July 2014

It's a man's world in Montezuma County

Women make up a slight (50.2 percent) majority of Montezuma County’s population, but you sure wouldn’t know it from looking at our leadership.

Walk into almost any board meeting in this county, and you will see more men than women at the table – often considerably more. But let’s confine ourselves to discussion of only the publicly elected boards.

• The Cortez Sanitation District Board, which manages the city’s sewer system and is frequently a source of controversy over rates and policies, is composed entirely of men. (Of course, studies have shown men are much more likely to have their minds in the gutter, so…)

• The Cortez Re-1 School District has two women out of seven members.

• Southwest Memorial Hospital District board – three of seven.

• Empire Electric board – one of seven.

• And when it comes to fire-district boards, it’s so unusual for females to serve that the Cortez Journal ran the following headline in May: “Two women elected to Cortez fire district.”

The incorporated municipalities, which tend to be a bit more progressive than the broader county, reflect this somewhat in the makeup of their town boards.

The Cortez City Council consists of two women and five men, which is fairly typical for them, but the council recently chose Karen Sheek as mayor.

The Mancos Town Board is composed of four men and three women, one of whom is mayor. And the Dolores Town Board actually has a female majority, four out of seven. (Dolores also has had a female mayor in the past.) It’s important to note that in Mancos and Dolores, the mayor is chosen by the broad electorate rather than just the board.

Still, when it comes to the truly powerful offices in Montezuma County, women tend to be relegated to clerical and “helper” roles rather than the highest leadership positions. The clerk/recorder as well as the treasurer are traditionally women; the remainder of the county’s elected officials are almost always men.

Only three women have ever even run for the post of county commissioner. One lost in the general election, one in the primary, and the third, Helen McClellan, actually made it into office for a single term before losing her re-election bid. That was some 20 years ago.

The 22nd Judicial District (which encompasses Montezuma and Dolores counties) has never had a female district attorney.

In the June 24 Republican primary, there were four local contested races on the ballot, and seven of the candidates were male. The sole woman, Cynthia Claytor, lost her bid for the assessor’s position. (The GOP primary, not the general election, is where most local officials are actually chosen, since the local Democratic party appears to be moribund.)

And earlier this year, when former Cortez Police Officer Diane Fox was considering a run for sheriff (she eventually chose not to try it at that time), a number of people told us, “She’d be good – but she could never win in Montezuma County.”

Now, we are not suggesting that there is a “war on women,” or a male conspiracy to “keep women down.” It’s wrong to blame men for all this. In fact, our current county commissioners selected a woman, Melissa Brunner, as administrator (first in the county’s history) and Sheriff Dennis Spruell likewise appointed a female undersheriff, Lynda Carter.

Nor are we arguing that in contests between a man and a women, people should automatically vote for the woman. Candidates all need to be judged on their own merits.

But the shortage of women in key positions locally is so striking, there needs to be some examination of the causes, as well as an effort to turn the situation around.

In some ways, this may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. People assume women can’t win, so they don’t run. Thus, an essential part of the solution is that more women need to enter the fray. Too often, they seem to view themselves too critically (“Oh, I’m not qualified”), or to take a back seat to their husbands. (We can think of several examples where the wife was definitely the “better half ” of a politically active couple, but never sought elected office.)

There are plenty of local women of all political persuasions who would be excellent candidates for the county commission – who understand budgets, know how to communicate with a variety of people, and have vision as well as common sense. We encourage them to think about entering the fray instead of waiting to see which men are going to step forward in the next election.

It would also be refreshing to see more people of color serving in local offices. As it is, most boards here are lily-white, even though only about three-quarters of the population is white, with Native Americans and Hispanics at roughly 12 percent apiece. (Again, we’re not implying race or ethnicity should be the primary consideration in selecting decision-makers.)

But that’s a topic for another day. After all, women aren’t even a minority among our populace, yet they are grossly underrepresented.

We urge parents, teachers, and school officials to encourage both girls and boys to become politically aware and to consider serving on student councils as a preliminary to positions on town councils and special district boards. And we hope voters will examine their own attitudes to make sure they aren’t summarily rejecting female candidates because “they can’t win.” That’s selling the county short.

Frankly, we haven’t had an excess of well-qualified candidates of any stripe running for office of late. Cortez had to cancel its April council election because there were just four people seeking four seats. Thank heaven for the few unaffiliated candidates that have petitioned their way onto the ballot to offer voters a choice in the county’s November general election.

But it doesn’t have to stay this way. Women could pump some new blood into what has become the stale “good old boy” network that many voters gripe about.

So, we would urge the “fairer” sex to “woman up.” Get involved. (But, hey, it’s OK to keep on baking those cookies!)