A.J. Johnson – candidate for Eagle County BOCC, Dist. 2
EDWARDS As far as A.J. Johnson is concerned, what you see is what you get. Blame it on his Midwestern heritage Johnson grew up on a farm in Nebraska where the truth is as apparent as the wind that blows across the plains. Maybe that salt-of-the-earth quality comes from his dad, who ran not only a full-fledged cattle farm but a few businesses in town. As a result, Johnson was put to work early.I got my Social Security number at 9 years old, he said. The Edwards resident and Republican candidate for a District 2 county commission seat believes that honesty helped get him re-elected to the Eagle County Sheriff seat for four terms. He ran as an independent for the first two terms, and as a Republican for the last two.Party affiliations dont mean that much to him. Eagle Countys laid-back lifestyle does, he said.We all came here for a reason, he said. For me, it was the lifestyle, the amenities.But those qualities are starting to change a bit as the county grows, he said. Things are getting a little faster, and little less personal here, he said. It seems to be the plague of any fast-growing, once-rural, community. But Johnson doesnt think it has to be inevitable and he thinks county government can take a lead in ensuring that it isnt. Yearning to leadJohnson may not be the most outspoken of the candidates running for county commission. He prefers to have all the facts in place before giving his opinion, he said. But hes content with where hes at, how he makes his decisions and why he makes them, he said. He married his middle school sweetheart, Barbara, after high school. At age 22, he was sent into the Vietnam War, leaving his wife and a young child at home. Johnson served for a year in the Coast Guard in Vietnam before returning in February 1968. Despite the controversies surrounding the Vietnam War, Johnson said he feels comfortable with his service. I served my country and Im very proud of that, he said. War is never right, but I got called and I went.While serving in the military, Johnson gained some law enforcement experience. When he returned home, he began looking for a public safety job. He was hired by the Omaha Police Department and worked there for six years. It was a great job, he said. I was enjoying it. I was working on a promotion to sergeant.In the mid-1970s, Johnson came out to Colorado for the first time to ski with family. He had never skied before and spent most of his first day on the slopes crashing on the snow. But he was hooked, he said. We started coming out a lot, he said. We would come out almost every other weekend.While in Vail during the summer of 1976, Johnson, on a whim, decided to stop by the Vail Police Department to see if they had any openings. He was given a polygraph test that day and soon after, he was offered a job. At the time, Johnson was working nights full-time with the Omaha Police, running a few businesses, including a movie theater, on the side. He left his job, sold his businesses and moved his wife and his two sons out to Vail. I got here in the winter of 1976, he said. I skied every day and worked nights.He laughs when he remembers how poor of a snow year it was. It was a bad winter, there were rocks everywhere, he said. But we really got into it.Moving up the ranksNo doubt, Johnson liked to have fun. But he was serious about his job. He worked himself up in the Vail Police Department from officer to sergeant to investigator. He became friends with the sheriff at the time, who retired and was replaced. It was at that time that Johnson began to consider running for sheriff. In anticipation for his bid for office, he left his job with Vail and became the director of Beaver Creek Security staff.In 1982, Johnson ran for sheriff and won. Perhaps that was the easy part. In his first year as sheriff in 1983, Johnson oversaw 18 officers, including the jail staff. His office occupied only the top floor of the old Eagle County Courthouse at the end of Broadway Street in Eagle. He also took over the office just as the department was being served with a class action lawsuit for having too small of a jail and inadequate feeding facilities for inmates. He also had to deal with a lawsuit that his office had filed against the county commissioners for failing to provide enough funding for the department. It was a lot of trial and error, Johnson said. During his tenure as sheriff, he increased the size of the department nearly ten-fold and worked to equip deputies with the latest technology and training. The result was a sheriffs office that was second-rate to none in the state, he said.Sure, there were mistakes along the way. I think the hardest thing is to be straight with the public, he said. When you make a mistake, you need to own up to it.We werent always right, but we always tried to do better the next time, he added. I think people respected that.Term limits forced Johnson to retire from the job. He took a job with a telecommunications company, selling security systems. He enjoys the change of pace, but public service is what fulfills him. I felt there was this piece that was missing, he said. I could go out and get another chief job, but Ive already done that.As he has for most of his life, Johnson began considering his next step early on. Running for county commissioner began to interest him while he was sheriff. His family isnt surprised by his bid. Perhaps this scenario should have been anticipated in 2002, when he left the Sheriffs Office. Retirement isnt really my lifestyle, Johnson said then. I wont be gone long. Ill be involved in some way or another.Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Colorado
