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County commission candidates offer differing views
10/23/2012 By: Carole McWilliams
Editor's note: Early voting has started in La Plata County at the county clerk's office in Bodo Park and at Bayfield Town Hall. Mail-in ballots were sent out last week. Below are the profiles of La Plata County Commissioner Kellie Hotter and her challenger for the District 2 seat, Gwen Lachelt. We'll have a story about the Colorado state representative race between incumbent J. Paul Brown and challenger Mike MacLachlan in Friday's edition. Thanks for reading.
Hotter says Lachelt focuses on single issue
By Carole McWilliams
Times senior staff writer
Kellie Hotter is seeking re-election as a county commissioner from District 2, which covers the city of Durango, the Animas Valley north of Durango, and part of the south valley.
Commissioner candidates must live in their districts, but they are elected at-large.
Hotter was elected in 2008 after being appointed previously to fill a vacancy after Bob Lieb Sr. resigned. She touts her pioneer ranching family roots in the county and her private business background signing “the front side of a paycheck.”
Gwen Lachelt is challenging Hotter for the seat. She has lived in the county since 1981. She was born in New Mexico and raised in Alaska and Colorado. She comes from “a long line of farmers, ranchers, and miners.”
Lachelt accuses Hotter of flip-flopping on many county issues, especially Hotter’s vote last December to shelve a comprehensive plan she previously supported.
Hotter calls Lachelt “a single issue activist” and accuses her of “working to annihilate the natural gas industry.”
Lachelt touts her knowledge of the industry as a benefit to the county and says she was closely involved when the county’s oil and gas land use regulations were created, that have become a model around the state. She stresses property values and rights of surface owners.
Hotter answered questions by an exchange of e-mails, because she broke her jaw a few weeks ago, and her jaw is wired shut while it heals.
She is a Fort Lewis College graduate. She and her husband have raised four children in the county.
Hotter said that under her leadership, the county has become debt free and has downsized by 19 employees. “We are evaluating more efficient and streamlined ways in which to deliver services and making sure that government is sized ‘right’ to do that which we are charged,” she said.
She said her leadership has been recognized by county commissioners around the state who elected her to be president of the county lobbying organization, Colorado Counties Inc., in 2013. “This is an incredible opportunity for Southwest Colorado to have a strong voice at the state level,” she said.
She touts her efforts in 2007 and 2008 to change the formula that the state uses to distribute oil and gas severance tax money to counties and towns. The county share jumped from $372,301 in 2008 up to $1,912,340 according to figures she provided. It was just over $1 million in 2011.
A draft comprehensive plan that was shelved by the county commissioners last December has become a campaign issue.
Hotter said of that plan and land use in general, “One size does not fit all. We need good planning but need to assess how best to go about that. An all-encompassing comprehensive plan is simply not going to be well received nor appropriate for a mostly rural county. This is where progressive urban planning meets rural America. When a process becomes that polarized and politicized, a time out is needed.”
The county commissioners had hard decisions to make about some staff leadership positions, and now that that’s done, the comp plan discussion will resume in 2013, Hotter said. “I have had this extensive conversation with our new county manager and our new planning director, and we all agree that there is a better way to approach this after the first of the year.”
Money spent on the comp plan process was not wasted or thrown away, Hotter said. She called that money “a path to a successful outcome where calmer minds will prevail.”
A related issue has been the Climate and Energy Action Plan (CEAP). Hotter voted against formal adoption of the document back in the spring. It was previously accepted at a joint work session, she said, and “Most of the good recommendations that are within the jurisdiction of local government have already been achieved.”
Things have changed since that process started in 2008, Hotter said. The county budget has shrunk. Implementing CEAP would take money from other things, she said.
“We are concerned about deferred maintenance of our infrastructure. We need to be focusing on human services, public safety, roads and bridges, and necessary services in this economy, NOT spending our time and resources on a feasibility study for a climate energy action plan for our county. It is not the time to be adding layers of bureaucracy and growing government while people are struggling to make ends meet.”
The county has spent a lot of money on energy efficiency and programs, which Hotter argues is a better investment in resource conservation “than to become ‘climate police.’”
On economic development, Hotter said, “I believe that the most important role of local elected officials is ‘to create a climate that is conducive to doing business.’ Government does not create jobs, business creates jobs.”
