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The showdown over conflicts

Don Rogers

If this were another age, Eagle County commissioners Arn Menconi and Tom Stone would be headed for a duel. Strap on the six-shooters and clomp down Broadway at high noon to settle accounts. Only this conflict ain’t John Wayne – more like Mel Brooks. That’s right, all hat.

Stone, the real estate broker, profited in private life by helping a client he met making a deal as commissioner and then continuing until recently to vote on the client’s public business. Menconi must be a dupe of the ski company that supports the non-profit organization he founded. He hasn’t missed a chance yet to vote in favor of a Vail Resorts issue.

That’s the nub of complaints that – funny – only pop up in election years.

That’s right. Menconi was the SOS founder and guiding light when he ran for office in November 2000, winning by that whisker-thin 39 votes over Arrowhead’s Steve Morris, with spoiler Kathy Warren playing Nader and gadfly Michael Cacioppo trying to be Florida all on his own ever since.

And Stone had just made his choice between pure public principle and the chance for private profit when his messy re-election campaign cranked up in late summer, early fall 2002.

Yes, this is deja vu. Only angrier. Why?

Well, the backdrop issue of conflicts arose as it always does in Vail’s two elections this fall and winter. The influence of The Company in our ski towns becomes a matter of discussion in every larger municipal election in the valley, as it probably should.

Thankfully, though, the voters tend to be wiser than some of the more hysterical pundits, who see scorpions under every rock. The calculations for who should serve in public is more complicated, perhaps more sophisticated, than the one-minus-one – VR bad, he (or she) work with VR, bad – that would indeed disqualify a large share of our brightest and yes, most principled, minds.

Still, I admit, I get a kick out of the sometimes convoluted attempts folks come up with to try to tar a candidate they don’t like with the VR brush. My favorite to date was the tired old VW bus in 2000 with the “Vote Menconi” sign and the last faint outlines of a VR logo from long ago. Oh my. How damning.

That’s not far from how I view Stone’s critics hopping onto his conflict of “personal” interest, if not the legal conflict they would like to prove. Surely everyone who hasn’t taken a side understands that much of this ire comes as payback for Stone insisting that two citizen volunteers on the non-profit Eagle Valley Land Trust have a “personal” conflict also serving on the county’s Open Space Advisory Committee.

I happen to agree that it might not be the best idea for the two bodies to share board members. But it’s just not that big a deal. Stone, in his continuing feud with Craig Bair of Bair Ranch fame these days, has gone over the top in his efforts to slow or stop a thoroughly sound purchase of a conservation easement to protect the pearl of a ranch in Glenwood Canyon from becoming trophy homes and another golf course.

Oh, such sweet revenge presented itself when his contract involving the Berry Creek affordable housing developer, ASW, at the private Cotton Ranch development in Gypsum closed just before Christmas, delivering a nice chunk to Stone’s personal back account.

He won’t discuss specifics about what he’s earned in the deal worked out in his private life as a broker for that real estate firm half owned by Vail Resorts. And he sure doesn’t appreciate the suggestion he’s done something wrong voting on ASW’s county development all this time before the contract closed, ensuring his payment coming from the Cotton Ranch part of the deal. Anyway, now he’ll recuse himself from the few remaining county decisions related to ASW, since they’ll be cutting the paychecks in the future for him.

Still, the law appears to support him since ASW wasn’t paying him directly and the county has no say about Cotton Ranch issues. After securing the contract, he checked with the county attorneys about whether he’d have a conflict of interest voting on the county’s Berry Creek affordable housing development issues.

The answer was no.

Hold-out critics of Stone, who say they want the District Attorney’s Office to investigate and ideally find a crime here, now like to suggest that the county lawyers were just so fearful of scary Tom Stone that they were cowed into giving bad advice. Sure, that makes sense. Risk losing your license for the sake of a county job. One of those supposed yellowbellies is a judge now. We trust he has sufficient steel for that job.

The DA did receive some mail on the subject last week, presumably a complaint asking for investigation, keeping the story alive a little longer. I can predict it will come to naught. But I’m not a lawyer, so who knows?

Meantime, Stone and camp point their fingers and holler at Menconi, schoolyard fashion. What about HIS conflict?

Suddenly the junior commissioner who can’t even get his fair turn at the board chairmanship, thanks to his colleagues’ keepaway votes, has this “undue” influence because of connections through SOS to the big, bad company whose donations amount to about 18 percent of the non-profit’s budget?

Silly stuff. Good thing the voters – not the pundits or the politicians – have the final say on this conflict over conflicts. And never mind that they’ve already weighed in.

In this duel, everyone is aiming squarely at their own feet. Mel would love it.

Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.com


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