Fisher: County positioned for success
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Early this year Sara Fisher wasn’t sure she wanted another term as Eagle County commissioner. She’s sure now, and sure the county is on the right track.
Fisher suffered a brain aneurysm on Dec. 13 last year. It nearly killed her, and knocked her out of work for more than a month. She returned in January, with only weeks to decide whether or not she would, or could, seek a second term.
“I had to make a decision by early spring,” Fisher said. “I did lots of soul-searching, praying and had conversations with my husband and friends to solidify (running) was the right thing to do. It was down to the wire, but once I committed to it, I’ve never looked back.”
Fisher is nearing the end of her first term as commissioner, but has spent about half of her time in Eagle County as a public official. Then a Republican, she was appointed Eagle County Clerk and Recorder in early 1993 after former clerk Johnnette Phillips won a race for Eagle County commissioner in 1992.
Fisher was elected to the clerk’s job when she ran in 1994, and again in 1998. She left office because of term limits in January of 2003.
Before entering local politics, Fisher had worked at several businesses, mostly in Vail, since she came to the valley in 1978. She worked several restaurant and other jobs for a few years before landing in the management training at the Marriott in Vail. From there she held several management and administrative jobs, married her husband, Bill, in 1990, and moved to Gypsum.
Living downvalley, Fisher started looking for work closer to home. The clerk’s position opened, and she ran that office for a decade.
Back in private life in 2003, Fisher worked at the Eagle County Regional Airport and as an assistant to four senior vice presidents at WestStar Bank.
Fisher eventually landed with SysTest Labs. That company’s work included testing electronic voting systems, something Fisher had brought to the county as clerk.
“My first day with them I flew to Pennsylvania for elections systems testing,” Fisher said.
For about two-and-a-half years Fisher would drive to Denver on Sunday nights, fly to wherever SysTest had her working, then return to the valley on Fridays. By early 2006, she’d had enough.
“Working for SysTest, every time I came home and drove back into the valley, I just had this incredible feeling of being home,” Fisher said. “I’d worked in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida, and it just reinforced how incredibly lucky we are to live here.”
With former commissioner Tom Stone leaving office due to term limits, that job was open, and Fisher started thinking about public life again.
“My time in the clerk’s office gave me an incredible exposure to the commissioners as clerk to the board,” Fisher said. “I knew to a large degree what I’d be getting into.”
She and Bill talked about the idea, and she decided to run.
Fisher – who had registered as a Democrat in 2005 – won a primary election, then the commissioner’s job in the 2006 election. In October of 2006, she was the subject of a photocopied letter mailed to thousands of county residents. The letter accused her of a variety of improprieties, both personally and as clerk.
The letter was handed over to District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, who was unable to evidence to link the letter to any person or group.
After taking office in early 2007, Fisher caught the last couple of years of the valley’s mid-decade economic boom, not without some controversy.
Fisher said she was “blind-sided” by an ultimately abortive attempt to change the name of the Eagle County Regional Airport.
The board’s decision to put $4.5 million into the Stratton Flats development was also controversial, especially as the project in Gypsum foundered, and was eventually sold to another company. That company plans to start construction again in the spring of next year, but the homes it builds won’t be subject to the county’s affordable housing regulations.
Fisher defends the county’s spending on the project.
“Stratton Flats hasn’t gone away,” Fisher said. “The county’s involvement helped make it attractive to (the new owners.)”
While the first two years on the job were busy, the last two have been difficult. But Fisher said she’s proud of the changes she’s helped bring to the county and the way it’s run.
One of the things Fisher hoped to get the commissioners away from was micromanaging county operations.
Over the past couple of years, Fisher has championed the idea of “policy governance,” an organizational management system that gives more responsibility to department heads, leaving overall policy decisions to the commissioners.
Fisher said that the system was working during the last couple of years of budget cuts at the county, when department heads were told to identify where they could cut spending – and people.
As the county’s budget shrinks back to roughly 2005 levels, cutting people – about 70 in two budget cycles – has been the hardest thing for Fisher.
“A lot of these are people I know well, and who have been friends,” she said. While the cuts have come at the department level, Fisher said “I take personal ownership” of the results.
Fisher said the hardest cuts from her perspective are the ones that have come in the Eagle County Department of Health and Human Services.
“These weren’t statutorily required, but they impact the working and middle class people in our valley.”
While the economic downturn has been tough on virtually everyone, Fisher said it has also created an opportunity for the county to take a more intelligent approach to growth
Moving ahead, Fisher said the county is on sound financial ground, and still getting things done. She believes the county is on the right track to create a senior housing and assisted living facility in Eagle, and pointed with pride to the recently-finished runway expansion at the airport and a new “material recycling facility” at the Eagle County Landfill.
If she’s re-elected, Fisher said she wants to leave public life at the end of 2014 with the county in sound condition.
“We have incredibly bright, capable employees who look for every opportunity to secure outside funds that enhance the local money we can bring to the table to make long-term, visionary additions,” Fisher said.
She looks forward to better partnerships with the towns, and said she hopes the airport is hosting international flights before the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships.
And she’s convinced seeking a second term was the right thing to do.
“It’s reinforced almost daily,” she said. “I’m in it for all the right reasons, with nothing but a plan to serve the county and its residents.”
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or email@example.com.