Colorado River District vacancy draws three candidates

Commissioner Houck among them, recusing himself from initial vote

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

After 20 years as a member of the Colorado River Water Conservation District board of directors, prominent local rancher Bill Trampe has announced he will retire from the position in 2021. The vacancy has drawn interest from three candidates within Gunnison County, one of whom will be appointed to the position on January 12 by the Gunnison County commissioners. Commissioners conducted interviews with the candidates on Tuesday, December 29, including an interview with county commissioner Jonathan Houck himself.

The river district was created by the state legislature in 1937 to protect and defend Western Slope water rights in 15 western Colorado counties, including Gunnison, Pitkin, Garfield and Montrose. Each director is appointed for a three-year term.
The vacancy drew interest from Sonja Chavez, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, serving all of Gunnison County and portions of Saguache and Hinsdale counties. It also drew the interest of Kathleen Curry, who serves as chairperson of the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, runs an active cattle and hay operation in the Tomichi Creek drainage and works as a lobbyist on behalf of two major water providers in Mesa County, the Ute Water Conservancy District and the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

The third candidate who applied is chairperson of the Gunnison County commissioners Jonathan Houck. Houck made his interest known publicly on the last day of the application process.

“I did not share my interest initially because we wanted to advertise this to and get strong applicants from within the community,” he said Tuesday. He said he did not want his candidacy to deter others from applying, and called his application a “placeholder.”

Before conducting interviews, county attorney David Baumgarten offered his professional opinion on how to conduct the appointment process, considering one of the commissioners was also an applicant. He reviewed the relevant state statute, CO 37-36-104, which identifies who may be on the River District board of directors. “There are 15. One should be from each of the respective counties, and shall be selected by the board of county commissioners,” he reviewed. “So the threshold question is, can you apply? Yes, you can. The statute is silent on how you make that decision,” said Baumgarten of Houck’s participation.

Baumgarten suggested that Houck participate in the interviews, and that he recuse himself from voting initially on the appointee, unless there is a tie between candidates.

Houck proceeded according to Baumgarten’s direction, participating in each interview before being interviewed himself by the other two commissioners.

“This puts a challenge on the decision making process,” Houck acknowledged to his colleagues. “But I want you to know as my colleagues and my friends that you two are going to make a decision and I’m going to respect that decision—and I will rally behind that decision whether I am chosen or not,” said Houck.

Commissioners Roland Mason and Liz Smith will make their decision on January 12 in advance of the next River District quarterly board meeting on January 19.

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