Q. Is affordable housing as pressing an issue now as it was 10 years ago? As the county continues to grow, do you think the county’s housing policies should change, and if so, how? Is there enough housing priced affordably for Eagle County’s middle-class families? Is there enough housing priced affordably for Eagle County’s low-income families?Q. As county commissioner, how would you balance the desire for open space with finding land for housing? What areas of the county do you see fit for housing? What areas would be better left as open space?A. Open space is very important to our quality of life and uniqueness – the reason many of us decided to move here in the first place. It is one of the tools available to us and we must address the process in the best interest of our communities.The citizens have mandated open space to the tune of millions of dollars over the next 22 years. It behooves us to make sure that a county assessment is completed as to what lands may be available, assuring that all decisions made will improve our quality of life, and provide a clear explanation of the contractual agreements in spending our citizens’ tax money.The I-70 corridor has been laid out for economic growth by most of the existing master plans, and I believe the majority of development should stay within the corridor and not become sprawl or pocket developments into our valleys and mountain areas. All development projects, especially residential, must have open space areas included within their designs to address quality-of-life issues and to allow for their own character and uniqueness.I also believe there can be a blending, in some areas, of open space, housing, clean air businesses, and educational facilities that create a healthy balance. Q. Would the Board of County Commissioners operate more democratically if there were five board members, rather than three? Would you consider turning Eagle County into a home-rule county to accomplish this goal? What are the obstacles and benefits of such a move?A. Today, there are 64 counties within Colorado, and presently only two of them are home rule counties, Pitkin and Weld. Many of the larger counties with populations exceeding 70,000 (the required population number for a county to go to five commissioners without creating a home rule charter) have stayed with three commissioners. With the creation of a home rule charter, there are numerous legal and financial considerations that will have to be addressed. I support the creation of a bipartisan citizens’ committee to evaluate the benefits and concerns. This process will provide the commissioners and citizens with the knowledge to make an informed decision whether or not to adopt home rule status.The issue that some of our commissioners are not working together in the best interest of our citizens is being overshadowed by the concept that just “adding more” will rectify this problem. Being cautious about creating more bureaucracy, I believe the first answer is to set aside differences, egos, self-agendas, special interests and work together in support of the people. The three commissioners need to be responsive to both the entire county and to their districts. The districts are small enough that most concerns will be overlapping or affect more than one area, and if we are to be a true community, we need to collaborate, understand and address issues as a whole. Q. Does Edwards take up more than its fair share of the county’s resources and funds? Should the county return more of the sales tax revenue collected from towns back to the towns? Should Edwards incorporate?A. I believe that consolidations, blending, reallocations, etc. of local-based services are community-based issues.It is the responsibility of county government to support the will of the people and make the difference by providing information, assistance, public trust and leadership in decision-making. It is not the county’s business to create more bureaucracy or taxing entities. The county provides resources and services to many citizens living in unincorporated Eagle County that support our local towns, and currently returns 15 percent of all sales tax collected back to the towns.I believe there are more efficient ways, through blending and regionalism of the right services and needs, to address the interest of citizens, reduce increasing costs and governmental control. As an elected official, I would support the citizens’ interest and viewpoints concerning incorporation. I would work to make sure that a bipartisan committee addresses the pros and cons of incorporation and other possible alternatives before any election took place, so that our citizens would be informed and confident in their direction. As a citizen, I will always be cautious about creating more government, taxes and bureaucracy. Q. What one thing would you do to ensure the future viability of our water supply?A. It is very important that commissioners or staff be closely connected to state and local water activities through our conservation districts, watershed council, water compacts, memorandums of understanding and our 1041 authority process.Equally important