It’s a grand old time to be a Republican in Montezuma County, with a slew of candidates vying for votes in primary races for two slots on the county commission, and no threats on the general-election horizon from either Democrats or Greens.
There is expected to be at least one unaffiliated candidate in the District 3 fray, Larry Don Suckla, but the GOP stands an excellent chance of maintaining a lock on the three-member commission that stretches back to 2004, when the last Democrat, Kelly Wilson, left the board.
Three commission candidates garnered enough delegate votes at the Feb. 24 county assembly to seize a spot on the ballot for the June 26 primary, while three others have pledged to try petitioning onto the ballot and will be gathering signatures.
In keeping with conservative traditions, most of the current candidates are talking tough about the Forest Service and BLM and expressing distaste for government regulations, but there are definitely different shades of red in their views.
The local chapter of the Tea Party/9-12 Project reportedly flexed some muscle at the county assembly, resulting in a floor nomination for a previously unannounced candidate, Casey McClellan, in District 3, the Mancos area. McClellan wound up with 39 delegate votes, second to Dewayne Findley’s 63. Both of them automatically make the primary ballot, while a third District 3 candidate, Tim Hunter, won 26 votes and will have to petition on.
McClellan said when he went to his precinct caucus, he had ruled out the idea of running, but a few days later a man told him he could be nominated at the assembly.
“I spent five or six days thinking things over and decided I was going to do it,” Mc- Clellan said. “I’ve had a lot of support over the last couple of years, people encouraging me to run.”
He was pleased by his showing at the assembly. “It was a roll of the dice and I feel great that it turned out that way.”
McClellan, who served 3 1/2 years on the county planning commission, is a co-owner of McStone Aggregates, a gravel company. He also is involved in Timberline Properties of Colorado, a real-estate investment and development firm. He was one of the developers of a controversial proposal to build an energy-waste disposal operation near Hovenweep National Monument that was ultimately rejected by the county in 2009 and is now planned for a remote location in Dolores County.
McClellan said he sees no potential conflicts between his business interests and serving on the commission, although some people have raised that issue.
“I can’t vote on my own projects. Anything I want to do I’d like to get done before going into office. But I almost feel like mine are tougher to get through for one reason or anything – I certainly have been unsuccessful,” he added wryly.
McClellan is a staunch advocate for motorized recreation and helped to form Timberline Trail Riders, a pro-motorized users group, in 2006. The group submitted comments to three travel-management plans proposed on public lands in the area.
Issues surrounding Forest Service and BLM lands, and access thereto, are one of McClellan’s priorities. “There a lot of oil and gas leases on public lands, logging and grazing, hunting, and access affects all of that,” he said. “I don’t think there’s enough coordination [between the agencies and the county].”
Last year the county commissioners created an advisory group, the Montezuma County Public Lands Coordination Commission, to research road and access issues, but McClellan, who is an alternate on that group, said he doesn’t think it can accomplish much.
“It’s the wrong group. It can’t succeed because it doesn’t represent all of us.” That’s why he is part of a citizens’ group called the Southwest Public Lands Coalition, he said. “It’s a large group and it’s designed so we all look out for each other and all users are represented.”
However, environmentalists aren’t represented because “we’re all trying to preserve our uses on the national forest and what I’ve seen of environmentalists, they just want to eliminate the uses.”
Beyond motorized access, a major county issue has been land-use planning, with the commissioners considering land-use-code amendments that would place a zoning designation on all the unzoned properties in the county, in most cases by zoning them for their current use.
McClellan opposes that idea, saying he sees no problem with property being unzoned if owners choose. Besides, being unzoned actually limits uses.
“It only allows you historic uses, so it’s pretty restrictive,” he said. “If you force somebody to rezone, you have opened things up to a whole bunch more uses.”
McClellan will have a tough opponent in Findley, who served as a county commissioner for District 1 from 2002 to 2006, when he lost his re-election bid to Steve Chappell. Findley and his wife have since moved to the Mancos district, and after much thought he decided to run again.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to it, but then I kept thinking somebody should jump in the race besides Tim [Hunter]. He’s a nice guy but I don’t think he represents all our Republican values. And I felt like I had work I wasn’t done with.”
