David Baumgarten: Three decades as county attorney

Learning from the community

[ by Mark Reaman ]

“I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger.”
—Ronnie Lane, Faces

For 31 years, David Baumgarten has been the Gunnison County attorney. At the end of this year, the man who spent four months a decade ago walking around Korea exploring the country and himself, will step down as the county’s top lawyer. He has held the position since 1989, when he cracked beers shortly after his job interview with the county commissioners who hired him, David Leinsdorf, Mario Petri and Fred Field, to discuss his starting salary. Matthew Hoyt will step in to lead the office, while Baumgarten plans to help with the transition and stay home and hang out with his dog and kittens.

Sitting 12 feet apart in the county commissioner’s meeting room and wearing masks (with an exception for photos) for most of an hour, we talked about his time and experience in Gunnison County. The young student who attended U.C. Santa Cruz, Berkeley and the University of Colorado Law School and then worked in Boston, Cambridge, Brooklyn and on Colorado’s Front Range, ended up in Gunnison and is grateful for the experience.

We talked about accomplishments (the Land Use Resolution and no trans-mountain water diversions), mentors (Fred Field, Father Jim) and basic lessons learned over three decades (Go slow. Make things happen.).

Here are some excerpts from that conversation…
During his initial job interview, Baumgarten described Fred Field as having his arms crossed and not smiling for most of it. He left that interview without a lot of confidence but was called back not long after the meeting and offered the job. The commissioners wanted to discuss salary and pulled out a 24-pack of beer. Asking how much he wanted for a salary, he pointed to then county manager Gary Tomsic and said he wanted whatever he made. The commissioners laughed, said no way, and decided to stop salary negotiations and just drink beer.

“Fred [Field] turned into a long-term mentor and friend. He was family,” described Baumgarten. “He said to me early on that it was easy to see that ‘You know how to confuse, delay, obstruct and deny. Those are excellent attorney skills but they’re not the skills that you need to be a county attorney. To be a county attorney you need to learn how to make something happen.’ And the day before Fred died while I was visiting him in the hospital, Fred said, ‘You know how to make things happen. You’re a good county attorney.’ That was like the blessing. To be a public attorney, you have to make things happen. From that one sentence you can see how pivotal Fred was. And I matured into it over a really long period of time.”

Learning lessons
While Fred was David’s primary mentor, there are many other teachers who helped shape the now 72-year-old. One of those was Father Jim Koenigsfeld, pastor of the Catholic churches in Gunnison and Crested Butte. “I remember one day in the old courthouse [Father Jim] came reeling out of the jail. I don’t know what someone told him but it just must have blown his mind. He came by my office and sat down and had a cup of tea. One day the same thing happened when I was wandering the streets between the church and the courthouse in some distress and he came out of the church and asked me to come in and have a cup of tea. And then he said, ‘I won’t do anything. I won’t turn you into a Catholic.’ And so Father Jim in that constellation of teachers was important. He fostered in me some patience and compassion and in the best pastoral way, the obligation of service. And a lot of times if somebody asks me what is the main characteristic of the office, it really is that it is a pastoral job.”

A number of other community people have helped guide Baumgarten in his three decades. The common thread is sewn from his martial arts teacher Andy Tyzzer, who says, “We are at our best when helping others.” All of his teachers have the ethos of being at their best when helping others.

“Other teachers really were in two groups that in other communities might be disputants and really might have been disputants, so they both taught me. One of them was the ranching community. It was the Spanns, Lee and Polly and Ken, who was a young man. There is Bill Trampe and the Guerrieri family. Greg Peterson. Wise people, people who speak after doing a lot of thinking. Those folks have an unending environmental consciousness that I think people don’t recognize. The ranching families have kept the beauty of the community that we all take for granted. If not for them we would be the Roaring Fork Valley.

“Parenthetically, one of the biggest victories in which I participated as part of team way back in the day was when Arapahoe County and the city of Aurora wanted to do trans-basin water diversion,” he continued. “We are the only basin in Colorado on the Western Slope that’s not tapped by a trans-basin diversion. We’re the only ones without a pipe in it. Imagine if the water and thus the ranching were gone. For those families to forego that opportunity and also put their land in conservation easements, makes them the real deal. They, together with the environmental community found a confluence to work together.”

