Housing, pandemic response divide Pitkin County District 4 candidates at ‘Squirm Night’

The two candidates for the District 4 seat on the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners agreed Thursday on some of the major issues facing the county.

Incumbent Commissioner and current Board Chairman Steve Child, 72, and challenger Chris Council, 44, said they supported the planning process underway for at least a new terminal at the airport, if not a wider runway, too. And both said they believed climate change is the gravest threat facing Pitkin County today.

The differences that arose between them during Thursday evening’s traditional Aspen Times and Aspen Daily News-sponsored Squirm Night produced by GrassRoots TV had to do with housing — and specifically the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority — as well as the county’s response the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the county has failed in our COVID response,” said Council, a Snowmass Village resident and local photographer. “Testing … has been a disgrace.”

Council said he thought it was important to recognize that county staff and commissioners had everybody’s “best interest at heart” and that no one intentionally bungled the process. However, he said the county clearly was not prepared for the pandemic. And prompted to put a number on the response, Council gave Pitkin County “between a four and five.”

Problems with testing availability continue to this day, he said. Eagle County residents can simply go to a local pharmacy for a test, while it takes a doctor’s prescription to get a test in Pitkin County, Council said.

The county’s communication with residents about COVID-19 has been problematic, he said, with community meetings occurring on different days with no consistency. When the Incident Management Team was in command in the early days of the pandemic this spring, it was unclear who was in charge, then all of a sudden residents heard the IMT was disbanded, Council said.

“The communication strategy has been a big failure,” he said.

Child, who is running for his third four-year term on the board, said he would give the county a seven overall for its COVID response, then he lowered it to a six, then asked again by moderator and Aspen Times Editor David Krause to clarify, he went back to his first choice. “I’ll go with seven,” he said.

However, Child said he lowered that response to a three if only testing was considered. Further, the board chairman broke with county strategy on testing, saying he thinks Pitkin County residents ought to be able to get a test without a doctor’s prescription.

“The whole U.S. has failed on testing,” he said.

But for Child, there was no ignoring the bottom line to the virus response.

“We squashed the curve very low,” he said, referring to mitigation efforts here that significantly reduced transmission in those early months. “We’ve only had two deaths. The hospital was never overwhelmed (with COVID patients).”

The joint city-county housing authority — APCHA — served as the second bone of contention Thursday between Council and Child.

Council, a former APCHA board member, said he does not support the recent changes made to the housing authority’s joint operating agreement between the city and county, which placed elected officials on the board for the first time in years.

In response to a question asking whether the county ought to find a way to develop as much housing as the city, Council said nothing should happen until the agency’s governing structure is fixed.

“The city pushes the county around and that’s not how it’s designed,” he said. “We need to remove politics and make it a truly independent housing authority.”

Child, on the other hand, defended the agreement he voted for that rejiggered the APCHA board makeup.

“I think the APCHA board is on the right track,” he said, noting that it still needs a few “tweaks.”

However, Child said he’d like to see a kinder, gentler APCHA emerge under a new leader — the executive director recently resigned — who’s “a good people person.”

“I think APCHA needs to treat people better,” Child said. “I’m on Lee Mulcahy’s side. Other people have been treated unfairly.”

Child was referring to the Mulcahy family’s yearslong fight with APCHA to keep its deed-restricted home in the Burlingame neighborhood.

In a section of the forum where candidates were asked different questions, Child weighed in on an issue about growth currently being debated by the county board, which is considering a proposal to reduce the maximum house size in the county.

He said he’s not in favor of reducing the cap on house size in the county from 5,750 square feet to 3,250 square feet, and would like to see people who don’t build to the maximum receive a transferred development right to sell. Mostly, Child said he wants houses built in the county to be “net zero,” so they produce all the energy they use.

For his turn, Council was asked why he didn’t choose a party designation when he decided to run for the county board.

“I’m a registered Democrat, just for the record,” he said.

But he said he didn’t want to engage in the polarization of the electorate that a party designation might bring.

“I’m here to serve the citizens of Pitkin County, not a party,” he said.