I learned about people and people learned about me.”Case in point: During public hearings in the mid-1990s on zoning for agricultural lands, a crowd of tough, independent ranchers would show up mad as hell at the direction the county government was heading. Protocol and civility were sometimes ignored. Insults were often tossed the commissioners’ way. Instead of turning the other cheek, Ireland would respond with equal anger. It created some interesting, if testosterone-driven, meetings.”He has offended a lot of people with his style,” acknowledged Farris. She claims he has grown and improved in his ability to work with other people inside and outside of country government in the last decade.Farris pointed to the public hearings last year and earlier this year that Ireland chaired on changes to the county land-use code. The Issues were similar to past public hearings, yet the procedure and Ireland’s handling of the meeting helped defuse the acrimony, Farris said.If there has been an improvement, Winnerman hasn’t seen it. “I think he’s getting worse,” she said, referring specifically to recent newspaper letters by Ireland that lay out his views on wealthy homeowners.Ireland claimed his style has improved over the years, out of necessity. “Everything you do is going to be questioned, so you’ve got to justify it and you’ve got to think it through,” he said. “The unexamined life isn’t worth living, or whatever that saying is, and I think it’s a good saying.”
First local job: DishwasherIreland, 56, arrived in Aspen on Jan. 9, 1979, with college loans to pay off and an urge to ski. He had visited enough to know he could find a job.He walked in the door of the Mother Lode restaurant and got a job as a dishwasher for $4.75 per hour. He later added a second job as a bus driver. He joined The Aspen Times, then a weekly newspaper owned by Bil Dunaway, in 1980 and pasted up copy. The journalism school graduate jumped at the chance to become a reporter when a position opened a short time later.Ireland made a big splash in the early 1980s with stories about Aspen’s problem with drugs, primarily cocaine. From court hearings, court documents and police reports, he gleaned who was buying drugs from whom – and he printed the names, sometimes of people who hadn’t been arrested but were mentioned in the documents.”I thought people needed to know, and still need to know, to what extent that was part of their community. People were in denial about it,” Ireland said.He was criticized for tarnishing the image of the community through sensational reporting. Some of his friends and colleagues feared for his life. (He claims he wasn’t worried.) During that work as a reporter, he forged a friendship with former Pitkin County District Judge J.E. DeVilbiss, who is now a councilman. That bond remains strong today.Champion of affordable housingIreland quit reporting after five years at the Times to go to law school at the University of Colorado. He remained connected to Aspen and helped Steve Crockett and other candidates win election in spring 1989 on a platform that claimed working-class locals were an endangered species. (Ireland has legendary campaign organizational skills. His efforts to target likely small-town supporters and rally them to the polls is unparalleled.) Funky old homes and condos where locals lived were getting torn down and redeveloped with expensive housing. The affordable units weren’t getting replaced until the City Council passed a controversial replacement-housing ordinance.When he applied for the county commissioner vacancy in 1993, Ireland was interested in issues he had already worked on in city politics – building affordable housing, controlling growth and protecting the environment.When asked to discuss his accomplishments in office, he downplayed individual action and credited the board as a whole for its achievements. Rural and remote zoning limits the size, number and type of units that can be built in the backcountry, he noted. The county land-use code directs growth to urban areas and requires developers to build housing for new workers they generate, he said.Ireland said he hopes to be remembered for helping create a technical understanding of how economic forces in the real estate market impact the community. Commissioners like Edwards, Shellman and Kinsley did a good job of limiting the rampant growth that threatened the Aspen area, Ireland said, and that created new pressures for their successors.”They stopped growth but it set the stage for the need for affordable housing,” he said.Ireland thinks he helped Aspen and Pitkin County residents realize they couldn’t just leave affordable housing issues to the free market to resolve. The governments’ combined housing program is the envy of resorts throughout the West, he said.Ireland is proud of how his life evolved since moving to Aspen 27 years ago with lots of debt and little money in the bank. He owns a 634-square-foot home at the Common Ground affordable housing project that showcases his passion for cycling. One bicycle hangs on ceiling hooks at the sliding glass door entrance to his kitchen. Another expensive road bike leans against a living room cabinet. Outside are two other bicycles.Ireland said he feels fortunate that he has been able to live the mind, body and spirit lifestyle that’s the essence of modern Aspen.
Rocky start with ClapperWhile he was reluctant to blow his own horn about his accomplishments in office, other commissioners did it for him. Farris said Ireland supplies great institutional memory to the board about past issues and county actions. He also helped the board focus on the core issues in their various debates, she said.
County Commissioner Patti Clapper, who has served eight years with Ireland, credited him with worked tirelessly to secure state funding for highway and transportation projects in the Roaring Fork Valley and the entire region. His education and experience as an attorney also helps the board approach issues in a precise, logical way, she said.
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Clapper’s relationship with Ireland hasn’t always been pleasant. In 1999, shortly after she took office, she wrote a letter to local newspapers urging people to share their options – good, bad or indifferent – about the roundabout west of Aspen on Highway 82. That project was Ireland’s baby. He secured partial funding from the Colorado Department of Transportation.Clapper said she had collected responses and had them sitting on her desk in the commissioners’ meeting room. During a break in a meeting, Ireland started looking at them without asking her, she recalled. She protested; he told her to “eat shit.” The moment was captured by the Aspen Daily News.”We got over the ‘eat shit’ comment and now we can laugh about it,” Clapper said. Now she’s used to Ireland picking through her things – so much so that she brings extra snacks because she knows Ireland will “graze.””He’s just Mick,” Clapper said. “There’s moments you’ll love him, and there’s moments you’ll hate him.”Like Farris, Clapper believes Ireland has grown in the job. Conflicts with other people aren’t as frequent. “I don’t think he means to be mean but sometimes he just is,” she said.
When asked what she will miss most about serving with him, Clapper joked, “When he tucks his pants into his socks.”Clapper isn’t the only person who has repaired a rocky relationship with Ireland. As a former newspaper columnist, local conservative Tony Hershey used to end his weekly piece with a countdown of how many days Ireland had remaining in office. At that point, it was an absurdly large number like 1,000. Hershey, now a deputy district attorney handling cases in Garfield County, claimed the countdown was largely in jest and nothing personal against Ireland.He acknowledged their political views are often different but said he always gives Ireland his due. “He’s so smart you have to respect him, even if he does infuriate you,” Hershey said.Despite their differences, Ireland was sympathetic when Hershey went through tough times after he resigned over differences with former District Attorney Colleen Truden, according to Hershey. Ireland also advised him on how to successfully wage a recall effort against Truden. Their shared desire to see Truden removed from office made allies out of the former political foes.Hershey said he remains in awe of Ireland’s campaign organization skills after personally seeing the “Mick Machine” in action. He is betting Ireland will remain in local politics after his term expires, and that Ireland will be widely regarded as a successful commissioner.”He’s really the lion of Pitkin County politics,” said Hershey, later adding, “He’s kind of taken the Shellman/Edwards mantle and carried it forward.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.