November 2012

Changing of the guard

Quite frankly, when Gerald Koppenhafter and Larrie Rule were elected as Montezuma County commissioners in 2004, we weren’t terribly excited. For the 35 to 40 percent of the county that would like to see one, just one, person on the board who can speak the word “environment” without disdain, their victories seemed to portend a predictable path.

But during their eight years in office, these two have surprised and impressed us, amassing (along with their co-commissioners, first Dewayne Findley and now Steve Chappell) a pretty solid record of achievements.

No, they aren’t progressives. Yes, there are a number of decisions they made with which we strongly disagree. Yes, it’s easy to find criticisms to level at them. (For instance, they aren’t very good at PR and seem uncomfortable speaking in front of a crowd.) Yes, they made mistakes (such as failing to comment on the Boggy-Glade Travel Management Plan in its initial comment period, thus costing the county its standing to appeal the final decision).

But Koppenhafer and Rule have been commissioners during a period of considerable controversy over land-use planning and other issues. For a time it seemed that every public hearing they held drew a standing-room-only crowd of people in passionate disagreement over gravel pits, giant gas-storage tanks and waste facilities.

They had to make an extraordinary number of tough decisions, the sort guaranteed to leave no one happy. Their record deserves to be recognized. Here are a few of the things the board did during their time in office:

• Appointed Sheriff Gerald Wallace to replace Joey Chavez when he resigned in the middle of his term. Wallace was a good choice at the time and brought a fresh level of professionalism to the office.

• Went to court to get a preliminary injunction that halted a motorcycle rally when the organizer said he would hold it in defiance of the county’s ruling that it was not safely planned. Going to court was a very courageous decision, but one that was necessary if the land-use code was to be upheld.

• Voted to reject a proposed storage and treatment facility for energy wastes near Hovenweep. Again, this was a truly brave decision. Although the facility might not have been quite the horror that its opponents painted it to be, its approval would have generated many lawsuits, and we believe it is better located in a more remote area in Dolores County.

• Passed a common-sense ordinance requiring dogs to be under control or on their owners’ property at all times – an ordinance that makes many people feel safer about walking or cycling down county roads.

• Kept the county well within budget.

• Implemented improvements that made the old county courthouse more energy-efficient.

• Approved the money-wise decision to purchase the former First National Bank building to provide much-needed room for county offices.

• Pursued efforts to make sure that energy companies such as Kinder Morgan pay their fair share of taxes.

• Adopted improvements to the landuse code that help clarify the county’s zoning scheme and make it easier for commercial and industrial developments to be approved in specific locations.

• Refused, despite considerable pressure, to go overboard in battling the Forest Service concerning travel management, choosing instead to sit down at the table with the federal-lands agencies and try to work things out.

• Supported and worked for a plan to protect native fish on the Lower Dolores River that would serve as an alternative to designating it a “Wild and Scenic River.” The commissioners (particularly Koppenhafer, who served on boards related to this effort) were not motivated by any great love of rare species, but by the down-to-earth need to avoid an endangered-species listing and federal interference in local water management.

Likewise, their efforts in regards to land-use planning were motivated not by a zeal for zoning but primarily by a desire to avoid being on the losing end of lawsuits — which is a good thing.

Of course, the commissioners relied heavily on the help and advice from excellent staff — and it shows that they have the good sense to listen to knowledgeable people and to try to do what’s best for the county – the whole county.

We congratulate newly elected commissioners Keenan Ertel and Larry Don Suckla. We hope they, too, will look out for the county’s interests and demonstrate the same willingness to make tough decisions with thought and care.