Land-use planning is one example, Findley said, and an area where the candidates disagree. “Casey proclaimed at the assembly that ‘unzoned’ was a zoning classification, but it’s a classification with fewer uses by right than any of the others.
“I don’t think you can make the statement that the county has zoning when 44 percent of the parcels [some estimates say more than that] in the county are unzoned.”
Findley said zoning is helpful when the commission has to decide whether a proposed development fits in with the neighborhood. “If it’s all unzoned, then no one in the area has a leg to stand on” in saying that something isn’t a fit, he said.
Findley said his views on land-use planning are probably more in line with Hunter’s than with those of McClellan.
However, Findley, owner of Aspen Wall Wood, agreed with McClellan that the county has to take a strong stance with the Forest Service and BLM. “I’ve had a 45-year career with timber and wood production dealing with them,” he said. “As soon as someone else’s ox is gored on motorized uses, then they’re front and center complaining about the Forest Service, but where have they been when I was trying to get timber sales?”
More recently, Findley was on the county’s Public Lands Coordination Commission but resigned because he felt the commissioners weren’t heeding the group’s recommendations.
He said he was disappointed that the 9-12 group felt the need to nominate McClellan and intends to reach out to them. “Their concern is, since I’m in timber and wood production and have Forest Service timber sales, I might put my interests first. I have to convince them I don’t have a moment’s problem taking on the Forest Service when needed.”
Hunter, who came in third at the assembly in District 3, offers a more moderate viewpoint than either McClellan or Findley. He said he will petition onto the ballot because “I have a lot to offer.”
“Casey has a specific agenda, and I don’t know that someone should be going into an office of commissioner with one agenda,” Hunter said. “Dewayne and I are more similar in our views, but I’m more current on the issues.”
Hunter, a builder, served on the planning commission until he quit to run for office last year. He worked to develop the proposed land-use-code amendments that would have zoned the county and implemented other changes, and was disappointed when the commissioners recently sent those amendments back for further work.
“While I was on P & Z, we spent three years at the behest of the commissioners to put together that plan and that proposal, keeping them fully apprised during the process, and I was frankly caught off guard when it got pushed back to the planning department. I think there’s a lot of good things in there.”
He said one of his fears is that a more libertarian commission will be elected and that board might roll back the land-use regulations in existence now. Planning is essential to economic growth, he said.
“In 2013 there will be a new assessment of property values and the assessor is expecting tax receipts to drop by 20 percent or more. If we don’t plan for the future to encourage business to come into this county we’re going to be suffering, and I think pulling back on the land-use code is putting a block on businesses coming here.”
The county relies on Kinder Morgan’s carbon-dioxide production for half its tax revenues, he noted, but Hunter said Kinder Morgan is going to reduce production in 15 or 20 years. Natural-gas exploration and production has largely fizzled out, too, creating a need for other types of economic development, Hunter said.
“I’m not opposed to drilling, but it shouldn’t be our ace in the hole,” he said. Hunter sees the controversy over public lands access as somewhat misguided. “I was a logger in one of my first careers, and there isn’t a logging sale out here that I would bid on.
“Access is a hot-button issue for a certain segment of our county, but there are a lot of roads in the backcountry. There’s nobody restricting access. When I see people saying, ‘They’re locking down the forest,’ I disagree.”
Hunter said he believes in the principle of limiting government interference, “but I think the current controversy is out of proportion to reality. I’m going to get nailed by the 9-12 faction for that, but tough.
“We need to have more collaborative relationships between state, federal and county agencies.”
Hunter said last year’s protests against the Forest Service did produce some good results in prompting more dialogue with the agencies, “but I’m saying the paranoia needs to stop.”
Hunter is chair of the local Friends of the NRA, which promotes gun safety and education. He is on the school board and the Mancos Valley Resources board and teaches junior shooting classes for local gun clubs.
He is a strong advocate for civil dialogue. “It used to be something that was lauded and approved, if you cold establish a broadbased political coalition to make things happen. Now, in some views that’s considered a sin. But you have to be willing to compromise sometimes.
“I’m a firm believer in our Second Amendment and the right to carry a gun, but I don’t want to have to.”
If the District 3 race is lively, the race in the Cortez district should be equally so.
