Arn Menconi " The legacy of Eagle County’s "maverick reformer" | VailDaily.com
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Arn Menconi " The legacy of Eagle County’s "maverick reformer"

Nathan Rodriguez
Illustration by Amanda Swanson
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He rolled into town on a snowboard with shoulder-length hair, threatened Eagle County’s Republican establishment with his liberal ideas, and now, after eight years as Eagle County commissioner, Arn Menconi is ready to continue his path of public service after his term expires.

At first blush, it’s tough to gauge how his years of service will be remembered.

“Legacy? I don’t think you can have a legacy after eight years,” said Debbie Marquez of the Eagle County Democrats. “I can’t think of anything Arn did that would make for a legacy.”

While others disagreed with her assessment, one person went on record with his dissatisfaction with the outspoken commissioner: Arn Menconi.

“As far as any legacy goes, there isn’t any feeling of being proud. More than anything, I have the feeling of failure,” he said. “I try to stay detached from it, or kind of reflective in that, 10 or 20 years from now, how will I be able to look back on it? That’s one thing I think about a lot.”

It’s been said that friends come and go, but enemies accumulate. And while Menconi has mended fences with some of his fiercest opponents, he understands he remains a lightning rod for controversy.

For starters, Menconi has withstood two recall attempts. In 2001, Menconi refused to sign a resolution supporting U.S. military action following Sept. 11, and a group of local veterans collected signatures to force an election to recall Menconi. They came up short.

Just last summer, Vail resident Mike Reid helped lead an effort to recall Menconi, saying he ignored the will of voters. Organizers again failed to collect enough signatures to force an election.

Menconi has also faced criticism concerning his appropriation of public funds on a variety of issues, from early childhood development, to securing the Eaton Parcel in Edwards with money from the general treasury, to purchasing a fleet of Toyota Priuses for the County.

A number of current and former elected officials preferred not to comment.

Democratic County Commissioner Peter Runyon, who is running for re-election this year, and sided with Menconi on early childhood funding and many open space decisions, laughed, saying, “This is a no-win for me. I’d just as soon let his record stand on its own.”

Former Republican County Commissioner Tom Stone, who clashed with Menconi at times during the six years they served together, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

This tepid response wasn’t completely surprising, even to Menconi.

“In terms of what you see in the campaign season, it’s this indictment toward Arn Menconi,” he said. “So George Bush and I actually have a lot in common ” it’s really quite bizarre.”

“I’ve been into politics ever since I can remember,” Menconi said. “I knew the presidents’ names in order when I was in kindergarten. I could recite platforms” ” he paused with a wry grin ” “just like other maverick reformers.”

It’s this streak of acerbic wit that contributes to his controversy.

“I tried to be Jon Stewart as a county commissioner. That’s how I see myself. Of course, Jon Stewart is a whole different, major-league level, but his sort of ironic view … the man’s a genius,” Menconi said. “The way I watch the show, because we don’t have TV, is I’ll wake up at 2:30 in the morning ” I got recalled twice, so I don’t sleep that well ” and I’ll watch it online, sitting there after midnight with my laptop thinking, ‘This guy is just so true and justifiably angry! People don’t even realize it.'”

Growing up, Menconi got in trouble for talking too much in school, and even friends say his irrepressible passion for social advocacy has, at times, worn thin over the years.

“The worst argument we ever had was over early childhood (funding). I didn’t talk to him for a couple months,” said Don Cohen, executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County. “It wound up being a good thing to do, but he went about it the wrong way. A lot of people who work with him turn around the next second and want to brain him. Of course I don’t mean that, but while many of us enjoy working with Arn, he can also be very frustrating.”

Menconi said he was advised early on that he’d “be pulled in hundreds of different directions” upon assuming a commissioner seat, and needed to stay focused on three or four campaign promises.

He also tried to better understand his constituency.

“As an elected official, you have to sort of accept … some people in communities will go to every meeting and be very involved,” he said. “But I chose to run for the people who don’t go to meetings and still want to maintain the fabric of community: my neighbors, I also knew a lot of people who worked at restaurants and ski shops, the teachers and nurses ” you’re representing the people who may not even know they have a county commissioner, and yet, you have some impact on their everyday life.”

