Becoming a five-commissioner board
EAGLE COUNTY – When is five better than three? Maybe when parts of the community don’t feel represented. Or when a rivalry between two people overshadows everything else.Some would say five county commissioners are better than three when one is absent. It’s also better when laws forbid two commissioners from speaking to each other about county business without making it a public meeting first.
The recent talk about expanding the Eagle County Board of Commissioners to five seats from three isn’t new. The idea has been around since Johnette Phillips, a former county commissioner, was the county clerk in the 1970s and ’80s. “It’s been brought up through the years off and on ever since,” said Phillips, who was a county commissioner from 1993 to 2001. “They were very serious about it in 1988.”The reasons for looking into the concept then are very similar to the reasons some are advocating it now. But the county has since doubled in population, doubled its budget and with that, doubled the workload for commissioners. And after four years of watching a rivalry between two commissioners consistently become front-page news, some concerned citizens apparently are searching for a solution. Some of those concerned citizens are candidates this November for two open seats on the board. Two of them say the idea of expanding the board to five commissioners is part of their campaign platform. The incumbent candidate, Commissioner Arn Menconi, has publicly promised to place the concept on an election ballot if re-elected.But will expanding the board really solve its problems? Could adding two more commissioners really eliminate personality conflicts and make county government more efficient?A committee was formed in 1988 to find answers to those very questions. Most agreed there was no evidence five county representatives would be better than three, Phillips said.So why would this time be any different? Problems, that’s for sureTo understand why the idea has re-surfaced, take a look at the county board today. Three commissioners oversee an $89 million budget and work for about 40,000 constituents. The county offices are in Eagle, which lies along Interstate 70 about 40 miles west of Vail. The communities of Bond, McCoy, El Jebel and Basalt also are in Eagle County, but thanks to geography, are miles away. All three of the commissioners – Tom Stone, Arn Menconi, and Michael Gallagher – in the Eagle River Valley, as does most of the county’s population. This disconnectedness drove residents of El Jebel and Basalt to start a secession campaign in the 1990s, complaining their views were not represented by Eagle County’s leaders. The effort failed, but the disconnectedness is still there. El Jebel and Basalt seem to have more of a relationship with Pitkin County to the south and the towns are bedroom communities for workers in Aspen. They also sit along Pitkin County’s mass transit system – the Roaring Fork Transit Authority. Even the children there attend the Roaring Fork district schools. Then there’s the problems that just exist on the board, exacerbated by a personality conflict between Menconi and Republican Tom Stone, and ongoing health problems that have caused Commissioner Michael Gallagher to be absent from time-to-time. Stone and Menconi, a Democrat, sit on opposite ends of the political and philosophical spectrum and their rivalry has sometimes been more newsworthy than their work as commissioners. Gallagher, a Vietnam veteran suffering from the side effects of his exposure to Agent Orange, frequently serves as the swing vote on the board. The case for fiveIt’s this “dysfunction” that prompted Avon Mayor Buz Reynolds to challenge Menconi for the midvalley commissioner seat. Personal agendas can “be kept in check” if there are five commissioners, said Reynolds, who’s running as an independent.”With three, decisions are made in a very non-democratic way,” he said. “With five, we would get a more democratic vote.”It also would remove the Democratic or Republican label from the commissioner position, Reynolds said. Candidates would just run as candidates, rather than party nominees. That’s also one of the main reasons why he choose to run as an unaffiliated candidate, rather than on a particular party’s ticket, he said. The idea is part of Reynolds’ platform, as it is for Democratic candidate Peter Runyon, who is running to replace Gallagher as the upvalley commissioner. Gallagher has opted not to run for re-election because of his health problems. Runyon believes that five heads are better than three and that commissioners should be elected by the citizens in their district, rather than “at large” like it is now, he said. In plainer terms, while each commissioner represents one of three districts in the county – the eastern end, the middle stretch and the western areas – all Eagle County voters get to select the commissioner for each district.Places like Basalt and El Jebel would have better representation if they were the sole constituents selecting their district’s commissioner, the argument goes. And two commissioners should be able to talk freely without notifying the public first, Runyon said. “Allowing commissioners the opportunity for casual conversations increases communication and efficiency while preserving the benefits of the sunshine laws,” Runyon said, referring to laws that require governments to have publicly announced and open meetings.Menconi, who is hoping to retain his midvalley commissioner seat in November, said during a recent candidate’s forum the concept has gotten praise from El Jebel and Basalt residents. He has promised to put the issue on a ballot if re-elected.A.J. Johnson, the Republican candidate who is opposing Reynolds and Menconi, says expanding the board wouldn’t really solve the problem that most people want to fix: conflict on the board.”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,” Johnson wrote in response to a Vail Daily questionnaire. Richard De Clark, the Republican candidate challenging Runyon for the upvalley commissioner seat, says he sees some benefit: There would be more perspectives on the board, and it would allow the board to function more efficiently if a commissioner is absent. But becoming a five-commissioner board can’t be done over night, De Clark points out. Because the county’s population is fewer than 70,000, the county would have to convert to home-rule status and write a new county charter (See sidebar).”Converting to home rule is a process, not an event, and is a greater task than just changing the number of commissioners,” De Clark said. But, he added, “the time is right to form a citizens’ committee to do a feasibility study on home rule.”Basalt Councilwoman Anne Freedman said she favors a five-person commission.”Given the makeup of Eagle County I would prefer electing the commissioners by district,” she said. “Those of us in the Roaring Fork portion of the county are isolated and need a representative who understands our area and is readily accessible to the citizenry.”Not a fanBud Gates remembers debating the concept of expanding the Eagle County Board of Commissioners to five seats instead of just three in the late 1980s, when he was commissioner.”I wasn’t in favor of it when I was on there,” Gates said. “I guess people will bring it up again as the population keeps increasing. It’s hard to get three good commissioners, let alone five.”Phillips, who lives in Gypsum and was elected to represent the central part of the county, said it shouldn’t matter.”I think when it comes time to vote, you don’t just vote for your district,” she said. “I know I never had just people from the Eagle/Edwards area call me. I had people from Basalt, El Jebel, Vail and Minturn call. I talked to people from Red Cliff regularly.”Gates, who lives near McCoy, said he thinks he represented the entire county well. Even though he lived in the northern part of the county, he made time to visit and talk with residents in Basalt.”I was always over there,” he said. “I know a lot of the old-timers. I went over to the senior citizens’ luncheons, things that I didn’t have to be at, things I wanted to be at.”Besides, getting five commissioners to agree on something is more difficult than getting three to agree, Gates said. Voters would be better represented if they simply voted, he added.”When 19 percent of the population get out and vote, that’s an uphill battle for you anyway,” Gates said. “When they are not representing themselves, how can I represent them?”Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 607, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Colorado
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