The District 1 commissioner contest seemed to overshadow District 2 at Wednesday's debate, with a back-and-forth battle between challenging Republican candidate Chas McConnell and incumbent Democrat James Newberry.
A 33-year Grand County resident, McConnell looks to oust Newberry from the commissioner seat he's held for 16 years; Newberry was determined to defend it.
"I believe it's time for new ideas and new enthusiasm in the Grand County District 1 commissioner (seat)," McConnell said in closing statements. "And I'm asking for your vote."
During a question about the candidates' top three agenda items if elected, McConnell targeted Newberry, saying his No. 1 agenda item would be to "put term limits on commissioners."
"Being a commissioner four terms, 16 years, is not what it should be, in my opinion," McConnell said.
Much later while answering a question about their vision for Grand County in 10 years, Newberry addressed term limits while talking about Grand Lake water clarity and the time it may take to cultivate a solution.
"I believe that's why 16 years in this job is a benefit," he said. Because I know what we need to do and I know how we need to move forward."
On the topic of improving the economy, McConnell credited the county for hiring an economic development facilitator - saying his presentation of a strategic economic development plan to commissioners "spurred them to want to hire this position" - but then criticized the county for not giving the facilitator "any true direction."
"They're trying to reinvent the wheel," McConnell said, who noted the Fraser Valley has lost "about 70 businesses" in the three years he's served on the Winter Park-Fraser Chamber. "We're losing time. We are losing people from Grand County at an alarming rate. Our business environment is not good."
Longtime Winter Park-business-owner McConnell touched on the need for reliable and affordable high speed Internet to help attract more businesses.
"We have to help our businesses that are here, and we have to entice new businesses to come to Grand County."
"Here is where there is a clear choice between Chas and myself," Newberry said. "He wants top-down" as an approach to economic development. "I want to find out what the businesses in the county need," he said. "I don't agree with a top-down approach."
But McConnell countered, saying he supports a top-down approach, but also supports bottom-up approaches, such as Granby's Enterprise Initiative, to "enhance businesses that are here. Why wouldn't we do both at once?"
On the topic of water, McConnell said he recognized the complexity of water issues, but said the county needs to "negotiate more on water issues." He applauded Newberry for working on water issues the past 16 years, but added, "We have a lot less water in our rivers now than we did 16 years ago," and called for the need for a (Windy Gap) bypass and flushing flows in the river.
Newberry said the county is making strides with Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the Bureau of Reclamation, and criticized McConnell for oversimplifying the issue.
Another exchange between the two candidates occurred during responses to a question about possible changes to the county administration, if elected.
"I've been on the campaign trail for 11 months now, and I've talked to thousands of people. And there's one question that I get asked over and over and over," said McConnell. "And it's 'What about the county attorney? What about the relationship with the county attorney representing the county, but also having a private criminal practice? Is there a conflict there?' One thing I would do if I were elected is I would have those questions answered," he continued.
"The citizens of Grand County are asking that question over and over and over because they feel there is a conflict; well then, let's get to the bottom of it. And if there's a conflict, then those changes have to be made."
Since Newberry had already answered, he responded during the next question about a vision for Grand County. After briefly touching on fixing water issues, he drew laughs from the audience when he said, "About the county attorney. He's a defense attorney, but he also specializes in divorces, so that brings a 50-50 chance to the table that whoever he's talking to, they're not going to like him."
Newberry went on to explain County Attorney Jack DiCola is paid $90,000 a year on a contract-basis, and the contract is renewed on a yearly basis. "The other attorneys around the sister counties, they're (paid) $175,000 to $225,000 (a year). They're full-time; they're not contract.
"The thing about Jack is, we don't lose very often," Newberry said.
McConnell said the last word on the subject during his closing statements. "If there's a conflict of interest, there's a conflict of interest," he said. "I just want to point that out. It's nice that James is defending him. If he was one of my employees, I'd probably do the same."
Comic relief came when Newberry answered the administration question. He said he was perplexed why Republican opponents would say they'll look for more efficiencies at the county, such as where to cut people and how to streamline operations to save the county money. Newberry pointed out that he is the only Democrat among county officials - that the county "is mostly run by Republicans." He proceeded to commend the Republicans.
"And I'm going to stand up for those Republicans," he said. "They do an outstanding job. They watch their budgets. Those guys are doing a good job over there. And you elected them, and I'm proud to work with them. I may be the only Democrat over there, but I tell you, they do a damn good job."
He then smiled and said, "You didn't see that coming, did you?"
But later, Newberry said the office of commissioner is a "non-partisan position."
"You do not make decisions on the county level, the local level, based on party affiliation."
Also squaring up during the debate were District 2 candidates Robb Rankin and Merrit Linke.
Rankin, who's lived in the county since 1981 and was superintendent of the East Grand School District from 1996 to 2008, said he was "not in favor of multiple variances" in response to a question about county zoning.
Linke, a Grand County native, Middle Park High School graduate, former teacher and a local business owner, said he would stand for property rights, but would take a balanced approach when it comes to neighbors infringing on the rights of others. He said he's noticed "inconsistencies of enforcement of (zoning) regulations on the books" at the county, and called for cleaning up, modifying or changing regulations so they could be better enforced.
When asked about improving the local economy, Rankin prompted laughs when he joked, "First I'm going to win the lottery."
In seriousness, he listed tourism, preserving and protecting natural resources, a solid infrastructure and sufficient broadband as hallmarks to improving the local economy.
Linke touted the need for government to facilitate "resource-based businesses," or products made here in Grand County and exported. He also touched on encouraging "eco-tourism" in Grand County and said his aim would be for the county to have fewer "boom and bust cycles" in 10 years.
When asked what their top agenda items would be if elected, Rankin said he would first focus energies on the budget and would explore giving county employees raises, since there has been a freeze on raises the past four years. He would do so to ensure a "consistent workforce," he said. Rankin said he supported the county's direction with water issues.
Linke said he would be devoted to learning more about county functions and would meet with business leaders in the county to find out what is needed and what is working or not working. Administratively, Linke said he would encourage county department heads to report directly to the commissioners rather than to a county manager.
On the county's estimated $25 million in reserves, Linke said he would not encourage any capital projects, saying he would be conservative with reserves to be prepared for lower assessed values and less revenue to the county.
Rankin would consider using the reserves to "close the landfill safely and effectively," he said. He would also analyze in the budget $900,000 set aside for the Fraser Valley Parkway to see if there is a better use of that money.
As far as changes to administration, Rankin said from his experience in working with 24 different school board members during his past career he would not change anything at the county at this point and would trust the "institutional history" employees have until learning more about his role as commissioner. His experience, he said, "lowers the learning curve."
One area where the candidates disagreed was in answers to a question about helping low-income residents of the county. Rankin touted the need to support social services and endorsed community support of early childhood education and supplemental funding for immunizations.
"I don't believe it's government's responsibility to take care of everyone," Linke said during his answer. "I think some people have to take some responsibility for themselves."
- Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603