by Rick Langenberg
It was the final stand for the six candidates for two county commissioner seats during a debate last Saturday, hosted by the Mountain Jackpot newspaper and organized by Jeffrey K. Woods, in the Woodland Park Public Library.
The forum, attended by nearly 100 people, represented the last opportunity for the candidates--Bill Miller, Ken Matthews and Norm Steen for District Three (a seat currently held by Jim Ignatius) and Brian Walker, Carl Poch and Marc Dettenrieder for District One (a seat currently held by Bill Buckhanan)--to convince Republican delegates to vote for them during the initial contest, the March 10 Teller County Republican Assembly. That’s when Teller Republican leaders will decide which candidates will make the initial cut and snag a spot on the June primary ballot.
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However, the big winners of the debate were the status quo policies of the Teller County administration. With a few exceptions, the candidates heavily supported the work of the current commissioner board regarding such hot rod issues as affordable housing, country budget challenges, building inspections, medical marijuana, tree-thinning work,
For the most part, the contenders for the various seats conducted civil exchanges and mainly touted their personal qualifications for the two seats. They didn’t clash on any issues, but presented different solutions to problems confronting the county.
If Republican voters are in favor of a market-based approach to affordable housing, the current track record of Sheriff Mike Ensminger, a pro-business incentive philosophy and fiscal responsibility, they will face a tough choice during the upcoming elections. All three District Three contenders heavily endorsed these positions during media questions, presented by representatives of the Mountain Jackpot.
Steen, a former brigadier general and business owner, praised a recent decision by the Woodland Park City Council to send a new proposed law, aimed at facilitating affordable or high priority housing, back to the drawing board. Steen, like most commissioner candidates, cited a market-based approach towards creating more housing opportunities, especially in accommodating the county’s growing population of senior citizens. “We are getting older and richer,” quipped Steen, in describing the changing dynamics in Teller County. “This was way too complicated,” said Steen in describing the high priority housing ordinance, unanimously adopted recently by the Woodland Park Planning Commission but rejected by the city council. “It has lots of unintended consequences,” added Miller, who previously held the reins as the head public information officer for the El Paso County government. He didn’t believe the government should take a lead role in trying to facilitate affordable housing projects, and instead, cited the work of such groups as Habitat for Humanity.
Matthews, a former Woodland Park City Council and Planning Commission member and builder, emphasized the complexity of this issue. The District Three candidates also heavily backed Ensminger, who is facing the threat of a recall campaign. “We have an excellent sheriff,” said Miller, who classified the current accusations as nothing more than “isolated disputes.”
The other contenders chimed the same tone regarding the controversy surrounding the sheriff’s office, which stems from a rather contentious 2010 election campaign. Supporters of the current administration attribute the latest round of allegations to sour grapes from the losing camp. As for the top priority issue, the District three contenders cited the current financial challenges facing the county, which has been forced to consolidate many departments. Matthews said this is the major challenge that the eventual winners of these races will confront. “We have a tough (financial) road to follow,” said Matthews.
The candidates, though, differed slightly on how they should approach the county’s fiscal dilemma, capped by diminishing revenue. Steen, who believes the county may see its revenue plunge by another $1.2 million by 2014, said the county should possibly explore defraying road maintenance costs by possibly $850,000. Miller, meanwhile, advocated forming a citizens’ budget review committee. Matthews favored exploring such plans as encouraging early retirement and furloughs, but strongly opposed making personnel reductions.
All the candidates endorsed the idea of using business incentives to lure companies to the areas, as long as these enticements don’t create an unfair playing field and hurt current businesses. One issue that generated much discussion dealt with reported delays in the county government’s processing of building permits and approving future projects. All three candidates contend this is a legitimate gripe by business owners and residents, but were less that revealing regarding probable solutions.
The District Three contenders also suggested they would take a more aggressive marketing approach than their current peers in marketing Teller County. Miller threw out the idea of forming a Greater Teller County Coalition and an expanded virtual community to help orchestrate all the various promotional efforts in the region. He cited the recent “Moose Is Loose” campaign as a great business booster that the commissioners need to rally behind.
Steen put in a plug for attracting more companies outside the area and promoting tourism more throughout the region. “They (tourists) leave their money and go away,” said Steen, in describing the benefits of tourism. Matthews mentioned the importance of better educating residents and future visitors about the area and what the government can do.
District One Contest
The District One candidates squared off in the areas of mining, medical marijuana, transportation and gaming prosperity. Like the candidates from District One, they didn’t disagree too much, but presented different ideas.
Poch, who heavily emphasized his roots in the Cripple Creek area, took a much more modified position regarding the expansion pursuits of the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company than he did several years ago. Poch, who once emerged as a big critic of the CC&V’s expansion pursuits near Cripple Creek, actually praised the work of CC&V and its planning efforts. But he believes that Teller County needs to present CC&V with its own long-range plan. “What can the mine do for Teller County?” asked Poch, in describing the missing part of the equation. “There should be a well-designed set of plans,” explained Poch, who is a member of many local groups in Cripple Creek, including the Gold Camp Victorian Society and the Cripple Creek Elks. His opponents, though, didn’t think such a plan was necessary. “They have enough regulations,” said Dettenrieder, a member of the Teller County Community Wildfire Protection Committee and a former secretary of Action 22. “We need to support the mine.” Walker, who has worked extensively in the construction industry, agreed, and maintained that CC&V is a great business partner. When it comes to road improvements, often a touchy subject in parts of the District One area, Poch lauded the current work of the Teller transportation and public works agencies. “I think we are doing a pretty good job.” But he stated that he is worried about too much reliance on Hwy. 24. He even threw out the idea of possibly establishing a toll road, or forming an alternative thoroughfare to Hwy. 24.
Dettenrieder cited the budget challenges facing Teller in the transportation arena with 480 miles of gravel roadway and mentioned big improvements over the last five years in long-range planning and customer service. Walker also favored the current approach towards road improvements.
The District One contenders, however, took slightly different stances when it came to medical marijuana and a new state-wide ballot plan that would legalize pot for recreational use. Walker said he personally knows a few medical marijuana patients who have benefitted from the medicine, and appeared to take the most flexible stance regarding medicinal marijuana among the three District One candidates. “There are legitimate uses for medical marijuana,” said Walker. He advocates the previous county efforts to regulate the industry. At the same time, as an ex-police officer, he admitted he would hate to see the proposed pro-marijuana ballot proposal, Amendment 64, get approved by Colorado voters. Dettenrieder supported efforts to control medical marijuana and endorsed the moratorium against licensing new dispensaries, undertaken by the county. Poch, meanwhile, expressed concerns about the abuse of medical marijuana.
The candidates all took a staunch stands against the push for video slots at horse tracks and advocated taking high-profile roles in representing the Cripple Creek gaming industry.
The District One contenders also followed suit with the District Three candidates in advocating better ways to market the area and promote more economic development. Poch cited the importance of getting creative in ways to stimulate business and developing a wide range of ideas. He described the possible loss of the Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad as another blow to the tourism industry. Dettenrieder expressed a desire to reduce regulations. And Walker cited the importance of negotiating face-to-face with key state leaders to help the county’s situation.