In the recent movie Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the band Queen, leaves the group to do some solo projects. But eventually he comes back, telling the other members that – without their feedback and criticism – his work simply hasn’t been as good.
This is a fictionalized account, but there’s an underlying truth to it. Consider the Beatles. All four of them were talented, but their individual work after the band’s breakup never came close to matching the quality of the songs they produced together. That’s because it was through the friction of their competition and arguments, the medley of their divergent voices and views, that their finest art was achieved.
What does all this have to do with recreation in Montezuma County?
Well, the county commissioners are seeking to put together a Recreation Advisory Committee that will “advise the Board of County Commissioners on the planning, construction, land acquisition, operating and maintenance, and organized and coordinated activities and other issues related to recreation in Montezuma County,” the notice states. The deadline for people to apply was Jan. 4.
In the application form, the commissioners ask what interests people have, but they don’t say the committee will actually have specific “slots” for representatives of different groups. That leaves open the possibility that the people they select won’t be diverse at all.
Now, when we talk about “diversity,” we don’t necessarily mean in regard to Affirmative Action issues such as gender and race (although those are also a concern). We’re talking primarily about diversity of viewpoints. For this committee, that would mean having a host of representatives of different forms of recreation, not just motorized users with a few cyclists thrown in.
Why are we concerned? Well, over the past several years, the makeup of the county’s boards and staff has steadily become more homogenous and less diverse. For example, in 2015, the board shrank and reconfigured the Planning Commission, encouraging specific people to apply in an effort to make sure that all the members would be totally in line with the commissioners’ views. (This didn’t entirely happen, but that was the goal.)
The commission itself consists of three men whose views vary about as much as northwest varies from north-northwest. And the commissioners have generally appointed staff who either agree with their views or won’t say much if they don’t.
This policy makes for smooth sailing at meetings, with few disagreements among the board, but it can lead to rash decisions. A good example was the vote in 2015 to throw away $1,000 of taxpayer money on the American Lands Council, a Utah-based nonprofit that advocates for the transfer of federal lands to the states. This issue wasn’t even on the agenda when it was brought up, but it quickly passed the board 2-0 (Commissioner Keenan Ertel was absent). It turned out later that nearly half of the money the council raised was going to pay the director and his wife.
If there had been among the commissioners someone with a somewhat different viewpoint, such a silly decision might have been questioned. That’s why so many people were excited and energized by the candidacy of M.B. McAfee, who came within 400 votes of winning a seat on the commission this fall. Clearly, the majority of the populace of Montezuma County is conservative, but there is a sizable contingent – 35 to 40 percent – that is more progressive and feels utterly shut out of discussions at the county level because they don’t have even a voice at the table to raise questions and concerns. The commissioners allow public comment twice a day during their weekly meetings, but they don’t truly listen when anyone says anything even slightly contrary to their views; they either turn a deaf ear, or interrupt and argue with the opposition. Then they do exactly what they were planning to do in the first place.
McAfee couldn’t have changed the fundamental conservatism of the county or the commission, but she could have offered new ideas and raised critical questions. Even now, she and two other women who have been faithfully attending the commission meetings for years – Ellen Foster and Gala Pock – are the board’s only consistent watchdogs, goading them into adhering to open-meetings laws and demanding they follow proper processes and procedures.
Commissioner Larry Don Suckla is widely rumored to have political ambitions beyond the county level. We don’t know whether that’s true, but if it is, it could be a good thing – he has plenty of energy and ideas. However, in order to accomplish much legislatively, you have to do more than advocate for the people who voted for you. You need to be able to occasionally reach across the aisle and work with folks of different political persuasions, and so far there is no evidence that he is willing or able to do this. (Sitting down with cyclists when you’re a cyclist yourself isn’t reaching very far across the aisle.) This commission’s attitude when it comes to negotiations has been, “Our way or the highway.” This has been true in regards to the Rico-West Dolores Travel Plan, ownership of the Dolores-Norwood Road, the Dolores River NCA proposal, and more. And while there certainly are issues that are worth going to the wall for, it shouldn’t be the case for every single one that comes up.
So we’re hoping that the recreation committee won’t, as we fear, be made up solely of a few cyclists and a host of motorized advocates such as Casey McClellan. The wheeled contingent is important, but the committee should also include representatives of hunting, angling, hiking, quiet-use, equestrian and boating interests, if the ideas they produce are to be worth their salt. Members need to be able to work together, yes, but a group composed of nine clones isn’t likely to come up with fresh and interesting suggestions. The best work is done when people of different talents, experiences, backgrounds and skills sit down together and hash out a product that reflects their best thinking.