SOS, Vail Resorts votes scrutinized
By Veronica Whitney
Daily Staff Writer
When Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi pointed a finger at Commissioner Tom Stone last month accusing him of a potential conflict of interest involving ASW Realty, a developer working with the county, Stone fired back.
Stone said he could have suggested a conflict of interest between Menconi and Vail Resorts, which gives money to the Snowboard Outreach Society, Menconi’s nonprofit organization.
“It seems obvious to me that he has a more direct conflict of interest than I do in my real estate business with ASW, because he and his wife get money almost directly from Vail Resorts,” Stone said in an interview Wednesday.
Menconi, a Democrat who is running for re-election this year and is also the director and founder of SOS, said he has always been upfront about his professional relationship with Vail Resorts. The ski company donates about $30,000 a year to the nonprofit -15 percent of SOS’s total revenues and the largest contribution it receives from any one corporation.
Menconi’s annual salary at SOS, the local nonprofit that teaches children and youth how to snowboard while aiming to build character and improve school performance, is $25,000. His wife, Anne, who works as a youth programs and development director with SOS, earns $37,500 a year.
“I have always been completely upfront and public, during my campaign for county commissioner and subsequent to my election,” Menconi said. “Vail Resorts has continued its support of our charity and the children SOS serves and benefits because they see first-hand that it has made a difference to the lives of so many children.”
To Menconi, Stone is the one with a potential conflict of interest – or an appearance of conflict of interest – after he brokering a $7 million land deal in Gypsum that involved ASW Realty, the developer hired by the county to build the Miller Ranch affordable housing project in Edwards.
Stone said he doesn’t want to make an issue of the fact that Menconi votes on Vail Resorts’ items while SOS accepts its contributions. “But SOS wouldn’t exist without Vail Resorts’ support,” Stone said.
SOS is one of many charitable organizations Vail Resorts supports in the region, Menconi said.
“The company has a four-decade track record of supporting community programs,” he said.
According to Kelly Ladyga, Vail Resorts’ spokeswoman, SOS is one of 70 nonprofits in the valley that Vail Resorts supports.
“Regardless of whether Arn Menconi was the director, we would provide support to SOS,” Ladyga said. “Vail Resorts donates to SOS’s programs, because they fit the company’s corporate giving program, which focuses in two areas: Youth and education, and the environment.
Two years ago, Vail Resorts gave $100,000 to help build a children’s environmental garden at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail, Ladyga said.
“The cash and in-kind support we give is to SOS,” she added.
Vail Resorts provides cash, ski passes, equipment, instruction and the space on the slopes for SOS’s Outreach Series races.
“We also take a look at the size of the audience that it reaches,” she added.
This ski season, more than 1,000 children at 26 resorts across the country participated in SOS programs, Menconi said.
Appearance of conflict?
In August of 2000, Menconi said he left his job with Vail Resorts to run SOS independently.
“I wanted to avoid any possible conflicts of interest if I was elected,” said Menconi, who had been working for Vail Resorts since 1996, developing the SOS program under the company’s wing as well as helping with other snowboarding programs and events.
To Rohn Robbins, a local attorney and a member with the State Bar Ethics Committee, Menconi’s relationship to Vail Resorts is quite different from Stone’s with ASW.
“I don’t see an appearance of conflict in Menconi’s relationship with Vail Resorts because Vail Resorts is one of several founders of the nonprofit,” Robbins said. “Whereas in Stone’s case, I can see where there could be an appearance of conflict. I’m not saying Tom did something wrong, though.”
To Menconi, Stone’s decision to stop voting on Miller Ranch issues came too late. Stone will receive half of a 5 percent commission on the sale from Cotton Ranch LLC, the seller. His commission, he said, is contingent on the sale of homes there.
Stone’s recused himself a month after closing the land deal and more than a year after he started showing land to ASW.
“Even if there wasn’t a conflict of interest, it seemed to be an appearance of conflict of interest,” Robbins said. State law says there’s a conflict of interest if there is financial gain.
Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert still has to decide if he will investigate Stone for a possible breach of conflict of interest laws. Hurlbert received a letter from William Sepmeier of Edwards asking him to do a criminal investigation on Stone’s relationship with ASW.
“I’m not going to pursue an attack on Arn,” Stone said. “Arn is interested in attacking me, but I’m not going to do that. That is immature and there are no beneficial results from the discussions.”
But, Menconi said, there is a benefit to these discussions of conflicting interests. He said he will soon call for the county government to create an ethics board to supervise commissioners’ activities. Currently, public officials’ work is regulated by state law.
“In a small community such as Eagle County, I think it is more important than anywhere else to have an objective, third-party mechanism in place to thoughtfully analyze any perceived conflicts of interests,” Menconi said.
“For these reasons,” he added, “it is very important to me that my constituents are confident that they live in a community environment of good conscience and trust.”
Stone, who also works for Slifer, Smith and Frampton – a joint real estate venture with Vail Resorts – said he doesn’t believe the county needs a code of ethics. He said he has confidence in the advice he has received from former county attorney Tom Moorhead, now a judge, and Diane Mauriello, the commissioners’ current legal counsel.
“They both told me doing business with ASW didn’t represent a conflict of interest,” Stone said. “I’m sorry that Arn doesn’t trust them.
“The issue here is that Arn, because of his immature actions, isn’t a team player with the other two county commissioners,” Stone added. “We shouldn’t be mad at each other, because we have a difference of opinion on policy issues.”
Menconi said his intention isn’t to fight the other commissioners.
“I’m fighting for an ethics policy,” he said. “I hope both commissioners will help me put this in place.”
The Snowboard Outreach Society relies financially on grants, money raised at events, contributions from individuals and corporations, fees for lessons, and merchandise sales. In fiscal year 2004 – July 1, 2003 to June 30, 2004 – SOS raised:
• $70,000 from events
• $43,640 from fees for lessons and other services
• $40,200 from individuals
• $39,500 from corporations
• $32,700 from grants
• $17,000 from merchandise sales
Source: Snowboard Outreach Society.
Since 2001, Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi along with fellow Commissioners Michael Gallagher and Tom Stone have voted on the following items brought forward by Vail Resorts. The three commissioners unanimously approved all requests.
• April 3, 2001 – Arrowhead; permit to create 15 lots and other land uses.
• April 3, 2001 – Bachelor Gulch Village; re-configuration of lot lines.
• May 1, 2001 – Bellyache Ridge road vacation; to help straighten out Bellyache Ridge Road
• May 15, 2001 – Bachelor Gulch; re-subdivide 4.7 acres into three parcels.
• May 29, 2001 – Arrowhead; an amendment to define building height and reduce density of units and increase maximum size of cluster home from 3,800 to 5,000 square feet.
• July 31, 2001 – Red Sky Ranch; initial county approval of the golf community.
• Aug. 7, 2001 – Arrowhead Mountain; a variance from improvement standards allowing steel-backed timber guard rail instead of standard metal guard rail.
• Feb. 19, 2002 – Arrowhead; filing 20, Lots 26 & 27: Re-configure lots by moving a boundary line by 10 feet.
• July 2, 2002 – Beaver Creek; special use permit to add a food shipping and receiving facility within the Beaver Creek maintenance center.
• Sept. 17, 2002 -Two Elks; special use allowing a wireless antennae facility on a ski patrol hut.
• Oct. 8, 2002 -Sprint Spectrum; special use allowing a wireless antennae facility on a chairlift.
• Dec. 17, 2002 -Red Sky Ranch; relocated designated employee housing to allow more privacy; move the golf maintenance facility to more out of the way area; and redesign a fairway and two single family residential lots; increasing open space by 1 acre.
• Jan. 28, 2003 -Arrowhead; add new restriction on timeshare and interval ownership uses within Arrowhead.
• March 25, 2003 -Arrowhead; lot 26; re-designate three single-family and duplex lots into one lot to accommodate a recreation facility and tennis courts.
Source: Eagle County
Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454 or at email@example.com.