Let me start off by saying that running for political office in a small town takes some courage. Chances are that at some point a councilperson will—even with the best of intentions—make someone mad. But the 12 people who are stepping up this round are obviously doing it out of a sense of passion for a town they love, and we can count ourselves lucky that the herd of candidates is deep.
Now, having said that, those who step up must understand they are in the spotlight and what they say and do matters. That is tricky in a small town but it’s part of the deal. It’s been made clear from the beginning. So cheers to all of the candidates for participating in the great Crested Butte election of 2017.
Let’s start with the mayor. The mayor has the same voting power as the rest of the council but there is a different skill set needed to be mayor. The mayor controls the tempo and feel of a meeting and many times he or she controls what is on the agenda. Those sitting in the middle seat have to run the meeting, corral a herd of cats for three or four hours every other Monday and be aware of the proper, legal town procedures. They guide public and council comment and are the lead face of the town. While the mayor does speak as the main representative for the town, he or she needs the entire council to vote on topics before making any policy decisions.
It is the skill set needed to be mayor that separates two of the four mayoral candidates. Current councilmen Chris Ladoulis and Jim Schmidt have demonstrated they have most of the skills needed to sit in the middle seat. Tracy Smith and Paul Merck have work to do.
Smith is a great guy with interesting and different ideas and he would have been better served to run for Town Council as his first foray into Crested Butte public life. I especially like his focus on Crested Butte long-timers turning into seniors and their needs in this changing community.
Merck has been on council two years and while I gave him a fairly robust endorsement in 2015, given his penchant to talk to anyone about anything, it will come as no surprise to anyone who reads Page 2 that he has disappointed. His building permit (or lack of one) fiasco that came to light last summer was disappointing. But his attitude and seeming lack of understanding that there was real friction created with the staff, council and the public from the whole awkward deal adds to the disappointment. While he can still talk to anyone about anything, that is not enough for the role of mayor. His political ad stated that he will “be the best Crested Butte ambassador” but a mayor has to be more than that. After gathering all the input as “ambassador,” an effective mayor must then make a decision and lead with it. Paul too often falls back on asking for some nebulous compromise to any issue where there is more than one side.
If you like Merck but feel torn between him and another mayoral candidate, Paul pointed out at the Candidates Forum that even if he loses the mayor’s race, he will stay on the council. That is important to remember. If the others lose, they do not stay on council.
Now, Ladoulis and Schmidt both have leadership attributes and both have been assets to the council in different ways. Neither would be perfect but their abilities would make either a fine mayor.
Schmidt truly has longtime experience and perspective. That is valuable with a young council, which this one will be no matter what. He’s been the mayor in the past but I think being a councilmember has freed him up to be a bit more opinionated. He is more willing to come off the fence and that has helped this Town Council. If he’s elected I hope that freedom will carry over with him to the middle seat.
Ladoulis has stepped up his governmental engagement more in the last few months and is demonstrating his political skill set. He has led on parking and on Brush Creek. He’s shown to not be afraid to stand up for what he thinks is best for the town. I really appreciated his response to the Rec Center question at the forum when he threw a dose of cold, honest reality on the discussion about having to make hard choices in a small town. Ladoulis has lately become clearer in his opinions and more succinct in his reasoning. He still has to find some better ways to navigate a path that brings others with him on issues, but he is showing impressive promise if he stays engaged.
Having this many people running for mayor could get interesting. Schmidt and Ladoulis could split a vote that kicks them both off council. That would leave a really inexperienced board at the helm and that would not be best for town. If none of the four get just over 50 percent of the vote on November 7, there will be a December runoff for the top two vote-getters.
A good town council is not homogenous. A good council has representatives from different boxes within the community. There’s the young gun box, the mature elder box, the businessperson box, the hippie/ski bum box, the old-timer box, the idealist box, the family box.
Council has eight candidates running for four seats. The fourth seat is a two-year term since it fills out the seat left empty by a council resignation. Jackson Petito was selected to fill the seat until this fall’s election. He demonstrates the value of starting out on council before moving to mayor. As happens to almost everyone when first joining this high profile board, Jackson was tentative and a bit overwhelmed. As shown at the Candidate’s Forum on Sunday, he has turned into the strongest candidate on the ballot this fall.
Petito fits into several boxes that citizens should want on their council. Having been born here, he’s still a young gun but with an old-timer perspective. He’s a family guy. He has a law practice so he gets in the business box and while I’ve never seen him in the hippie box, he is an idealist. He is honest and not afraid. He has made it clear he wants town to slow down so people living here can get a grasp on the changes that are quickly coming and shape those changes. Jackson is always looking for public input with a willing ear, but those citizens who want non-stop, unbridled growth for Crested Butte should not vote for Jackson. Everyone else should.
All the other candidates are newbies to Crested Butte politics. Voters will be choosing the rest of the board based on potential, who is campaigning seriously and on which box they can represent.
Several council candidates fit in the self-employed business box. There’s Petito (law), Richard Machemehl (donuts), Candice Bradley (tattoos), Chris Haver (lodging), Lisa Merck (women’s health), and Kent Cowherd (architecture).
The hippie/ski bum box is less populated. No one is a real hippie but Will Dujardin might go there and is certainly a ski bum, while Kyle “Squirl” Ryan might qualify just because he’s a passionate Vinotok Green Man. They both easily fit into the young gun box along with Petito and Bradley.
Cowherd gets to be in both the mature elder box and old-timer box (sort of). He’s put in his time in Crested Butte since the early 1990s and is just now building a deed-restricted affordable house on the northeast side of town. Haver too fits in those boxes. Haver gets in the family box along with Petito, Merck, Bradley and Machemehl. They all in their own way consider themselves idealists.
The point is that while there is crossover between boxes, voters should actually consider seeking a diversity on the council. During this election season it appears—based on town meeting attendance, timely response to the weekly newspaper questions and obvious preparation for the forum—that Cowherd, Haver, Ryan and Petito have been the most consistent, followed by Bradley, Dujardin, Machemehl and Merck.
Of the newbies, Cowherd, Haver and Ryan seem to have stepped up with the most preparation. They’ve dug into town ordinances and policies. They’ve read town plans and developed positions. They’ve come to the budget meetings and done some hard, dry work during this campaign. That shows real commitment, and commitment matters.
With so many fresh faces, there will be a learning curve for everyone. I had hoped Candice would pop a bit more at the forum but it seems obvious she will put in the time and be ready to listen to be a good council representative with a diverse angle on the issues if she is elected. Haver’s website is well intentioned and shows his desire to stay in touch with people but it’s not a game changer. But again, it demonstrates initiative. Dujardin could add a smart, wildcard element to the council.
So when filling out the ballot sometime before November 7, I’d start with Petito and then look at the boxes you want represented on council. Keep in mind, whoever is elected will have to work well with all six other council representatives and a wide range of community members and professionals, all with unique personalities and quirks. Those elected will also need to be willing to sometimes take criticism and pushback as a natural part of policy debate. Some candidates will definitely have to work on that.
Don’t be afraid to vote for some diversity. It is a lot of work for those elected but it can be a great experience as well.
And another reminder: If you don’t live in town but you received a ballot with the council election, you can’t legally use it. Take it to the county clerk and get a proper ballot and officially change your address. More than a dozen people have done so this week and that is the right thing to do. Please vote but please vote properly.