Term limits to bring new faces into Eagle County
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Thanks to term limits, Eagle County voters have some extra homework to do before this fall?s general election.
Along with studying unfamiliar candidates in the newly mapped 2nd Congressional District, learning details of proposed tax increases for open space and recreation, weighing several proposed amendments to the state constitution and deciding whether to re-elect one of their county commissioners, they will need to choose from a fresh slate of candidates for sheriff, clerk and recorder, surveyor and coroner.
All four offices are being vacated this year under mandate from the state constitution, which limits local officials to two consecutive terms in office. In recent years, local and state officials from throughout Colorado have been leaving their jobs because of the limits. Voters first enacted term limits for federal elected offices in 1990 and then for state and local government positions in 1994 as part of a now-defunct national movement to force longtime incumbents out of office.
Voters will actually have a chance to rescind term limits in Eagle County this year, but whatever they decide will be too late for the incumbents being forced out of office. The elected officials in Eagle County being forced out are all longtime incumbents who have been in office from 10 to 24 years.
The longest in office is Coroner Donna Barnes, who has held the position for 24 years.
?It’s about time somebody made this decision for me so I don’t have to agonize over it,? said Barnes, a registered nurse at Vail Valley Medical Center.
Her husband, Richard, is downright relieved by the change. “No more two-in-the-morning phone calls. We like to travel, and as coroner she really has to stay close to home,” he said.
Barnes was first elected in 1978, partly by accident. At the time, she had a boyfriend who was active in Republican party politics and took her to a local meeting of the Eagle County GOP. At the meeting, Barnes and her beau learned that no one from the party was running for the coroner?s office, which can be run by either a medical doctor or registered nurse.
?You can do this,? Barnes remembers her man telling her. And she did.
Barnes currently manages an office of six deputy coroners and two forensic pathologists. The position is responsible for investigating the cause and manner of deaths in Eagle County.
But even if she is not upset with the fact that she has no choice but to step down, Barnes does not support term limits for at least some local offices.
?I do think it’s too bad there are term limits for coroners,? she said. ?It?s a skilled position, which makes it hard to replace every two terms.?
Barnes says a number of people in the county have been surprised to learn she is affected by term limits. ?People forget the term limits are in place,? she said. She added that much of the surprise, and dismay, concerns the high-profile offices of clerk and recorder and sheriff.
?Sara Fisher [the clerk and recorder] has been very popular, and I think people are surprised she can?t run again,? Barnes said.
Fisher regrets the fact that she doesn?t have a choice about running. She likes her job, thinks she does it well and would have given a third full term serious consideration if she had the chance.
The clerk and recorder is responsible for administering elections, issuing licenses, recording real estate transactions and keeping minutes for the county?s elected and appointed boards.
“I did not intend on it being a lifelong career when I was first appointed,? Fisher said. ?But I think it’s unfortunate that the county commissioners chose not to put the question to voters about rescinding term limits before it affected elected officials.?
Fisher, who switched her political affiliation from Republican to independent in recent years, said she hears all the time from people who want her to run for another term.
?It was with this election, when term limits went into effect, that the light went on and people realized they really existed,? she said.
Fisher is not sure what she?ll do after she steps down at the end of December. She lives in Gypsum with her husband, Bill, and her dog, Harmony.
“I’m going to rely on him for input into my next career,? Fisher said of her dog, not her husband. ?So I might become a dog walker.”
Fisher said Eagle County voters initially opposed term limits when they were placed on the statewide ballot in 1994. Four years later, however, county voters rejected a referendum question seeking to overturn term limits for all the county?s elected offices, from low-profile surveyor to always-controversial county commissioner.
Fisher and other observers believe that the 1998 question was doomed, because the county commissioners then in office tied their fate to the less political, more administrative offices such as clerk and recorder. “It failed because it was all-inclusive, and it was worded in a way that made it difficult to understand,” she said.
This year?s ballot contains separate questions for each office, so voters can pick and choose where they want to keep term limits and where they want to lift them.
County Commissioner Tom Stone, who is running for a second term this year, said term limit questions were placed on the ballot this year so voters could could consider the office without having to worry about the incumbent in charge of it.
?The clerk and the sheriff said they didn’t want to run anyway,? Stone said. ?So the board [of county commissioners] decided to do it during a year that would take away the personality from the issue ? that way voters will be deciding about the office rather than the individual.?
Like the other local officials interviewed for this story, including Sheriff A.J. Johnson, Stone said he does not favor term limits for local officials.
Johnson, who has been re-elected six times since 1982, said he would prefer to have had a choice about running again.
?I would have preferred it was put up beforehand,? he said when asked about the term limits question.
?I’m not for term limits, whether I’m out or in,? he added.
Johnson has run the sheriff?s department during a time of rapid growth in Eagle County. According to department spokeswoman Kim Andree, there were two deputies on duty in Eagle County on any given day when Johnson took office in 1982; now there are four to six patrolling the geographically challenging county, which stretches from Vail to Basalt. Johnson is leaving his successor with a department of 60 employees, including deputies, investigators, jailers and administrators.
?We have expanded and really stretched our wings under Sheriff Johnson ? we?ve tried things that work and things that didn’t work,? said Andree, who has worked with Johnson since before he became sheriff.
Overall, she said, the longtime sheriff?s treatment of employees, prisoners and the accused has been compassionate and creative.
?I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think he did an awesome job,? she said.
Andree, like her boss, is against term limits. ?I believe we as a people have many, many options to take someone we don’t approve of out of office,? she said. ?I want to vote for who I want to vote for ? I don’t want to be told who I can’t vote for.?
Johnson said he isn?t entirely sure what he?ll do next, or where he?ll do it. He said if the right job came up, he would move away from Eagle County, where he?s raised a family with his wife, Barbara, and lived for the last 28 years.
?I’m not retiring, I’m just moving on to other dimensions,? he said. “I’ve never been afraid of work.? Johnson, 56, said he might remain involved politically in Eagle County.
Eagle County Surveyor Jim Kunkel said he would have run again if he had the chance, but he?s not bemoaning the loss. ?I wouldn’t be leaving it otherwise, but it’s not a real big deal to me,? he said.
Kunkel has provided the county?s official word on boundary line disputes and subdivision reviews since 1988.
Kunkel also wondered about the wisdom of term limits.
“We have a really good clerk and recorder, and I’m sorry to see her go. It’s a bad deal that way,” he said.
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