Vail Valley’s Menconi: Controversial since day one
Eagle, CO Colorado
EAGLE, Colorado ” Eight years ago, Eagle County commissioner candidate Arn Menconi was a long-haired snowboarder with no elected office experience and a vague political agenda that emphasized social consciousness. He slipped into the county commissioner seat with a mere 37-vote margin following an unprecedented (in this county) grassroots campaign that drew young voters to the polls.
Within two days, the controversy began. The Republican candidate Menconi had bested, backed by the local GOP, filed a lawsuit claiming irregularities in the balloting. After several weeks of turmoil, that lawsuit was dropped, and Menconi stepped into county office.
He’s never backed off on his social consciousness and environmental awareness agenda; and his detractors, particularly those with conservative political leanings, have never backed off their criticisms.
During Menconi’s eight years in office, what he calls “social capital” issues, including child care and health care programs and facilities, affordable housing, recycling and transportation, have gained new priority. He’s been honored by the social services community for his work with early childhood development programs.
Land use policies have changed dramatically also, with an emphasis on “green” building practices and sustainability. New land use regulation criteria emphasize community and environmental sustainability, and ensure that decision-makers are aware of the long-term impacts of projects before they cast their votes.
Menconi has weathered a couple of recall attempts (neither effort ever made it as far as the ballot), and countless criticisms, including many delivered anonymously. His relationships with fellow commissioners have at times been acrimonious. For six of his eight years in office, he was often the dissenting vote on decisions. When the balance of the commissioner board changed two years ago, Menconi began pushing hard for his goals.
Valley political observers note that Menconi has been an agent of change, which is part of the reason he has critics. He’s also tenacious about pursuing his political agendas.
Some describe Menconi as a visionary ” who lacks patience.
“Arn is very passionate about his work, and very dedicated to the course, whatever that may be,” said Keith Montag, director of Eagle County’s Community Development Department and acting county manager. “When he gets a hold of something, he doesn’t let it go.”
“I walked in the door and became controversial the day I was elected,” said Menconi, adding that people who want to change things tend to stir up people. “If you’re running with the ball, you know you’re going to get tackled.”
Menconi said quality of life issues have been his focus at the county.
“We’ve gone from being a rural, small-town community to being right on the cusp of being an almost suburban-like community,” he said. “Can we have a county where people can live and work in the community?”
Menconi recalls that when he first came into office, the county budgeted less than $100,000 annually for what he calls “social capital” programs. Now the county directs $4 million annually to programs such as early childhood development, community service grants to local non-profit groups, environmental programs and affordable housing.
He cites among his accomplishments the changing culture of how the county looks at land use. He says that whereas before the county tended to review projects individually, the policy now calls for examination of the overall impacts on the entire county.
“Now we’re saying the growth has got to have a community benefit. Before it was a game. The developers knew that if they could get their way on two out of three issues, they won,” Menconi said.
He acknowledges that the push for more managed growth hasn’t always made developers and some members of the real estate community happy.
“We now have a culture where we develop property our (the county’s) own way,” he said.
Menconi counts the county’s early childhood development programs among his accomplishments.
“If we intervene in early years with day care, education, health care and special needs programs, we can save society dollars,” he said.
During his two terms of office, Menconi says the county has also “really delivered” on affordable housing, both through building homes and with housing guidelines that ensure there will be more deed-restricted units.
“If I sound like a broken record over the job-housing ratio, I’m doing my job,” he said.
He is also proud of the environmental efficiency programs the county has developed in recent years.
Menconi is a vision sort of guy. He says politicians need examine their core values, identify their vision, look at the data, then create a strategic plan.
“Otherwise, you react to minutia, and never get the big picture done,” Menconi said.
He makes a point of acknowledging the spectrum of community leaders and county employees who have been instrumental in helping him achieve goals.
“You get a group of advisors to give you honest opinion,” he said.
“Arn has an enormous, vast network of comrades. He seeks information, at classes and workshops. He picks other peoples’ brains for ideas. He’s very open to new ideas, concepts, approaches,” Montag said.
Despite the changes that have occurred, Menconi said he leaves office fretting that the county is only halfway to the goals that he had in mind. He’d like to see a federally qualified medical clinic operating locally. He considers the county’s sustainable communities movement to be in its infancy.
He admits to being impatient at times in his efforts to reach his goals. He has a constant sense of urgency, fueled by the fast pace of county change. He wants change, and he wants it quickly.
“You go to too many meetings in county government. Things don’t change through osmosis, while you’re sitting in a meeting. I’m not built that way,” Menconi said.
He worries about the county budget, particularly in the face of the current economy, and the balancing of county employee salaries and benefits versus investing taxpayer dollars into the county.
Menconi acknowledged quite a few sleepless nights during his commissioner tenure.
“There were too many times I had an opportunity to make a difference, and got too caught up in the politicization, and the newspaper comments, while fighting for a cause,” he said.
There’s also things he will miss about leaving office, like getting to know senior citizens and county employees. He likes the excitement of being a county commissioner, which includes phone conversations with senators and their staff, working with state-level politicians, and lobbying for funds for county projects.
“I love this job. I can’t put into words why,” he said.
After leaving office, Menconi will be working full time for the Snowboard Outreach Society, a nonprofit that he started 15 years ago. That organization has merged with Meet the Wilderness, another youth character-building program. Menconi will be the director of SOS, which can now be found in 40 ski resorts.
“It’s about making a difference, changing kids lives,” he said.
He has some advice for upcoming county commissioners.
“It takes four to six years to get something done in politics. You’ll have three or four opportunities. You have to stay focused. Not everybody will be there with you, but you can be very respectful by telling people what you’re trying to do.”