Six people vying for four seats
by Mark Reaman
The Crested Butte News hosted its Candidates Forum on Sunday, October 18. Given the length of the forum and the candidates’ answers, we will divide the story into parts. Part One deals with leadership, spending and Champagne. Part Two will look at how they feel about housing, economic development and priorities. You have until Tuesday, November 3 to return your ballot.
There were no questions about a potential molybdenum mine on Mt. Emmons or any queries about ski area expansion during the two-hour Crested Butte News Candidates Forum Sunday evening, but the issue of dysfunction within the current council and topics related to how much business is enough, affordable housing, and economic development and its impacts were put to the candidates.
Collaboration was a common theme among the candidates for Crested Butte Town Council and there were few major policy differences among those seeking to represent the citizens of town.
Moderator Denis B. Hall was chomping at the bit to grill the six candidates, particularly mayoral hopefuls Skip Berkshire and Glenn Michel, about the perceived culture of secrecy and “byzantine” decision making that had a heavy reliance on town staff ever since the Whatever USA event a year ago.
“I think there will be a new regime on council with this election,” said Michel. “The next council needs to learn to work better together.”
“These long meetings need to be fixed,” said Berkshire. “We had a recent retreat and it blew up. The hate and vitriol that characterizes this council needs to go away. We have to get the council and the staff to work together as a team and we need the council to not micromanage the staff.”
KBUT’s Chad Reich reminded Hall that the candidates should get an opening statement to introduce themselves and Hall invited each to do so.
Candidate Paul Merck said he wanted to work with the people on the council, but more important, to work hard to get the view of the citizens before major decisions are discussed. “You will need to help us out,” he told the audience.
Erika Vohman said she would be “excited about the opportunity to represent people in town. Sustainability, or ‘green,’ is my platform,” she said.
Laura Mitchell said her main focus would be safety for the local kids. “It is getting busy along Highway 135 and my main priority is safety. Our kids should be able to safely cross Sixth Street. Affordable housing and seasonal workforce housing is also an issue for me.”
Current mayor Aaron Huckstep is running for a council seat. “The council has been challenged with highs and lows the last few years,” he admitted. “My not running for mayor will shake things up, hopefully for the better. But I want to continue to focus on relationships with Mt. Crested Butte and Gunnison County.”
Michel explained how he got into the local political arena. He said when building his house in 2001, he wanted to install solar panels for hot water and electric.
But BOZAR (the Board of Zoning and Architectural Review) wouldn’t allow it. So he appealed to the council and was allowed. That led him to join BOZAR, which he eventually chaired. “Eventually BOZAR updated its guidelines to address solar and I want to bring that energy to being mayor,” he said.
Berkshire said his goal as mayor would be to keep Crested Butte authentic. “This is my home and I love it and I want it to continue to be an authentic small town. The council right now is dysfunctional but that is solvable and I think I have the skills to do it. We are an island surrounded by crazy people and I want to maintain the quality we have.”
The audience then queried the candidates on their positions, with the candidates for mayor fielding most of the questions. When asked about council and staff relationships, it was Berkshire and Michel who responded.
“The council and the staff need to clearly define their roles,” said Berkshire. “It should be clear but it’s not. Out of that process, there should be some value definition. What is it the council wants? We also need a realistic expectation of what answers we can get, when. We need clear expectations and understandings from both sides.”
Michel said, given the form of government, there was a need for a strong town manager. “We need strong leadership from the town manager so we can have clear understandings,” he said. “We are not always getting that right now. The council should set philosophical priorities and the staff needs to facilitate those. We haven’t gotten that to its full potential.”
Champagne taste on a beer budget?
Citizen Kathy Joyce followed up on her sales tax query and asked if the town “had too many ‘wants.’ Are we spoiled? Do we now have Champagne tastes on a beer budget?”
“Everyone should understand the care and thoughtfulness of the town staff,” responded Berkshire. “It is humbling. They are not extravagant. They make what we have work. Now, I think that ‘better’ is the enemy of ‘good enough.’ We need to do what works for this town. Look at the trails days, where 180 people are out there together building trails.”
“One of the things council can do in that regard is put up things like 2A [the sales tax increase proposal],” said Huckstep. “It didn’t pass last year and if it doesn’t pass again that is a clear message about the Champagne taste and the beer budget. How to address community needs is always a challenge.”
“Our Champagne is where we live,” said Merck. “2A will help us empty the garbage and sweep the streets. We have a lot of visitors coming here and we ask them too. We need to sweep the streets. I remember when people didn’t come here because it was too cold or too hard to get to. Now we’re asking for something different.”
Tony Borland asked the candidates for a show of hands from those in favor of keeping the town speed limit at 15 miles per hour. They, along with most of the people in the audience, raised their hands.
When asked about the voluntary local political spending limits, two of the candidates, Glenn Michel and Erika Vohman, had declined to participate.
“I have accepted contributions,” said Michel. “It takes money to run a campaign. Flyers cost money.”
“Newspaper ads cost money. I bought some carpenter pencils that cost money. You need money to afford that,” Michel continued.
“I accepted the town’s voluntary limit of about $325,” said Berkshire. “I believe in the old-school Crested Butte, where you do things on a budget and on a level playing field.”
Merck and Mitchell said they had spent some of their own money on newspaper ads and campaign materials.
Former councilperson David Owen asked Huckstep if he had made any mistakes and learned any lessons over the last four years.
“That would take a lot more time than the minute-and-a-half I have,” he said. “I’ve certainly made mistakes. The heated discussions you and I had at the council table were probably mistakes. I’ve had similar discussions with Glenn that were a mistake. Those kinds of incidents stick out the most. As far as learning, as a decision maker there is a passion but it is not okay for folks to engage in conflict up on the council.”
Margot Levy asked about leadership style and what differentiates the candidates from one another in that respect.
“My style is to just get it done and not stay on the sidelines. I like to take initiative,” said Berkshire. “Now the seven individuals have to come to some accord and I am always willing to buy into someone else’s reasoned argument.”
“Being one of seven is about consensus building,” said Michel. “As mayor you can help facilitate that. There is an inherent tension in democracy. Tension can tear apart or bring together. I think I can use it to bring together. My education base also would contribute to that.”
“The difference for me is perspective,” said Huckstep. “Having been mayor, I understand the perspective. I am looking forward to backing off a bit.”
“It seems the council is a machine that grinds on rather than gets things done,” said Mitchell. “I think outside the box and I think I can perhaps bring out different solutions outside the box.”
“I’ll bring a female voice to the council that is sorely lacking,” said Vohman. “Counter to popular belief, I’m an introvert and I will listen.”
“I make decisions based on homework and I want to talk to citizens before big decisions as part of the homework,” said Merck. “I am not afraid of hard work.”
When asked if they would have voted for Whatever USA, the candidates not on council at the time pretty much agreed that it was easy to make a decision in hindsight and they would have all preferred a better public process. Vohman said she would have lobbied for more community involvement in the process, but knowing what she did now, would have voted against it. Mitchell said she would have voted for it. Berkshire said, looking back at the hate and discontent it stirred up, he would have voted against it but it wasn’t fair to just look in hindsight. He said that at the time, more openness and thoughtfulness might have made the incident better.
(Part 2 of the Forum story will run in the October 30 issue.)