Meet Pitkin County’s District 1 commissioner candidates
July 16, 2010
ASPEN – Five Aspen residents seeking election to the Pitkin County commissioner seat in District 1 will be on the Aug. 10 primary election ballot.The top two vote-getters will advance to the general election in November.In District 2, Commissioner Rachel Richards is unopposed in her re-election bid, so there is no need for a primary.The incumbent commissioner in District 1, Patti Kay-Clapper, will be forced out of office by term limits when her present term expires in January, opening up that seat to a newly elected official.The five candidates include Clapper’s husband, Tom, who has worked in construction and as a Snowmass ski instructor; local restaurateur Rob Ittner; Jack Johnson, a former Aspen city councilman; Brian Speck, who currently works in real estate consulting; and David Weiss, who runs his own property management and landscape company.The Aspen Times Weekly posed a few questions of the candidates, giving them a chance, in their own words, to discuss their candidacies, address the challenges facing Pitkin County and weigh in on a couple of controversial issues.
Q: What skills or other attributes distinguish you as a candidate?A: Perhaps the most important thing that distinguishes me as a candidate is my knowledge of Pitkin County from one end to the other and in more ways than one. I spend time camping, fishing, hiking, visiting friends and family from Independence Pass to McClure Pass; from Castle/Maroon Creek to Hunter/Woody Creek; from Old Snowmass to Thomasville. I have worked in local restaurants, been part of the local tourist industry, built homes/businesses as a hod carrier and as a project manager, and I even sold The Aspen Times for 10 cents. I have been an ump, a referee and an announcer of local sports activities. I have volunteered for the Race/Ride for the Cure, Ducky Derby, Boogies 5K and for the Aspen School District Outdoor Ed Program. I have taught most of the kids in our community to ski. Even more is that I was raised here, I raised my kids here and I watched my parents grow older here. I know Pitkin County and I know its people.Q: What do you think are the big challenges facing the county, and how should the county address them? A: I think it is obvious that the biggest challenge facing the county is the budget, the growing costs of doing business and the growing loss of revenues to do so. One thing the county should do in order to address this is to ask people what they want the county to do or not to do. The things the county has already been doing are things like eliminating or not filling certain staff positions and reviewing and reducing all department budgets. There is really no simple fix for this, so the county needs to be open to suggestions and perhaps a little creative. The county is also challenged with the life of the landfill. This is a matter of finding ways to extend the current life, such as better management of construction waste and solid waste (regular garbage). And the county’s ability to maintain, repair, and to make safe county roads and bridges has been and continues to be a huge challenge. In part this is due to the growing and diverse use and the aging of this infrastructure. Q: Perhaps the two most controversial issues to come before Pitkin County of late are the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal and the Wexner-Sutey land swap. If you had to vote on these two issues, how would you vote and why?A: I agree that both the Wexner- Sutey land swap and the Hidden Gems wilderness proposal have created much controversy. Both of these issues have good and not-so-good things. But I believe the main goal is to do what is best for Pitkin County first, with all else involved being secondary. As for how I would vote on the Hidden Gems proposal, at this time I would vote yes for most but not all of the areas proposed in Pitkin County. I say this because there are areas that make sense and are supported by the stakeholder/user groups, and there are areas that are in need of more discussion.As for how I would vote on the Wexner-Sutey land swap proposal, I am not sure due to the fact I don’t know the details of what has or has not been discussed between the county and the Wexners. What I do know from the press and from watching the public meetings is that preserving the Sutey Ranch is supported by everyone, but in order to do so has raised concerns as to who, what and how much. And that privatizing the BLM parcel has support, but not by everyone. I support further discussion on this issue, with the bottom line being public access to public lands. Citizen involvement in both of these issues must be acknowledged, as I believe this to be fundamental in any governmental decision-making process. Pitkin County does a good job when it comes to citizen involvement, but this is not to say that more could not be done, which is something I would strive to do as a member of the board of county commissioners.