The influence of the 9-12 Project at the assembly wasn’t enough to gain Bud Garner, former emcee of the local 9-12ers, a berth on the ballot, but he did place second in a four-way race, with 30 delegate votes.
As of Feb. 28, Garner was still mulling whether to petition on, but on March 1 he told the Free Press he had decided to go for it.
One reason to run would be to have actual debates with his opponents, foremost of whom is Keenan Ertel, who got 67 delegate votes and a place on the ballot.
“To Keenan’s credit, he won the battle of the yard signs, and of getting his people out to the precinct caucuses,” Garner said.
But Garner said he’s more up on the current issues than the other candidates because he’s been attending commission meetings for the past two years – sometimes as the only person in the audience. “I’m the only one that has been going to the meetings and been there for all their discussions,” he said.
Garner, an outspoken foe of government regulations, said if elected he would “absolutely” look at dismantling some of the landuse rules in place. “I would look to making the land-use plan less restrictive. I’m a minimalist in all that stuff.
“You don’t want people to be out there that don’t have an adequate septic system, but I think the health and safety issues should not require a book the size of the land-use code.
“I believe in personal freedom and sovereignty.” When it comes to liberty, he said, “where we’re really losing it is we have not been as strong as we need to be with the Forest Service and BLM.” The agencies are not following rules when they close routes and are “creating more wilderness areas for the sole purpose of locking that land away from use for natural resources,” he said.
Although Garner was undecided about trying to get onto the ballot, Pat DeGagne- Rule, who placed third in the District 2 voting with 26 votes, has already decided to go for it. (A fourth candidate, Stuart Hanold, received just 5 votes and will not be on the ballot.)
“I don’t have a set agenda. I think the way the county’s been run with our three commissioners now is working quite well,” she said.
As the wife of current Commissioner Larrie Rule, she might be expected to say that, but DeGagne-Rule said she often disagrees with her husband. For example, she didn’t think forming the Public Lands Coordination Commission was a good idea. “It’s the commissioners who need to come to the table, and I don’t think that PLCC has helped as much as they thought it would. I’m not for creating a lot of sub-boards,” she said.
Rule said she is a good listener and wants to be “the people’s voice.” Having served on numerous boards and as chair of the local Republican Party, she is familiar with the county and its people, she said.
DeGagne-Rule said she is comfortable with the zoning that exists now but doesn’t see the need to zone the unzoned properties. She said more input from the public is needed about land-use planning.
She favors negotiating with the Forest Service and BLM to try to work problems out. “We do have a comprehensive plan that spells out what we can do in our forest, and they need to follow that,” she said. “The people that have been very vocal – I don’t think they’ve really helped the situation. They might have had good intentions, but it’s gotten out of hand.”
She said the county assembly was “taken over by the 9-12 group and the sheriff ’s office. They did a great job at the caucuses getting their people on as delegates.”
The caucuses were packed because of the presidential straw poll, she said, and the attendees worked to get their supporters chosen as delegates first. Then they would close the voting. “I didn’t get many of my people on.”
If elected, DeGagne-Rule would be only the second woman ever to be a commissioner in Montezuma County.
“I seem to be having an uphill battle because I’m a woman, but I’m strong and I’m going to face it,” she said.
Keenan Ertel so far is not having an uphill battle. “I was more than pleased with the county assembly,” he said. “That went way beyond what I had expected.” Ertel said he has always wanted to run for the commission and finally decided this was the year. He was planning to retire from his family’s funeral business in the near future anyway. He comes into the arena with “a pure heart, no grudges and no axes to grind,” he said.
One of his priorities would be “making the land-use code a document that is understood by all.”
He has begun reading through it, “and they have everything between soup and nuts in there,” he said. I hate to see property rights trampled on by anybody, and I wouldn’t want more restrictions, because they have a lot in there.”
He said he doesn’t see a need to force people to declare a zoning designation for their property, but he isn’t familiar enough with the proposed code amendments to say whether he favors them.
He is also getting a “rapid education” in the Forest Service controversy. “We need to take a firm stand that says county rights and state rights are as important as federal rights. I’ve been watching what’s going on in Utah [in battling the federal agencies] and I’m very impressed with what’s going on there.”
Ertel said he looks forward to learning more about the issues. “I just want to be a good statesman for the people of Montezuma County.”