EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - With this year's election season nearly over, it's time to ask the five candidates for two seats on the Eagle County Board of Commissioners what they've learned while on the campaign trail.
With that in mind, here's the next-to-last question for the candidates:
As you've been talking to voters during your campaign, have you changed any of the opinions you held when you first started running? Which of your opinions have been strengthened as you've talked to county residents?
As always, my opinions have been refreshed by walking and talking with constituents. I hear positive views about county government. We have improvements to make, but these are obtainable.
This is good.
The most significant feedback I've gotten, when opinions about local government are separated from the general dislike of national politics, is that most citizens are happy with where we are going. I am impressed that citizens understand we've met budget challenges competently, without drama. They seem to know what is going on. This is reinforcing because we have sought to be as transparent as possible through this changing media market. Citizens are overwhelmed with information about all the levels of governance. What news used to do was to distill it down for public consumption.
With the lack of traditional coverage, people keep track of what we do through county TV - live or archived. This is impressive. It's is a trend we should all watch. People tune in when they can, get the information they need, as is convenient.
When I talked to people four years ago, most relied on the filtered information from the news. It used to take a serious commitment through the whole process - lots of showing up. Today, you can follow your government in your pajamas.
This trend will depend on local officials to be even more effective at distilling information and communicating directly with constituents who can make their own decisions. I think it will put more direct light on those who actually make decisions.
The greatest benefit derived from campaigning is the opportunity to become acquainted with so many people that, otherwise, may never have crossed your path. Many of my discussions with county residents have reinforced my positions. When I entered this race, I believed the economic position of Eagle County and many residents to be depressed. Now, more than ever, I am convinced that economic stability and jobs in this county are paramount and businesses support to increase commerce.
I knew about the number of foreclosures and that 300 businesses closed in the last three years; but I recently learned that in 2008, the Salvation Army provided 78 individuals with food per month and now provides 200 per month. The county doesn't keep statistics on jobs created, but a more than 100 percent increase in food assistance indicates income for our people is precarious.
I've also met many people expressing ambivalence at how our local government works and that voting doesn't matter. It matters - if you put the right people in those elected positions, it can make all the difference in the world, especially in a county with so many people willing to work together and looking for that facilitation in their county government.
In anticipation of a run for commissioner, I began meeting with the community exactly one year ago. The following is what I learned and subsequently built into my platform:
The economy is a hot topic. Residents want the county to participate in economic-development efforts. They also want the most efficient use of tax dollars and cutting red tape. I have also heard about service challenges from budget shortfalls, like public safety.
Residents are concerned about our valuable and vulnerable environment. I am now more sensitive to ecosystems, rivers and wildlife. This special place affords a certain quality of life that also sustains us economically. We have to be intentional about preserving it.
There is widespread support for a retirement community with independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing care, all in one place. No amenity like this exists in the region. Given our resort economy, the county must initially contribute to make the numbers work. The current board is close to bringing this to fruition.
Finally, I hear that health care costs are continuing to impact residents and businesses. The county has a major role in starting a federally qualified health center, to be run by a nonprofit. The center would reduce the cost shifting of unpaid medical bills to everyone's insurance premiums.
Because it's a forum where so many are willing to participate, I've discovered that campaigning provides tremendous perspective and context on the important issues in Eagle County. Here are some of the things I've learned from talking with others:
• The positive impact the county can have on the local economy by simply investing in an active approach to implementing economic-development plans that have been largely developed.
• Budgeting philosophy should be influenced in a more meaningful way with current "best practices" and what constitutes healthy reserve balances.
• Eagle County residents of the Roaring Fork Valley helped me understand the challenges of developing true recreational amenities there.
• Horse lovers are excited about the possibility of reinventing the Eagle River Center for high-level equestrian events but acknowledge the risks involved.
• Air-travel experts told me there are great rewards and some risks involved in developing an international terminal at the Eagle County airport.
• Hunters shared with me the importance of open space on the valley floor that serves as critical winter habitat for big game.
• Employee-housing regulations need to be flexible and balanced to reflect the present need.
• It's difficult to develop a modern technology infrastructure, but creativity in government can help.
Perhaps most importantly, the campaign has reinforced my belief that good governance takes a lot of effort and contributions from as many people as possible to create public policy that benefits all. I've been able to meet a wider circle of people who have skills and experience in many different fields who I will consult to inform my decision-making.
The one opinion I have changed is my stance on the open space tax issue. Initially, I was opposed to bringing the issue back up for a vote. That stance was based on a couple of things. One, we voted on it already - I thought we should let the law stand, and during my collection of signatures, only one person brought the issue up.
During the campaign, I have heard from some of the voters how important this issue is for them. I also have made the bold statement that I want to put the public back in public servant. If I am going to do that, I have to give an opportunity to those whom I do not agree with to have a voice.
So let us bring it back up and have the vigorous debate about the value of open space. When the dust settles, the voters will have spoken, and we can move forward. If the voters repeal the open space tax, then we abide by the results of the election. If it is retained, then we must manage the program better to make sure that the voters are confident in our ability to lead.
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.