The county is a large contributor to the Economic Development Alliance “that works towards attracting growing industries, such as renewables, that can add value to our community, provide high paying jobs, and help diversify our economic base,” Hotter said.
“I will continue to fight for ‘common sense’ government, a stronger economy, protection of private property rights, the preservation of our agricultural heritage, and strong fiscal responsibility,” she concluded.
Lachelt: commission needs to move forward
Gwen Lachelt has lived in the county since 1981. She graduated from Fort Lewis College in 1985 with a BA in political science.
She said some people asked her to run for the District 2 county commissioner seat. “I accepted because I share the view that current decision making is rooted in the past, and we aren’t prepared for the future.”
Lachelt said she has 25 years of experience managing organizations and their budgets, supervising staff, and making payroll.
“I also know how government works, with 25 years experience working with local, state, and federal governments, the oil and gas industry, and ranching organizations to pass landmark legislation and common sense standards to protect property values and landowner rights,” she said.
She was a founding member of the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance. That group’s first big project was to get stoplights installed at the Highway 160/ 172 intersection in the mid 1980s.
SJCA has been very active with oil and gas development issues but has worked on other issues as well, such as public lands management and affordable housing, Lachelt said. She was SJCA executive director in 1998-99, and before that was executive director of Western Colorado Congress, a similar umbrella organization.
She helped organize BearSmart in 2003 to reduce human-bear conflicts in the county. She is founder and director of Earthworks/ Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) which works on local, state, and national oil and gas development impact issues.
“What is very relevant is the skills I bring to the (county commissioners) job to be an effective commissioner, working within the system to make government and business transparent and accountable and to live up to a set of standards,” she said. “To be an effective commissioner, I believe you have to be able to bring people together and build consensus, and that’s a skill set I bring to the job.”
Lachelt continued, “Since announcing my candidacy, I’ve attended numerous county commissioner meetings, met with county department heads and staff, and attended various meetings around the county.”
She touts her expertise in oil and gas issues, since it is the number one industry in the county and top source of property tax revenue. “I am the candidate with the most knowledge of the industry and of working with industry to develop practices to protect property values and landowner rights,” she said.
“I was really involved in development of the county oil and gas regulations in the early 1990s for activities above ground,” she said. “When the (coalbed methane) drilling boom started in the late ‘80s, there were no standards. They didn’t have to notify landowners before they drilled. Industry is living up to the standards that were put in.”
Lachelt said, “I want to restore the public trust and confidence in county government. I want to adopt a comp plan and build our economy with resilience through promoting local ag and renewable energy businesses.”
She criticized opponent Kellie Hotter for voting last December to scrap a draft comp plan that was “years in the making and cost over $750,000… and years of citizen input and staff planning. We need to take it off the shelf, give it to the new planning director and staff for any amendments, and take it to the planning commission for a public hearing.”
She continued, “My opponent has suggested we start over. I don’t believe we need to re-invent the wheel or waste more tax money starting over. We have a good plan. Through the public input process, we can address issues of contention and move forward.”
The political orientation of some county planning commission members was a big issue last year as the draft comp plan went through review, and some planning commissioners and community members made assertions about a UN takeover plot.
Lachelt said, “I believe we have to appoint people who represent the broad spectrum of the county. Currently it’s dominated by people whose political ideologies are in conflict with the mission of the planning commission. … We have people on the planning commission who don’t believe in the role of government in civil society. I’m not saying those people shouldn’t be on the commission, but the commission should be balanced.”
The county budget is a big issue, she said. The share of property taxes paid by natural gas development has fallen sharply as the market price for gas has fallen nationally because of a supply glut.
“We’ve known for a long time that we need to diversify our economic base, and that eventually we would deplete most of our oil and gas resources,” she said. “Looking forward, I believe when the market price goes back up, we’ll have more drilling in the county. We may have oil and gas development for decades to come.”
But she added, “Knowing what we know now, we need to be prepared to replace our fossil fuel economy with a renewable fuel economy.”
She supports policies that would increase renewable energy standards, also higher energy efficiency standards in the building code.
Counties have statutory authority to regulate land use, Lachelt said. As for property rights, she said, “I think where the role of government comes in is if your land use is negatively impacting your neighbors.”
Land use planning provides predictability or certainty that businesses or individuals need to move forward, she said. “The most important thing the county can do in terms of economic development is to adopt a comp plan and a land use plan,” she said.
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