Menconi will likely be most remembered for his controversial actions to secure funding for early childhood education.

The commissioner approved funding for early-childhood education last year, even after voters rejected a mill levy for that purpose in November 2006. Leaders of last year’s recall effort on Menconi cited that move as a reason he should be removed from office.

“He stood up when it wasn’t a popular position to take. I have tremendous respect for him because he was willing to step outside of what’s popular and make some tough choices,” said Katie Bruen, marketing and event director of the Youth Foundation, a local nonprofit that provides programs for economically disadvantaged youth. “That alone is a great legacy, because regardless of how people felt at the time, the community is so much better off with early childhood education.”

Menconi’s closest friends say without hesitation his passion is a blessing and a curse. Susie Davis, executive director of the Youth Foundation, whom Menconi described as the “Mother Theresa of Eagle County,” called him a visionary who didn’t always apply effective tactics to achieve his goals.

“When he decides something, man, can he be a pit bull. He knows what he wants and follows through and stays on you until results are achieved. He’s relentless,” Davis said. “He’s a person who, when others look back on his life at the memorial service, people may finally recognize his true value, because his personality can get in the way.”

For his part, Menconi feels early childhood funding was well worth the battle.

“When you’re in the rain getting punched, it doesn’t feel so good,” he said. “But then you step out, and someone says, ‘Did you realize that, dollar for dollar, we’re doing more (for early childhood development) than Summit County, which passed the tax?'”

In addition to championing childhood development, Menconi left his mark in calling for affordable housing and greater regulations for second-home owners. He said when he’s questioned by business leaders about his intentions, he’ll argue that just as sub-prime mortgages should have been regulated by the federal government, the county should regulate second-home development and favor more affordable housing.

Menconi said a long-term vision is necessary in contemplating land use.

“You’ve got to think of it like a canvas. What we’re trying to do is imagine future canvases, and how whatever we put on that canvas will affect another canvas that affects another canvas,” he said. “What people did before is, ‘Well, this person wants to do it, so we’ll let them do it.'”

He added that planning for growth allows the county to better meet the needs of residents who want to “live, play and work closer.”

When he dove into shaping the look and feel of Eagle County, Menconi met Ron Wolfe, Avon’s self-described moderate Republican mayor, who credits Menconi for convincing him to run for town council.

“Arn and I sometimes disagree or come at issues from different directions, but what I’ve always valued is we can have a very thoughtful conversation to explore each other’s points of view,” Wolfe said. “In spite of the fact that he’s criticized, Arn’s an honest man with great integrity and compassion for what he believes in. And he pursues that with great vigor; you can’t fault him for that. Even if you disagree with him, he’s at least changed the dialogue.”

In addition to promoting recycling and energy conservation, Cohen said Menconi engaged in extensive behind-the-scenes work to change the culture of the Eagle County government.

“That’s one aspect very few people know about. He’s done a hell of a lot of work professionalizing the operations of Eagle County,” he said. “A few years ago, after the last big regime of commissioners, the county staff was demoralized, and a lot of people were timid about putting new ideas forward. Arn’s done a very good job of making county staff feel empowered, and that’s something that’s hard to measure and almost impossible to see, but can lead to better management of government.”

Susie Davis said, “In 10 years, people will look back and go, ‘Oh, maybe that wasn’t such a weird idea he had after all,’ because he really is a visionary.”

She said she knows what Menconi will be known for, and it’s not his work as a commissioner. After first joking he would be remembered as the most frequently recalled local politician, Davis said his business acumen was top-rate, proven by the success of SOS Outreach, the youth nonprofit that Menconi founded as the Snowboard Outreach Society in 1993.

“But what he’ll be known for, 10 years or more out, are his kids,” she said. “His kids are already remarkable, and that’s what he’ll be remembered for. They’re absolutely adorable, and he made a really great choice in a wife.”

So Menconi, who once seemed to relish kicking up powder, is now settling into family life, with plans to continue his community work through SOS Outreach. But not without carrying lessons learned from his years on the Board of Commissioners.

