Incumbent Harper running on her record
Shellie Roy Harper is proud of her four years as a Pitkin County commissioner, rattling off a long list of accomplishments in a wide range of areas.
And she is hoping voters will give her another four years to add to that list by coming up with more affordable housing, more open space purchases and better public transportation, among other things.
Harper, 48, moved to the valley in 1975 and worked a variety of jobs before settling down, marrying a real estate agent and raising a family.
More than a decade ago, while awaiting her second child, she got involved in the community debate over a ban on wood-burning stoves and has been active in the political arena ever since.
She has served on the local clean air board, as everything from alternate to chair, and was a member of the county Planning and Zoning Commission for three years before running for the board of county commissioners in 1996. She is running against Michael O’Sullivan in the District 3 race.
Now divorced (she has formally dropped the “Harper” from her name, but continues to use it for this election) and building a home at the North 40 affordable housing project, she feels her experience and local roots go a long way in establishing her qualifications for continued service. Transportation Harper said she supports the proposed Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) on the Nov. 7 ballot, which would establish a taxing district from Glenwood Springs to Aspen to provide funding for mass transit.
She explained that at one time Aspen was “the sun warming the economy of the entire valley,” and it may have been appropriate for upper-valley governments to provide the funding for a valleywide bus service operated by the Roaring Fork Transit Agency.
But times have changed, she said.
“Today, there are two suns; Glenwood is almost as bright as Aspen,” she maintained. She also believes that it is not efficient to have multiple transportation agencies operating in different towns, or to have different towns contract with RFTA for services.
“I think this gives them an opportunity to be an equal partner” in the mass transit services, she said of the downvalley towns and counties.
Asked about the concern by some that the RTA is really a disguised attempt to provide funding for a controversial valleywide train, she said she doesn’t think that is the case.
“It’s not a concern to me,” she said. “The train will be driven by whatever the future transportation needs [of the valley] are.” And, she said, if a train system is ever built, it will not be done without “dozens of steps” along the way where voters can register their opinion about the idea.
The RTA could be seen as such a step, she conceded, but “it does not mean that’s where you will end up.”
And hopefully, she said, if voters approve state Referendum 24, known as the growth control initiative, there may never be the population in the valley to justify building a train anyway.
Harper said she also strongly supports Referendum 1A, the city’s request to be allowed to borrow up to $10.2 million that is intended, in a bureaucratic shuffle of funds, to provide a kind of “jump start” account to speed up construction of the Entrance to Aspen highway project.
“This board has developed a really cooperative relationship with the Colorado Department of Transportation,” Harper said, noting that the county and CDOT have worked together on everything from rights of way for the highway to water rights for irrigation needs along the highway corridor.
“We’ve really worked hand in hand with them,” she said, a marked contrast to past years when state highway engineers and local government officials disagreed over how to deal with the area’s growing traffic problems. Housing Harper believes the area’s housing shortage should be one of the highest priorities of county government, although she feels the private sector needs to be brought into the picture more than it has.
Basically, she says, the county must work with developers to provide more incentives for “private sector” affordable housing, a goal that she said the commissioners intend to pursue soon.
“It either comes from mitigation or you have to have a tax,” she said, since the county currently has no funding source for developing affordable housing.
One solution she believes must be actively investigated is the idea of using public money to convert free-market units to homes that workers can afford.
“I’d like to do some more buy-downs,” she said, referring to a mechanism by which free-market units are purchased with public funds and then sold to local workers at a subsidized price. Growth Harper said she was unhappy with the commissioners’ decision earlier this year to enact a development moratorium while the county worked on revisions to the government rules regarding land use applications.
“I felt we could do it without a moratorium,” she said.
But once it was approved by the majority of the board, she added, she got behind it and gave her endorsement to most of the provisions in revised land use regulations.
The exception, she said, was the decision to maintain the county’s growth management quota system, which pits developers against one another in a competition for a limited number of development rights each year.
“I supported everything except the quota system,” she explained, having preferred a system she called a “checklist.” She said she would rather see developers handed this checklist of requirements and then be granted approvals if their project met a preordained number of the items.
As for the county’s efforts to adhere to a certain rate of growth, right around 2 percent, she said, “We have to have a rule. And yet we have to be honest with ourselves.” She believes growth is at least partly spurred by external economic issues, and trying to hew to a certain percentage does not always bring the desired result.
“I’d prefer we didn’t grow at all,” she admitted, but added that property rights must be honored regardless of government’s interest in preserving rural values in the area.
“We aren’t an island,” she noted, adding that she feels the county has so far done well in striking a balance between those ideals.
“What I think the commission has done, [it] has learned to walk that very fine line,” she declared.” Campaign spending An unexpected issue in this campaign concerns the amount of money spent on political campaigns, whether by candidates seeking county offices or by political committees and groups pushing for or against ballot questions, initiatives and referenda.
A current legal challenge to the county’s campaign spending rules, passed by voters, has been mounted by a group known as the Common Sense Alliance. The CSA, which has battled with the county over a proposal to build a train between Glenwood Springs and Aspen and other transportation-related issues, has argued that the county’s spending limits are unconstitutional.
Harper thinks the CSA may be right.
“There’ve been three cases to the Supreme Court that suggest we can’t do this,” she said of the spending limits. “We can get in trouble on this. The fundamental conundrum that Pitkin County faces is we are much more vulnerable than most places.”
She said there is a disparity between economic classes here, and hence between some political and social philosophies, that contributes to uneven campaign spending on certain issues.
“I think the people were right in trying to keep the playing field as level as possible,” she said.
But, she went on, “If we as the voters have passed a law we cannot defend, I am not going to waste our money in trying to defend it.”
She said the county is now researching the issue, contacting constitutional experts and potential financial partners to see what they say about the county’s position and whether it might be an appropriate case for a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“If those guys say, `No, this isn’t it,’ I’m backing off,” she said.
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