Small crowd, big buzz for Squirm Night | AspenTimes.com
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Small crowd, big buzz for Squirm Night

Allyn Harvey

Even though the election forum last night was one of the most sparsely attended in recent memory, the half-dozen candidates for Pitkin County Commissioner still found themselves squirming at times.

Especially District 3 candidate Michael O’Sullivan, who is opposing Shellie Roy Harper in next week’s election.

The local pre-election forum, hosted over the years by both local newspapers and known as Squirm Night, was held at the St. Regis Hotel in front of about 25 people.

But the small crowd still buzzed when O’Sullivan was asked how he expected to operate within and impact decisions in county government when he has no experience on any of the citizen boards that are regularly convened here.

O’Sullivan accounted for his own lack of participation in government by pointing out that he works to support his family. Then he commented on the experience of two fellow candidates. “Dorothea Farris and Shellie Harper have served on boards, but they are basically housewives,” O’Sullivan said.

He apologized for the statement at the end of the night.

O’Sullivan proved to have the hottest head of all six candidates, accusing the local press of misrepresenting his statements and using selective reporting to keep information from the people. He interrupted Farris, the incumbent seeking re-election in District 5, by holding up plans and diagrams for a railroad at the Entrance to Aspen and trying to attract the attention of a cameraman from Grassroots Television while she was answering a question.

And, returning to more standard election behavior, he accused the current county commissioners of misleading their constituents on important issues like transportation.

O’Sullivan’s rants were easily answered by Harper, a single mother. “What RFRHA or BOCC meetings have you ever attended to say the press misrepresented what was going on?” she asked him.

In pitching her case for re-election, Harper focused on the one issue that many people use to criticize her: her ability to change her mind, even when it seems opposed to her principals. “I will not shoot from the hip,” she said. “I listen to other points of view and incorporate them into my decision.”

Martin Fiala, the Redstone resident who is challenging Farris, was also highly critical of the current commissioners, though he declined to assign qualities he ascribes to the board of county commissioners in campaign literature – dishonesty and closed government – directly to his opponent.

In the only open seat for county commissioner, the two candidates found themselves agreeing on most issues. Jack Hatfield and John Young, the Snowmass Village-area residents who are vying to replace retiring District 4 commissioner Leslie Lamont, struggled to separate themselves on issues. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try.

Young used his opening comments to address the differences. He started with the issue of housing by pointing out his support for the Aspen Mass affordable housing project in the midvalley, which Hatfield opposes, and the proposed Burlingame affordable housing project in the upper valley, which Young came out in favor of first.

“I went toe-to-toe with the Woody Creek Caucus [on Aspen Mass], and I’m proud to say that I’m the only candidate they’re actively opposing,” he said.

Hatfield said later in the evening that he feels the Aspen Mass project is poorly planned and represents sprawl. He is particularly concerned that the county lacks the kind of citizen planning and involvement that has gone into the Aspen Area Community Plan.

Young also said his style would be more open and reasoned than the one Hatfield had demonstrated in his six years as a Snowmass Village town councilman. Replying to a comment in Hatfield’s opening statement, he said, “Jack said this election wasn’t about children and families; I couldn’t disagree more.”

Young also explained his relationship with the controversial former owner of W/J Ranch, John Musick. He said he became involved in Musick’s proposal to build more than 700 units of affordable housing on the Woody Creek-area ranch because he is strongly in favor of affordable housing. “Musick stiffed me for $17,000 worth of fees. I learned from that experience, and I’m certain I will be much more careful to look for people like that and make sure they don’t do business in this valley,” he said.

Hatfield, meanwhile, emphasized his experience on the Snowmass Town Council, the local sanitation district board, and the county Planning and Zoning Commission. “I feel I am qualified to deal with the challenges we face in the next four years,” he said.

Hatfield and Young both favor the formation of a rural transportation authority to fund and manage bus service from Rifle to Aspen, as do incumbents Harper and Farris. O’Sullivan and Fiala both oppose the RTA because they believe its real purpose is to build a commuter rail from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.

The sharpest exchange between District 5 candidates Fiala and Farris came over the budget. Responding to a question from an audience member, Fiala said he had sat in on two hours of the budget hearing and determined the county budget was an unintelligible mess, lacking the comparisons and analysis needed for good decision making.

“If someone presented that to a corporate board, they would be fired,” said the retired Exxon executive. He promised to use his corporate acumen to force greater budgetary discipline on the county.

Farris, pointing out that Fiala spent only two hours in one budget meeting, said, “It’s an ongoing process for the budget, which needs to be flexible to meet the service needs of the county.”

She said the commissioners take in information and analysis throughout the year, making constant adjustments to the budget.


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