Growing into the spotlight
EAGLE COUNTY – Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon had sipped on a Starbucks coffee for better than an hour when he hit on the recent editorials in the Vail Daily accusing him of being a yes-man for fellow Democratic Commissioner Arn Menconi.Briefly, his voice took on the disagreeable tone of a metal screw caught in a garbage disposal.”I am not Arn’s poodle,” Runyon insisted, still stung by the suggestion from Vail Daily editor Don Rogers that he is a “lap dog” for Menconi. “I decided to run on this growth issue. The fact that Arn has come along on board, I’m thrilled.”It doesn’t usually happen this soon – the heartburn part. Most elected officials get an extended honeymoon while they learn the ropes of governing.For several decades, Eagle County commissioners commonly sailed below the radar screen of newspaper editors – and the public – for most of their time in office. Meeting in Eagle, at a time when most of the action was in Vail, commissioners were even known to nod off at public meetings; or at least present a reasonably good facsimile of doing so.How different the county has become. The Census Bureau now calls Edwards a “micropolitan” area, not even mentioning Vail. As for Runyon, an Edwards resident elected from the upvalley district, he has been the very opposite of a caretaker public official. Brimming with energy, bubbling with ideas, he has thrown himself into his new job with unusual intensity. He attends conferences in distant and not entirely glamorous places and breakfasts with local mayors. He has even shown up at Vail Town Council meetings for no discernible purpose other than to watch.Whatever else might be said, Runyon does not appear to be driven by ego or a desire to climb the political ladder.
“He wants to improve his hometown. That’s what it’s about for him. I don’t think there’s anything more,” says Debbie Marquez, a longtime Democratic Party activist.”Because of that reason, I can trust him,” adds Marquez. “I don’t think you can say anything better about a politician.”Rough startAppraisals of Runyon’s first eight months in office fall short of a ringing endorsement. Some of his ideas have been described as loopy.Concerns have been expressed about turnover in key county positions, namely the resignations of county administrator Jack Ingstad and county attorney Diane Mauriello. There have been suggestions, but no proof, that they were nudged out. But Runyon has been in office too briefly to broadly evaluate his effectiveness. He clearly has visions – or at least hard questions – for Eagle County. Whether he can see those policy changes to implementation, forging the compromises necessary to deliver them, is another matter.It has been a short-learning curve. He landed in the hot seat only a week after taking office when he provided the swing vote in a struggle between Menconi and Commissioner Tom Stone.The debate was about whether Eagle County would appropriate both open space and millions of dollars for Eaton Ranch, a 76-acre tract in Edwards. The value of the tract has never been questioned, but the price tag and terms have. Forcing the issue was the Vail Valley Foundation, with its offer to pay half the cost.Menconi advanced the foundation’s argument. Stone countered by questioning the value of investing general treasury money. Runyon saw middle ground, but by his own admission, he fumbled under the glare of public and intense scrutiny.
In the Eaton Ranch debate, Runyon sided with Menconi – as he has all too predictably often, say critics.Eagle Mayor Jon Stavney says he does not expect Runyon will get caught again on his heels. “I felt for him that night,” says Stavney. “How tough it is to be in training in front of a packed house listening closely, knowing you are the deciding vote. I think he was unfairly railroaded.”Voting recordThe Eaton Ranch open space vote has led to the perception in some places that Runyon and Menconi are a predictable two-some. That’s just not accurate, says Runyon. He cites two key votes where he and Stone, not Menconi, shared positions.In the first instance, he was unimpressed with plans for an events center at the fairgrounds in Eagle. Too small by half, it would have served only a small group of equestrians at great cost. Doubled in size, as finally approved, its use will increase geometrically to accommodate car shows, soccer practices, lacrosse and more, Runyon said. The other case involves a possible ethics policy for county commissioners.Just the same, Runyon and Menconi, who are both Democrats, do tend to vote together. But the question may not be who is leading who, but whether the question is even appropriate.
Runyon insists there is no communication outside of meetings between the two – as specified by Colorado law. On a three-member board, two members constitute a quorum, requiring public announcement.As a candidate, Runyon had a bold and unusually concrete platform. He said he wanted to look into expanding the number of county commissioners to five because it would improve representation across the county; allowing the Basalt-El Jebel area its own member on the board, for example. Individual commissioners could specialize more in topic areas, such as water, social services or transportation. He also thinks commissioner candidates could be shorn of party affiliations. Towns do fine without council candidates carrying the baggage of being labeled Democrats, Republicans or independents, and the knee-jerk reactions those labels inspire, he said.Meanwhile, in the long-term, Runyon sees himself only getting better, he said. “Do I feel competent enough that I can do a good job for people? Yeah,” he says. “Do I think I can do better at it in three years? Yeah. That’s true for every commissioner.”This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.Vail, Colorado
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