Newsmaker of the year: Menconi sees humility where his critics see ego
In 2007, Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi was like the county’s very own George Bush, facing accusations including fiscal irresponsibility and having a personal agenda that doesn’t represent about half the voters’ wishes.
With just one year left as a commissioner, the term-limited Menconi, a Democrat, says he isn’t thinking about the group of opponents that tried to pull him from office in 2007. Instead, he’s focused on the county budget, his early childcare development project and building affordable housing ” topics that also won him much support this year.
Menconi says the opposition can’t stop him from standing up for what he calls a personal responsibility to give something back to society.
“If you’re given great responsibility, great intelligence, great beauty … whatever it is you have, it’s a moral imperative that you give back so that your life isn’t self-centered or selfish,” Menconi says.
Dick Gustafson, a former Republican county commissioner and one of several Menconi critics, says it’s selfishness opponents see in Menconi.
Critics were angered when Menconi and the other two Eagle County commissioners pushed through funding for early-childhood development even though voters in 2006 rejected a tax increase that would have funded such programs.
“He has a high level of arrogance … the public has the right to be heard, the right to speak and the right to have representatives respect their wishes,” he says. “He doesn’t care about what the voters want.”
Menconi isn’t secretive about his priorities. Early-childhood development and affordable housing have been at the top of his list since he was first elected in 2000, he says.
To those who stood up against him after he and the other two commissioners made the decision to approve funding for early-childhood development, Menconi says “run for county commissioner; that’s one of the powers of being county commissioner.”
Menconi says it “would be an honor to truly be controversial for the right purposes.” He isn’t really sure why people choose to attack him.
He suspects they don’t care about children, he says.
Mike Reid, the leader of the group that tried to recall Menconi from office, said via e-mail that Menconi has a “prescriptive governing policy” that “is a menace to our constitution, our community, and most of all, to our pocketbooks.”
“He has encouraged the other two county commissioners to march in sync with his philosophy,” Reid says of Democrats Sara Fisher and Peter Runyon.
But Bill Jensen, president of mountain operations at Vail Resorts and a board member of Menconi’s brainchild, the nonprofit SOS Outreach Society, says Menconi’s passion puts him “farther out in front of the community on some issues,” which is why Jensen says he’s been criticized for being seen as too far out in front.
“But I don’t think anyone would deny his ideas come from both his head and his heart,” Jensen says.
Menconi founded the Snowboard Outreach Society, now called SOS Outreach Society, in 1993. The nonprofit supplies at-risk children with snowboard gear and teachers, giving them a chance to participate in sports. It’s something that helps the children build character and self-esteem, Menconi says.
It was his passion for winter sports, snowboarding in particular, that fueled him to turn it into a charity of some kind. He said at this winter’s re-launch of the nonprofit, which announced its new name and an expansion that now includes skiing as well as snowboarding, that it was a “call to action to reach out and serve others.”
Jensen said he’s definitely made a difference in the valley, “particularly with the kids.”
Menconi says he prays for his critics, “even when I don’t want to.”
Menconi grew up Catholic and now calls himself a post-modern Christian. He says it means he’s integrated the core values of all religions and tries to serve those values, one of which is that you never treat anyone with great disdain or ill spirit.
It is government’s role to provide four main things to society, Menconi believes.
They are environmental preservation, public safety, economic prosperity and public service.
Some people, however, see it differently and have “an extremely linear view,” he says.
There was speculation earlier this year that Menconi might run for the state senate, but he says the timing isn’t right. He has two young children and would have to spend too much time away from them in Denver.
As county commissioner, it’s like operating a business, he says. The county budget is an area he focuses on, and it’s also an area his critics seem to be the angriest about.
“I take budget probably more seriously than people understand, because it’s fascinating,” he says. “It’s factual information about what you’re doing.”
The arguments he’s heard from people complaining of the commissioners’ handling of the budget haven’t been very sophisticated, he says.
The commissioners all heard flak when they voted to keep the county’s emergency reserve fund at 15 percent, when 25 percent had been the standard before.
“(The commissioners) had an option to lower the mill levy and reduce taxes, or at least bring them down closer to where they were last year,” Gustafson says. “But they didn’t because they want that extra tax money to fund his pet project.”
Part of the business role in county government is representing both sides of an issue. Menconi says he always tries to come to a decision somewhere in the middle.
“If I focus on the people on opposite sides of an issue, then I won’t be representing the middle,” he says. “The sweet spot, I call it.”
While many would argue that Menconi failed to meet in the middle on the early-childhood development issue that voters struck down, Susie Davis, executive director of the local Youth Foundation, says it’s hard to argue that he isn’t a “man of principles.”
“There is a heart there that is very genuine … when he makes a commitment, he follows through,” says Davis, who also is godmother to Menconi’s children. “That’s probably why he has so much controversy. I think his boldness gets misread.”
Several of Menconi’s critics contacted for this article declined to comment about him, one of them asking to remain nameless and citing a fear of retribution from Menconi as the reason that most of them wouldn’t talk.
“They’re fearful that Arn would still be in office and it would come back to haunt them,” one critic said. “His critics are very passionate ” just as passionate about being critical of his behavior as he is about what he does.”
The recall petitioners also cited Menconi’s narrow election victories as reasons he has no authority to go against what voters want.
Reid says he’s not critical of Menconi, just of his political philosophies and his “dismal performance in representing the will and rights of the people he has sworn to protect.”
Menconi brushes off his criticism by pointing toward an ill spirit that exists in every community.
His critics are put there to teach him lessons, Davis says.
Menconi thinks so, too. He says if people only thought of him fondly “it would probably make me a more egotistical person,” although Davis says his critics likely already see his ego “as so big.”
“Having some people who are trying to throw stones at me allows me to practice greater humility,” Menconi says.
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