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A guide to commissioner races

Don Cohen

For the past year I’ve shared with you a variety of stories about issues related to long-term economic development for Eagle County. This November two of the three county commissioner seats will be up for election. It will offer you a chance to absolutely make a difference in the long-term direction of our county’s economy.Let’s start with the basics. Eagle County has three commissioners elected from three districts. This is an area of constant voter confusion. While the commissioners come from three districts (more or less dividing the county geographically in thirds) EVERYONE votes on a candidate no matter where they live in the county.Our county districts are designed to make sure that there is geographic dispersion of representatives. However, unlike a ward system in a large city, our county commissioners operate under an “at large” understanding in that they serve the needs of all residents.This year we are electing commissioners from Districts 1 and 2. District 1 is an open seat, since Michael Gallagher is retiring. Political newcomers Richard DeClark and Peter Runyon are vying for that seat. District 2 has incumbent Arn Menconi being challenged by A.J. Johnson and Buz Reynolds. District 3 is not up for re-election. That seat is held by Tom Stone who can only serve for two more years under term limitation rules.Let me repeat: All registered voters throughout Eagle County can vote for candidates in Districts 1 and 2.In Colorado politics, the county commissioner position is one of the most powerful. Commissioners oversee substantial budgets that directly affect the health and welfare of the local citizens. They do so with very few checks and balances, unlike the accountability safeguards of a mayor-council or governor-legislature models. They are paid $50,000 a year and provided with health benefits, car and administrative support staff. While it may be looked upon as a part-time job, in all actuality it’s pretty much a full-time commitment.Commissioners have a very wide latitude of financial and regulatory discretion. While they may hand pick appointments to advisory groups such as the open space advisory council and the planning and zoning commission, they are not bound by any recommendations by those committees or the county staff.County government is an extension of state government. One of the most visible examples of this is that you get your Colorado license plates from the County Clerk’s Office. The county is responsible for government services outside of incorporated towns, including roads, zoning, sheriff, public documents, social services and the airport.The county commissioners meet once a week on Tuesdays. The morning is spent in what is known as a work session. This is a public meeting that’s usually held in the commissioners’ conference room. Beyond the commissioners, the county administrator and one of the county attorneys are present.The formal hearing session is held in the afternoon. It is here that official business – such as approvals of liquor licenses, planning and zoning files and significant budgetary obligations – are discussed and voted on.More often than not, these weekly sessions are sparsely attended by the public. Depending on the business at hand, you may see a citizen or two, attorney or land planner in the gallery. Often the meetings are mind numbingly boring and almost have a scripted feel. Every now and then, when a politically charged issue is on the agenda, the gallery becomes fuller with people either to observe, display a show of support, or to speak.Because of the sheer volume of information that’s generated in running a county, the commissioners are inundated with reports and briefing books. There can be a lot of homework, and it’s all too easy for an ill-prepared commissioner to get lost in all the deep policy workings and “administrivia.”Commissioners whose views are colored by hard and fast ideology, or those who can get easily sidetracked by details, generally aren’t effective. The overwhelming volume of decisions that commissioners make are completely non-political. They’re mostly pragmatic decisions that balance the public’s interest and county finances.An effective commissioner should have vision. Unfortunately, that word has become significantly devalued through careless overuse. I’ll be more precise.A good commissioner should possess two types of vision. The first is strategic, and the second is wide angle.Strategic vision assesses both threats and opportunities. It’s less about creating a future and more about making sure sound policies and decisions are being made to cope with circumstances and forces that are not easily predicted. A successful strategic thinker is an intellectually disciplined individual who maintains a focus on long-term objectives and thinks proactively instead of reactively. A strategic thinker, when confronted with an issue, would be less inclined to say, “Let’s make up a rule to forbid the problem” and more likely to ask, “Is this a continuing problem?” If so: “Is there a solution to the causes that created the problem in the first place?”Wide-angle vision is enormously important to effective governance. When you’re dealing with public policy matters, the “law of unintended consequences” comes into play with nearly every decision. Effective commissioners work hard to avoid making decisions in a vacuum. They know that there are always multiple sides to an issue.Wide-angle vision looks at the various ramifications of a decision. But to an undisciplined mind, too much information can also create “analysis paralysis.” This is where political pragmatism is needed to choose a solution that may be imperfect, but is in the main effective.As the candidates for the two county commissioner seats become more visible during the campaign season, start listening to them carefully. Filter out the pat answers and platitudes and ask yourself, “Does this candidate have good strategic and wide angle vision?” That’s where the rubber meets the road.Don Cohen is the executive director of the Vail Valley Economic Council. He can be reached at dcohen@vvec.orgVail, Colorado


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