Pitkin County commissioner candidates square off
July 30, 2010
ASPEN – Candidates for the District 1 Pitkin County commissioner seat managed to differentiate themselves with their views on the Entrance to Aspen and the potential for rail during a cordial forum Thursday at the Paepcke Auditorium.
Those were among the few issues on which all five candidates were asked to offer their views, though the entrance is more of a city issue than a county one, and rail isn’t really on the radar screen.
For the most part, questions submitted by citizens were fired at one or two candidates at most during the event, hosted by the local Democratic and Republican parties.
Both Brian Speck, a consultant in the title insurance industry, and Rob Ittner, owner of Aspen restaurant Rustique Bistro, stressed that their business experience would lend itself to elected service. Self-employed political newcomer David Weiss appeared the most ill at ease, calling himself a regular citizen who wants to get involved. “I’m a little nervous about this thing. I’ve never really been in politics,” he said.
Jack Johnson, a former Aspen city councilman, said he’s running for the commissioner’s seat “because I thrive here. All of us do.”
Tom Clapper, still recovering after his near-death collapse from a heart arrhythmia in April, tried to assure voters he is up to the task.
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“I am mentally and physically able to do this job,” said Clapper, who had some difficulty enunciating. “I will be 100 percent, according to doctors,” he added later.
Asked if they’d favor further study of rail, Speck said he likes the idea, but doubts it’s a form of transit the upper valley will see anytime soon. He said he prefers the “split shot” alignment at the entrance, with transit and vehicles on different alignments.
“No train,” Clapper said, calling for a four-lane “straight shot” alignment across the Marolt Open Space.
Ittner said he’s open-minded regarding a train, but given its challenges, thinks beefed-up bus service and carpooling are more viable solutions. He didn’t specifically endorse a highway alignment.
Weiss, too, said rail is too expensive to be feasible, and advocated improving the bus system, including biofuel buses. He advocated the straight shot.
“I don’t support revisiting the rail lines,” Johnson said. The community has made considerable investment in moving forward with bus-system upgrades instead, he noted. Johnson endorsed the S-curves alignment.
Asked how he’d put people back to work, Ittner said he has been inaccurately pegged as the pro-growth candidate. Bringing businesses back to empty Aspen storefronts, increased tourism and a sustainable population that spends its money locally will all help put people to work, he said.
“My approach on growth has more to do with growing the community, which is not about construction or building,” Ittner said.
Johnson responded to the same query by calling for the county to maintain the growth controls and other policies that have made it unique – a place where people want to visit, live and own property.
Weiss was asked about commissioner salaries – $72,500 annually – a sum he called “a tad high.” A pay cut is in order, he said.
Asked how he’d promote civic involvement in county government, Weiss struggled for an answer and finally said, “Aw, gosh. I don’t know.”
Speck, asked how he’d cut 15 percent from the county budget, said he’d first look for inefficiencies.
“I believe there’s some fat or misdirection in fixing some of the trails, some of the sidewalks that occurred,” he said, though there aren’t many sidewalks in unincorporated Pitkin County.
Asked how he would prioritize spending if several state ballot measures that will curtail county revenues pass, Speck said he hopes the initiatives don’t pass, and that there is no easy answer to spending cuts.
Johnson was lobbed a softball – how would he spend a 15 percent increase in county revenues – and said he’d first make sure health and human services were fully funded, then take advantage of lower real estate prices to buy open space and future worker housing sites.
Asked what impact he would bring regarding property taxes, Clapper said government should help out, but didn’t say how.
Clapper asked Ittner directly if he’d have time to run a restaurant and handle the commissioner’s job.
“My duties as owner of Rustique Bistro are not a full-time management job anymore,” Ittner responded. “The answer to that is a firm yes.”
In response to a citizen question, Ittner said he is a registered Republican, but is running for commissioner as an independent.
“I’m about an open-minded approach,” he said.
Johnson, a Democrat, answering a question from Ittner, said he doesn’t think there are great differences between Democrats and Republicans at the local government level.
Ittner asked Johnson if his Republican Party affiliation should be held against him by Democrats, but he didn’t get a yes-or-no answer.
“I don’t have a problem with you being a Republican,” Johnson said. “It seems to me that you may have more of an issue with being a Republican than I do.”
The five candidates will square off in an Aug. 10 primary for a seat currently held by Clapper’s wife, Patti Kay-Clapper, who is being forced out by term limits. The top two vote-getters will advance to the November general-election ballot.
Early voting begins Monday in Pitkin County. All registered voters may cast a vote in the primary for the county races – for the District 1 seat and sheriff’s post – regardless of party affiliation.