Q: What skills or other attributes distinguish you as a candidate?A: I am a business owner in Pitkin County. I have operated several businesses successfully in Aspen. You will hear other candidates talk about not needing on-the-job training. Owning a business here has given me on-the-job training for the last 11 years. I know the challenges my employees face; I know how hard it is to run a business in this community; I know how to make hard decisions in order to keep a budget balanced; I know how to listen to my customers’ needs and approach them with an open mind. My business background also gives me the ability to read financial information and quickly grasp the meaning of it. Bringing business sense to local government is going to be very important to survive the economic crises that we are all facing today. Who do you want managing your county’s finances? As a business owner, employer of more than 25 people and with a background in business and accounting, I will add a business sense to the board of county commissioners. In addition, I have sat on many boards and been involved with many organizations. I was a founding board member of Aspen Young Professionals Association, president of the Aspen Chapter of the Colorado Restaurant Association, founder and event coordinator of Taste of Aspen, a member of the Aspen Rotary, I sit on the marketing advisory committee for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, and I’m a graduate of Roaring Fork Leadership. This involvement gives me the requisite experience to represent the community.Q: What do you think are the big challenges facing the county, and how should the county address them?A: The economy: The economy is on everyone’s mind. People are out of work. People are seeing their expenses go up and their incomes go down. While it is an issue with origins and scope far beyond the boundaries of Pitkin County, I feel there are many things we can be doing locally to improve the outlook. We need to think about sustainable growth. By this I do not mean allowing growth at any cost, but having intelligent growth of the economy that we have. As a business owner I am adept at finding ways of decreasing costs without sacrificing services. This is going to be needed for our county to survive the economic crunch.Protecting our environment: Our environment is our greatest asset. We have to do whatever we can to protect it. How do we maintain our natural splendor in conjunction with its use by locals and tourists? This is a huge issue with scope and impact far beyond what I can write here. I believe our environment is at the heart of the Aspen Idea, and as such requires community-wide involvement on every level. Specifically, I think there is a dire need to limit the mass of non-renewable resources consumed in and disposed of by our community. We need to be greener and smarter in our everyday lives.Open-minded government and communication: The more I talk to people in the county, the more I am hearing that they would like the county to facilitate better communication. Having a transparent government and getting input from the people that the government represents is at the top of my list of things that I would like to improve. I make a living listening to people’s concerns and acting on them. I have an open-minded approach when dealing with people. People often tell me that they want a smart, hard-working person in government who will listen to all sides of the story in order to make a decision. Having a fresh new person as county commissioner, as opposed to a professional politician, will be a refreshing thing in our local government.Housing and development: We need a housing program that meets the needs of local working families, nurtures neighborhoods close to schools and employment, and provides the necessary population to sustain a healthy economy. The city of Aspen and the county are presently revising the Aspen Area Community Plan, and I hope to see this process result in clear recommendations for maintaining Aspen as a year-round, financially viable community that is able to meet the future housing and transportation demands of its residents. I believe in responsible development and redevelopment. While we should take every opportunity to maintain the standard and sustain the amount of lodging inventory, unchecked growth and development will see Pitkin County lose its character and place an inordinate strain on areas like housing and transportation. The key is sustainability.Q: Perhaps the two most controversial issues to come before Pitkin County of late are the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal and the Wexner-Sutey land swap. If you had to vote on these two issues, how would you vote and why? A: The Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal: Among those reasons I moved to Aspen are the rich culture, the numerous activities such as biking, skiing and hiking, the great restaurant community, but above all the surrounding natural environment. The Skiing Co. said it very well with their endorsement of the Gems: “People come here, and employees stay here, because of the landscape in which we operate.” The protection of the natural area around us ensures our biggest economic driver – the surrounding beauty. As a local business owner, the last thing I want to see is any damage to our largest attraction, the surrounding landscape.It is not to say that there weren’t concerns with the Gems proposal, yet most of them have been addressed by the people proposing it. The biggest concern that I had was our ability to maintain public safety in the way of firefighting. At this point, the issue of the county and surrounding counties’ ability to fight wildfires has been resolved to the satisfaction of the counties’ fire fighting community.I presently endorse the Gems Proposal as is, but I hope advocates continue to work with any group or person that has concerns about any part of the proposal. The Wexner-Sutey Land swap: This is a difficult question because there were a lot of behind-closed-doors discussions and executive sessions where there was a lack of available information. The county commissioners are entrusted with making the best deal in a case like this, and making sure that they just don’t give away a major windfall at the expense of the county’s resources. This exemplifies the need for more transparency. We need more civic engagement and ways to inform the citizens on these issues. I hope to bring that engagement and transparency to the board of county commissioners.I feel there is still an opportunity to gain from this land swap if the proper deal can be structured.
