Party means little, ethics a lot
Long-term economic vitality requires many factors for success. One of the most important factors is having strong, visionary and enlightened leadership at our most powerful local government: the county.I listened to all five candidates at a community forum last week, thinking about how much my view has changed of county politics from four years ago. I saw myself, probably like you, as a thoughtful Eagle County resident who as a responsible voter needed to get a quick handle on the candidates and their positions.Back then I went to a similar candidates forum, scanned the reportage in the Vail Daily and Vail Trail, and felt that I could make a reasonably informed choice. Now, after spending the past two years working on economic development issues and having to see the workings and interactions of governments throughout the county, my view has changed from the outside looking in to the inside looking out.So let me hand you a rope and a headlamp and I’ll take you down into some of the subterranean passageways that lie below the surface of the commissioners races.Political affiliation. When voters don’t know much about a candidate, they often fall back on making a choice based on political affiliation. That might be a big mistake in this election. We have two Democrats, two Republicans and one independent running. The number one reason these candidates choose to run under a party banner is: money. Considering that running for commissioner may cost $15,000 to $30,000, it’s hard not to refuse help from an established and well-organized political party.Political affiliation not only helps with fund-raising, but it provides valuable exposure, voter data and a built-in constituency that’s often willing to back their party’s candidate without any real understanding of their competency or intellect. I think that’s called blind faith.Today’s hyper-polarized national political climate has filtered into our local politics and sadly infected it with the same simplistic view that all Republicans think like Rush Limbaugh, and all Democrats think like Al Franken. The real truth is that if you look at current and past county commissioners, you’d be hard pressed to find a consistent political ideology from their voting records.After listening and talking to all the candidates, it’s hard to detect any national political viewpoint shaping their responses to questions about growth, water and transportation. Ethics. Eagle County does not have a code of ethics for elected officials. It should. Other towns, cities and counties in Colorado have adopted or are considering adopting codes of ethics. There are those who argue that a code of ethics is superfluous. Some take the idea as a personal affront: “If you didn’t trust me, why did you vote for me?”A new Board of Commissioners should make the adoption of a code of ethics a high priority next January. They should understand that an ethics code is a tool that actually protects their best interests.A code helps remove the ambiguity that exists between law and informal policy. An ethics code sets clear boundaries of acceptable practices and can act as a shield for public criticism as long as elected officials adhere to its principles. It can help keep commissioners focused on doing what’s right rather than wasting time and effort of trying to achieve political “skill points” by trying to stake out the moral high ground at the expense of others.It’s a simple question and I’d like to hear it asked of all the candidates, “Do you support an ethics code for Eagle County officials?”Cooperation. A lot has been said of how the current commissioners don’t get along with each other. Admittedly, there have been some rather nasty squabbles that have played out across the valley’s newspapers. The newspapers relish this. It keeps their readers engaged and that helps sell advertising. So all you end up hearing are the “juicy” stories of backbiting, snubs and insults.However, there’s another truth at play here and those are the stories you don’t hear about because they’re simply uninteresting. They are the stories of day-to-day business being conducted by the commissioners. While occasionally there may be some ugly disagreements, there’s certainly no policy gridlock. County projects continue to move forward and many more times than not the commissioners sit in meetings that are routinely bland and non-confrontational.The greatest weakness in cooperation isn’t found inside the county office building. It’s the relationship between the county and the towns. To the credit of the county staff, the day-to-day interaction with other municipalities is excellent and very supportive.However, if you’d like to feel a seismic improvement in the way the county interacts with the towns, metro boards, school district and other community stakeholders, you want to make sure that the two seats up for election are filled by candidates who don’t act paternalistically. “Getting along” shouldn’t be a litmus test of fitness for office. I don’t care if future commissioners occasionally cross ideological swords, and even draw a little blood. Frankly, constructive conflict is a proven strategy for sharpening ideas and strengthening policy.Don’t pay attention to party labels. It’s not a reliable determinant. This race feels like and really should be non-partisan. The real bottom line here is that commissioners who are good listeners, keep an open mind, reach out for other opinions, act ethically and check their ego at the door are what the future of Eagle County needs.Don Cohen, executive director of the Vail Valley Economic Council, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.orgVail, Colorado
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