It was witnessing that confluence that Baumgarten realized the importance of Fred’s point to make things happen. “Reaching way back, Gnurps [Gary Sprung], was the first recreationist and environmentalist to make the deal with the ranchers. Everyone wanted to ride their mountain bikes all over the place and Gnurps made the deal that the ranchers would let them do it as long as they learned the proper etiquette with the ranchers and the gates. Close the gates. Get off the bike when a horse approaches. Learn how to live with and respect each other. Who is like that now? It is Julia Nania. She’s on the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. She is an environmentally conscious, smart as a whip kind of person.”

Baumgarten reminisces that John Biro was another teacher. “To watch him in the Fourth of July parade in Crested Butte, fire up his snowmobile and rip down Elk Avenue was great.”

He cites Chris Hensley and how he has helped build the Adaptive Sports program from nothing to a major part of the community. “Doing that speaks of the ethos of our community,” he said. “And judge Steve Patrick. He is, with me at least, patient, ethical, honest and courageous. He is a superb judge and a role model.”

Baumgarten said he has found that while the community might not shy away from a good fight, at the end of the day, everyone will help each other. He has seen ranchers share their water when it is needed. He described the relationship between the town of Crested Butte and the county as sometimes “gruesome” but has no doubt they will support one another when push comes to shove. He used as an example the old county shop being turned into the Crested Butte Center for the Arts. He describes a sense of sharing that permeates the valley. “We’re so far away, and it’s so frickin’ cold and we really are on our own a lot,” he summarizes. “And we depend on our neighbors. We will fuss and fight with each other but at the end, we’ll put it away.”

The deeper job
And while there is a high-profile, public element that automatically comes with the county attorney job, Baumgarten said it is a more unknown element of the position that matters to him most. “The most important thing for me on this job is protecting kids who are abused. One would think that because we’re not urban, because we’re not poor or uneducated that the stuff doesn’t happen here. It happens here,” he said solemnly. “Our office’s most important duty is protecting children as much as we can. To protect them and keep them out of unhealthy situations. People really don’t understand that part of the job.”

He said over the course of his career, the bookends of the board of commissioners in the seats now are similar to those on the board that hired him. “Jonathan and Roland and Liz are smart and popular. And it is because they listen, they think and they try to come up with consensus decisions so that everybody can see themselves in the solution. Like my first board, they don’t do much crowing about themselves. They are good bookends.”

In an Eastern sort of way, Baumgarten sees his and all our tenures as somewhat fleeting. But that presents opportunity. “We have no idea where we came from, we have no idea where we’re going. We’re here for a very short period of time so what’s the point? The point is to make it a little bit better.”

Practically, Baumgarten has some regrets. There was the case where some public access was lost with the Yule Pass trail near Marble. But he is proud that the county was one of the first local governments in the state to regulate oil and gas production. While hard-fought, he sees those regulations as being fair to all sides because of the communication that took place.

Along with helping to keep trans-basin water diversions out of the county, the formation of the county’s Land Use Regulation (LUR) is another team success. “The LUR is performance zoning. It is unique. People hate it. But it requires developers to be creative and understand the values of the place to which they are moving, in order to get a project done. And both the trans-basin diversion and the LUR belong to teams. I was just a participant on the team.”

Looking ahead
As for the future and the transition, Baumgarten is confident the county is in great hands. And he thinks it needs to be, with so many changes hitting the county right now. He feels the fallout from the pandemic will draw people here and big challenges are on the horizon. “My replacement, Matt Hoyt is smarter than me and knows the law better than me. That’s part of what a county attorney does. The other part is relational and how to make things happen. He’s gonna be just fine with that part. I think we’re really blessed by having him become the county attorney. The whole office is great. In our office, we don’t use the word ‘I.’ It’s always ‘us’ or ‘our’ or ‘we.’ The office is made up of extraordinary people. It’s a very participatory office.
“I really have been blessed,” he concluded. “I couldn’t have imagined that this would be the job that evolved like it has. And I absolutely couldn’t have imagined how satisfying in my soul it is.”

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