Q: What skills or attributes distinguish you as a candidate?A: I know the issues and can effectively represent the broad interests of the people of Pitkin County. My work on the Pitkin County planning and zoning commission and the Aspen City Council gives me a thorough knowledge of our land-use codes and policies. I understand how they affect those of us living here and our values.For instance, because of development, our roads and bridges, something we all use everyday, face significant deterioration – including heavy truck traffic and, ultimately, more users. Yet we inadequately require development to bear these costs, in effect creating a public subsidy for private industry.Elected officials must be strong, fair and accessible to all when making decisions. I have demonstrated these attributes through my public service. I understand the complex and diverse issues of Pitkin County and how to work with other jurisdictions.For example, over the years, we have created a desirable place to live and own property. We have also created a situation where many of us are nearly being taxed off our property and out of our homes. We must study our options for keeping people in their homes. Temporary and voluntary resident-occupied status, a local tax exemption or an expansion of the Homestead exemption provisions to the county level are ideas to address this challenge. Reform will require coordination between the county, city and the state.Like the citizens of Pitkin County, I am passionate about water, wilderness and conservation issues.We may not agree on every issue, but you can count on me to use my intellect, my strong work ethic and experience to make the difficult decisions.Q: What do you think are the big challenges facing the county, and how should the county address them?A: Pitkin County has learned – the hard way – that we are not insulated from this economic downturn. Our biggest challenge is to reject the cynical call for a return to the “build, baby, build” ethos of the last 20 years. Rather, we need to think hard about what makes this place special and work to preserve those values, including the conservation of rural lands and our small-town resort character.We can and should move away from an unsustainable and speculative real estate economy and focus our energy on sustainable tourism centered on recreation, arts and culture. We must protect open space from development, promote environmental conservation and green technology, and maintain Pitkin County as a home for working families.Green jobs are one way to add a new leg to our economy, a leg less vulnerable to the boom/bust cycle of real estate speculation. That cycle has certainly been no friend to our community. In the boom years, we are forced to deal with heavy traffic, scarce parking and the constant clang of construction. In the down years, our social services are stretched and people suddenly find themselves without a job.We are no different from our Victorian forebears if we simply wait around for the return of an old economy. There are those who will tell us we need to turn on the development faucet so we can go back to where we were. Let’s not listen to them. We can do better.Threats to our environment from oil and gas development are another serious challenge. The Forest Service is TODAY requesting citizen review of the possibility for oil and gas leasing in the White River National Forest. I am against industrial energy development in the Thompson/Divide Creek areas in western Pitkin County, or anywhere in the White River National Forest or surrounding BLM lands. It’s unwise and unnecessary. As a county, we should be looking to help lead our country to better energy ideas – clean, sustainable ones – with sustainable, good paying jobs.As your county commissioner, I will work to maintain an environment that allows working families to thrive. Creating a stable economy and a thriving middle class are surely two of the most important purposes of local government. Yet in Pitkin County it is still a challenge for families to afford a place to live, find day care and the other requirements of a good quality of life.Q: Perhaps the two most controversial issues to come before Pitkin County of late are the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal and the Wexner-Sutey land swap. If you had to vote on these two issues, how would you vote and why?A: I support the Hidden Gems proposal. Local ladies like Dottie Fox, Joy Caudill and Connie Harvey helped pioneer wilderness designation and we have long honored their hard work. We are conservationists in Pitkin County; we conserve things.The initial proposal was too broad and I agree with many of the initial concerns raised by climbers and mountain bikers. The Wilderness Workshop and others working on the Hidden Gems campaign have worked very hard to adjust the proposal and address the concerns of user groups. It is now time to support the proposal. It’s good for wildlife and it’s good for us – spiritually and economically. Frankly, I don’t know how I would have decided the Sutey land swap. I don’t have enough information as I’ve yet to see the whole proposal presented in one place and properly explained.From what I understand it is admirable in its protection of wildlife, but I do not like the precedent of allowing private landowners to acquire public lands in Pitkin County and swap them for lands in another county. We should be very cautious before allowing Pitkin County to become known for the conversion of large swaths of public lands into private hands. It’s clear we must create a policy guiding future proposals of this type. More importantly, we must recognize our county is diverse – what works at one end of the county may not at the other. Many in the Crystal River Caucus feel ignored. That’s not good and must be addressed, as it threatens to divide us.