“I believe in public service, and I believe that God puts me where I need to be,” Menconi said. “I’m very spiritual, even if I’m not always a good example of that. But right now I’m the executive director of the largest winter sports charity in the country, and I get to be involved with sports, and youths and giving back.”

And with that, he’d finished what needed to be said.

Nathan Rodriguez may be reached at nrodriguez@vailtrail.com.

Even people who don’t follow baseball have generally heard the phrase, “Manny being Manny,” describing colorful behavior from one of the best in the game.

Menconi will certainly be remembered for his public service and efforts on land use, early childhood development and snowboarding, but he’ll also be remembered for his effusive personality.

Here are some of Menconi’s thoughts on a variety of issues:

On the ‘kiddie care tax’:

“The only thing that really angers me is when people call it the ‘kiddie care tax.’ That’s so pejorative, and such a desensitized, uncompassionate understanding of families with children, whether they’re receiving benefits or not ” because I’m not, and I have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. But all boats rise with the tide, and my children go to school with other children, so we do benefit from it. When you call something a ‘kiddie care tax,’ that’s like calling someone a tree-hugger or a neo-con.”

On his first recall attempt as county commissioner:

“It was like I was the Jimmy Hoffa of snowboarding.”

On interest in running for a seat in state or national politics:

“I thought about it for a long time, and it was something I was very serious about. I don’t think people realize county commissioners, to a certain extent, are that important of a political position, but in the state of Colorado, I would rather be a county commissioner than a state legislator. You’re given all three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the quasi-judicial. With one vote, you administrate millions of dollars and make policy … It’s not something I could see myself doing … From the people that I talk to who have been at the state House, and what their feelings are, I don’t think that would appeal to me.”

On “the rules of the game”:

“In this community, the population is aged, so you have a very big semi-retired population that knows how to play the game.

And I’ve said, ‘Don’t hate the player, hate the game.’ [laughs] I’ve just learned the game, buddy! You just don’t like it ’cause I’ve learned the game!”

On county commission candidates promising lower taxes:

“The people of Eagle County need to hear the candidates’ answers if we’re going to understand how they plan to govern effectively. What exactly will be cut? Exactly how much will be cut? What revenue sources will they cut? What are the impacts if the dollars are cut? If the candidates truly understood what they were promising, they would tell you exactly how they plan to govern. We aren’t hearing anything of the sort, because either they don’t understand the county’s budget or are making promises they don’t know how to keep.”

On funding early childhood development:

“These people have no problem funding seniors, no problem funding recreation, but don’t think it’s government’s role to fund early childhood development, when it’s been proven time and time again that it can be the best investment that society makes.”

On budget cuts and public service:

“If we’re talking about a $7 million cut, you’re going to cut into things that could have staff layoffs at the county…That’s for them to decide. I get to go back to being a spectator. I’m not a player on the field anymore.

That’s what the NAACP guy said to me, ‘You’re on the field. They’re in the stands. If they want to be on the field, they can, but you’re running the ball.’

I thought, ‘Okay.’ (laughs) I mean, I believed him, but you don’t want to have that relationship where it’s like, ‘You don’t like it? You do it.’

It’s like that part in ‘Airplane,’ where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said, ‘You carry Wilt Chamberlain up and down the court for two-and-a-half hours, and see how you feel! (laughs)

But if you cut the budget, if you don’t believe that government can take care of growth management, well, either you control development or development is going to control you.”

On meeting Apollo Creed:

“At this very small dinner party, the actor who played Apollo Creed comes into the room, and you know, I saw ‘Rocky’ when I was 18 with my dad, and we just loved every second of it. But he comes in, and I’m looking at him, and my friend said to him, ‘I want you to meet my friend from Vail, Colorado,’ he said, ‘He’s a liberal Democratic county commissioner.’ And Apollo Creed’s first words to me were, “There’s no such thing as a liberal Democrat in Vail, Colorado.” [laughs]

And my first reaction was, ‘This guy is really sharp.’

And I said, ‘Well, there’s three of us, and they tried to recall me twice, once for not being patriotic enough, and the second time for funding early childhood education.’

He said, ‘You’re a damn communist!’ very facetiously.

And I was like, ‘I love this man.'”


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