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Konchan: Manager job always had challenges

Allyn Harvey

As the search for a new county manager continues in earnest, outgoing manager Suzanne Konchan is settling in for her first Christmas ever as full-time mom and wife.That might sound like an insult for a woman who has been at the top of county government here for the better part of a decade, but it’s exactly what she’s looking for.”I’m looking to rebalance my life and focus on my children while they’re still young,” she said.The focus of Konchan’s life for the last decade has been Pitkin County government.She was in charge of the county from the middle of 1995 until the end of 2000, an era of relative prosperity tempered by voter-imposed budgetary restraints. The county work force has only grown by about 1 percent since Konchan took office, so she hasn’t faced the ire of voters who think government is too big and spends too much. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been at the center of controversy.Take, for instance, the two major amendments to the county land-use code that were debated, deliberated and enacted under Konchan’s watch: Rural and Remote zoning adopted in 1996 and new house size limits adopted earlier this year. Both made it a lot more difficult to build in Pitkin County, and both resulted in recall efforts against sitting county commissioners.But Konchan managed to escape the wrath of the development community, at least in public, even though she was in the middle of it all. Still, she’s no doubt made enemies, especially out of the controversy over how to develop the W/J Ranch near Woody Creek, but also among the more development-minded in the land-use community.Always a managerKonchan’s entire career in Pitkin County has been at the managerial level. She moved here from Santa Barbara in April 1991 to take a job as deputy planning director in the county Planning and Zoning Department under Amy Margerum.By September of that first year, shortly after Margerum’s departure to become Aspen’s city manger, Konchan had been put in charge of county planning. And there she stayed until July 1995, when she was tapped to be interim county manager.”I was asked to serve as acting manager while they conducted a nationwide recruitment,” she recalls.After the search was done, the county commissioners decided their top candidate was working right under their noses and hired Konchan as the permanent replacement for deposed manager Reid Haughey.Haughey had been at loggerheads with more than one county commissioner for several months leading up to his firing, so his replacement had her work cut out for her. And as if repairing the bruised egos on the county commission weren’t enough, Konchan was facing a job that was much larger in scope than managing one section of the county’s recently rechristened Community Development Department.”I want to thank my staff,” Konchan said last week. “I had come from a planning background, so one thing I did as a new county manager was rely on their expertise and knowledge about how things worked.”Konchan says she immediately began incorporating a team approach to the county, and she thinks it helped a lot.”I have a good scope of who needs to be involved in solving a problem,” she said. “It usually takes more than one discipline to solve a problem, and I think in most cases I’ve identified the people who need to be working on it.”Whether the issue was with personnel policies or department practices, Konchan says she typically assembled a group comprised of management and front-line employees to work things out.While the county manager can often be found seated with the county commissioners in their meeting room, most of the work – Konchan estimates about 90 percent – involves handling the day-to-day operations of a $40 million organization and its 230 employees. To keep a handle on things, she made it a practice to attend employee meetings at every department at least once a quarter.”I’ve heard employees say that accessibility was something that was unique about my administration,” she said. But that means she had to listen to gripes as well as compliments.”People were awfully open,” she said. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t bristle at what I heard sometimes, but what frustrated me more was when people didn’t disagree with me.”From zoning to roadsIt isn’t easy for Konchan to name the most challenging periods of her stint at the top.”There are so many,” she says, but then she pops out John Musick’s proposal to build nearly 800 units of affordable housing on the W/J Ranch near Woody Creek, right before she mentions the county’s two major revisions to the land-use code.Musick’s plan for the ranch caught the county off guard in many respects. For one, the last major section of the property available for development was zoned specifically for affordable housing. For another, Musick the applicant proved to be remarkably resilient in the face of the county Planning Department’s open promise to ensure his plan was never realized.Musick was able to drum up a fair amount of support for his plan, especially in the early stages. During the application process, Konchan and County Attorney John Ely met behind closed doors more than once to figure out their legal options to keep Musick at bay. And while they may have worked out a legally viable solution (they denied the application, slapped a moratorium on new development applications for the W/J and subsequently down-zoned the property), it came at a cost. Musick, a prolific letter writer, had scores of letters published in the local newspapers in a relentless attack on the county, its management and the commissioners.Two other very public county actions also left their mark on Konchan’s administration. The first was the efforts in 1995 and 1996 by Commissioners Mick Ireland and Bill Tuite to down-zone the backcountry and prevent the kind of monster-home development that was becoming prolific throughout the county. The Rural and Remote zoning, which limited home sizes in places like the upper Fryingpan and the backside of Aspen Mountain to 1,000 square feet and created the transferable development rights program, set many mining-claim owners and developers into a frenzy of legal threats and recall actions against Ireland and Tuite.Few from the general public, at least those without a direct financial interest, showed up at the public hearings to say anything about the proposal. The same meeting apathy proved true this year, when the commissioners enacted a moratorium on some new development applications while they set new, stricter limits on house sizes.”While the community has consistently supported the county commissioners at the ballot box, it was extremely rare to see members of the community who attended these meetings out of an interest for the environment or to support the concept of slow growth,” Konchan said. “Tough hearings are made tougher because you don’t have balanced debate.”Although those three incidents were by far the most public challenges that faced Konchan in her five and a half years at the top, they were by no means the only obstacles. Highway 82 presented constant problems, as did the county’s less-traveled roads. In fact, budgeting for roads and every other aspect of county government has been difficult in the Konchan era.If there is a black mark on Konchan’s record, it probably dates back to 1998, when county voters declined to enact a sales tax on construction materials to pay for upkeep of the county road system. The county has several projects back because it no longer has the money to pay for them. Many locals who favored the tax were critical of Konchan and other county leaders for failing to explain the tax and its importance to voters.Konchan & LamontKonchan is somewhat coy about her future plans.She laughs when asked if she is going to join the legions of former city and county planners who have become consultants who help developers get through the county’s application process.”People wonder if I’m going into business with Leslie,” she says, referring to retiring Commissioner Leslie Lamont. Both Konchan and Lamont have planning backgrounds, both have been involved with county government for a decade or so and both rose to positions of power.But even if consulting is a lucrative calling, it may be a little tame for both women.”What I loved most about the job is the diversity of problems I got to work on every single day,” Konchan said. “There was never a day that replicated itself.”


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