Q: What skills or other attributes distinguish you as a candidate?A: • Raised in Aspen. Sensitive to the diverse nature of our community.• 6 years on planning and zoning commission, solid knowledge of land use code and the Aspen Area Community plan.• Strong business background. Large budgeting experience (past president Stewart Title Aspen NYSE: STC). Regulated Industry experience. Strong execution skills. Working in a high transactional business has taught me how to read and analyze large amounts of data, decipher information and make rational intelligent decisions and create new initiatives and ways of solving problems. I also know the importance of “customer service” and will be open and receptive to my constituents. • Solid leadership experience.• My current consulting work in the title industry (property insurance) and re-insurance industries provide the background necessary for running as a representative of the people in Pitkin County with a unique skill set. I understand the power of marketing and believe we can build on our strong reputation as an outdoor tourist destination.• Being raised in the valley keeps me focused on the true issues facing us. I live green. I do not own a car, I walk or ride the bus and I have enjoyed and endured life in the mountains my entire life. I believe in growing our food in a sustainable manner in the valley. We must become less oil- and coal-dependent, and explore solar and wind and alternative energy. Our valley is the perfect place for these technologies to flourish. Certainly our next generation will not be happy with what we pass on if we do not take some immediate steps in terms of energy use.• For me, this commissioner race is an important one, as we must meet the challenges of a stagnant economy, declining provisions of services throughout the valley, and a balance between the environment and property rights.• I am committed to bringing my 20-plus years of business background as a fiscal conservative to the commission. And work with you, my fellow commissioners, with respect, civility and sensitivity to the diverse interests of our community. Q: What do you think are the big challenges facing the county, and how should the county address them?A: Several of the large issues facing Pitkin County (have been similar challenges in years past):1. Quality of life issues. Fiscal responsibility. A declining tax revenue base will be the challenge of the future. A stagnant economy and shrinking services in the county will have to be managed by individuals who have vision and fiscal experience. There are some creative solutions to the declining tax base that are achievable for the county. 2. Land use and growth. Increased population will require more stringent land use to maintain our beautiful natural resources and environment. Our open space is the envy of many communities and this must to continue. This task will take a commissioner who has solid land use experience and can hit the ground running. 3. Transportation. Increased population will continue to be a stress to our infrastructure. Our roads and bridges need attention. A solution to the entrance to Aspen would be prudent to initiate. I would initiate reasonable solutions to this issue(s).4. Green issues. The county would benefit to encourage more green alternatives. There are several we can pursue if the citizens are in support of the initiatives. 5. Health and welfare. With declining budgets for the services sector we are continually challenged with our programs. A decline in funding results in an unhealthy community. We all need to recognize that the measure of a compassionate society is good health care and good education. If we short-change ourselves on these now, we pay later. I would introduce initiates to address the declining funding. 6. Affordable housing. Managed growth: at the right time, at the right location and for the right price. At this time and with the economic challenges there are solutions where more building is not the option of first choice. Q: Perhaps the two most controversial issues to come before Pitkin County of late are the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal and the Wexner-Sutey land swap. If you had to vote on these two issues, how would you vote and why?A: The Wexner-Sutey land swap: There are controversial issues indeed. Of course I would want to study the issues more to make a rational, prudent decision and discuss with all the stakeholders (which I have not done). But in short, the Wexner deal was a shame to lose as there were so many benefits to the citizens. Furthermore, this is an example where the issue becomes a bit politicized and that complicated the land use and swap. If, for example, the principals (Mr. and Mrs. Wexner) were in the discussions from the beginning and less behind-the-door meetings occurred, perhaps an approved plan would be agreed upon. The time frame also seemed a bit inefficient in terms of a decision.The Hidden Gems proposal (designating 342,000 acres as wilderness) on its surface makes sense. Doesn’t everyone want to preserve our fragile remote areas and our wildlife herds? Is there any question about that? There are currently policies on the state and local level that do honor those regions. In the spirit of “inclusion,” including all people (which includes the handicapped, injured war veterans, infants, etc.), I would have to learn more about the specifics of this proposed legislation. Historically, the county does support such initiatives. I would want to read the proposed legislation carefully. As the issue becomes politicized, both sides become more frustrated and the value and issue become contentious. Enjoying the National Forests for everyone is what I support. I do support the process of “protecting public lands and protecting the mid-level habitat so they remain wild for future generations” (Peter Looram in The Aspen Times, July 14).