is that we abide by the Colorado 64 water principles (which also cover the conservation and environmental issues), get a good assessment as to how much water is available now and what will be available for the future. We also need to assess all available storage and renew our existing sites that are not in use.Q. A significant percentage of the middle-class wage jobs in this county are connected to the local construction industry. These jobs include not only construction workers and contractors, but architects and engineers, just to mention a few. Are you concerned about what would happen to these jobs as the county becomes completely built out? What should Eagle County do to diversify its economy? A. Eagle County should be the catalyst that brings together and inspires our local entities to establish a strategic plan that assesses and gives direction for a shared economic future.I believe that a continuous open dialogue with our local business communities is extremely important in developing healthy community attitudes.I will host biannual community-based work sessions, comprising local business people, council members, youth, commissioners, staff and committee members, where local resources, workforce skills, obstacles, opponents and goals can be assessed and addressed. An economic development council is a very important element of any successful community plan. As a commissioner, I will support a regional economic business partnership consisting of government, community and business leaders that will enhance the development of a business plan with goals and measurements that justify a return on investment and add value to our communities.I will also work to initiate tax incentives and small business loan programs for clean-air businesses, which will hire and support our local work force.Q. What recreation needs do you feel are still not being met in Eagle County? Is it time to consolidate the county’s recreation districts? A. As our diversity changes, so will our recreational needs. Youth centers, pools and other indoor recreational facilities are all areas that need to be addressed, as well as transportation issues. I believe our county, local councils, committees and recreation boards need to have a planned and collaborative direction in sharing and servicing recreational needs throughout our county.Through mergers, re-allocations, shared facilities and blending, we can enhance some services to organizations and communities. These processes all deserve review by tax-supported entities that provide like or overlapping services so that we can determine the practices that would best serve local community needs.Q. What is the most significant issue facing the county today?A. This question encompasses the total “humanistic infrastructure” for Eagle County and a collaborative effort with local municipalities (as they contribute to at least 50 percent of our growth). This includes housing, childcare, youth services, health care, seniors, recreation and other quality-of-life issues.Our humanistic infrastructure must be addressed in developing a strategic plan for Eagle County that will provide direction in dealing with growth now and prepare for future activities. It is through the collaboration and the regional combination of intellect and resources that will allow us to solve issues and build healthier communities.Eagle County needs to:1) Be involved as a supporter of programs and projects that assist day-care providers through grants and assistance, rather than being a landlord.2) Use tax incentives, which assist organizations and local businesses that provide legitimate and legally run child-care services for children of their employees. 3) Supplement the portion of the state property tax exemption allowed to our Eagle County seniors, which the state refuses to fund.4) Make assisted-living facilities a reality in our county, allowing our senior citizens the dignity and choice of being close to friends and family.5) Continue to work with private organizations in establishing cost-effective health care plans and promote health savings plans through government assistance programs.A. The words “affordable housing” will always be a challenge when considering the cost of living, land costs, building costs and market values in our valley as they relate to income. I believe there are many ways our government can be involved in this process and help create more local ownership, leaving the development business and landlord matters to the private sector and local markets.Through a combination of private partnerships, along with other aggressive market incentives, our county can go a long way in addressing this issue, such as: 1. Developing an aggressive down-payment loan process that addresses time at the location, interest paid back, and percentage of earned commission allowed, all based on a sliding-scale system that will allow citizens to be prosperous, instead of merely restricting deeds, etc.2. Tax incentives tied to criteria that would support home ownership for long-time locals.3. Creating business-and-land partnerships that enhance the economic conditions for housing being developed away from commercial projects, rather than on top of them.4. Lobbying for and securing all federal and state grants available for rental and housing projects and/or programs.
Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 607, or email@example.com.Vail Daily