Q: What skills or other attributes distinguish you as a candidate?A: My ability to work with other people, find the median areas rather than one way or another. Being persuasive without being forceful. I care about this town and the goings-on and want to become involved in the day-to-day operations of the system. I have owned and still own different small businesses, one a property management and the other a taxi-leasing company, hiring drivers and overseeing the repair and upkeep of old cars (Checkers). Helping people see that there is more than one side to a situation. Dealing with a lot of different people and personalities and their desires and personal agendas and working toward a common goal. I have a grasp on financial things, still keep lot of my own books and see the workings of budgets and cash flows. I am a hard-working, dedicated person with a lot of care for keeping things GREEN.Q: What do you think are the big challenges facing the county, and how should the county address them?A: There are many ongoing challenges and issues facing our county government. I will concentrate on, 1. Energy Smart program, 2. Airport expansion, 3. Jobs and building permit extensions. The unfortunate problem with the Energy Smart program goes far into our economic situation in the country. The banks are afraid to loan money, so this trickle-down effect has much to do with any quality programs to put people to work, cut down on utility bills for the ordinary citizen and turn towards more solar, wind and self-reliant sources of power. I believe in working hard with the powers that be to free up money and funds. The only way to get confidence back is to start helping the middle-income folks who are financially credit-worthy and by starting a chain reaction of positive input back in the system. The banks and mortgage companies have to free up funds to make these things happen. The airport expansion is a great way to spur some more financial incentives back to the local economy. Most of the funding is from the feds and this will put hopefully some more local contractors back to work. The long-range goal is to fill the planes up, which may help with allowing lower fares for the local populace. The increase in tourists to fill more lodging, for the retail and food establishments to gather more business. I have been to a couple meetings and the consultants have been addressing most of the environmental concerns and dealing with the watershed issues and Buttermilk Metro district. I feel this may be a win-win for all involved. The other issue regarding building permits and allowing people to extend the time allotted to attain financing and the time necessary to build is important. There are a lot of very qualified craftspeople in the valley. By in essence stretching out some of these projects, this will allow for more local jobs, which increases confidence in the system and helps further jump-start our lagging economy. My feelings are anything that will increase the workforce and help our area get back to work. We are still a ski town, but there are a lot of other markets that need help and incentives to prosper and bring funds back to this valley.Q: Perhaps the two most controversial issues to come before Pitkin County of late are the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal and the Wexner-Sutey land swap. If you had to vote on these two issues, how would you vote and why? A: The Hidden Gems plan: I do agree in principle and am all for open space and keeping pristine areas available for all to enjoy. I feel there are a lot of people who utilize these areas besides just hiking. There are mountain bikers, horseback riders, motorcyclists, four-wheel enthusiasts and snowmobilers who have utilized some of these areas over the years. I feel the right for all to enjoy these areas and to access them through whatever means should be allowed to continue. This proposal has a lot of hurdles and is quite controversial and will require more work with all the different groups and people involved. I cannot wholeheartedly endorse the existing proposal until further accommodations are worked out.The Wexner land swap issue: Another difficult situation that has been endorsed by the other valley government agencies, though no matter what, it has to gain final approval from the feds. There can be a way to make this work to the benefit for recreational and cattle ranching operations. I believe more discourse and working out an agreement is possible. As long as these areas are not going to be utilized for any gas or mining in the future and are kept as they have been for open space and existing agricultural purposes, I would vote to endorse the land swap with proper guidelines.