While there’s no such thing as a sure thing in politics, the re-election of Pitkin County commissioners George Newman and Michael Owsley this year is about as close as it gets.
Both incumbents are running unopposed for their seats on the county board, assuring them re-election with a single vote.
Both men said they don’t miss the slog of campaigning and fundraising, though they said they recognize that voters lose out when elected officials go unchallenged.
“I don’t miss the campaigning part,” said Owsley, who lives in Woody Creek and represents District 3. “It’s better when people have the give and take of a contested election. I think it’s better when people don’t run unopposed, but I am thankful that I’m running unopposed.”
Newman, who lives in Emma and represents the county’s sprawling District 5 — the largest district area-wise — took his lack of a challenger as a show of support.
“I like to believe it’s because my constituents feel they are being well represented,” he said in a summer interview. “I try to keep them well-informed.”
Newman is running for his second term on the county board, Owsley for his third (and final, due to term limits).
In 2008, Newman ran under a platform he titled “Preserve, Conserve, Collaborate,” outlining his basic goals for the county — and he said that’s guided him through the last four years.
“I was aiming to preserve the rural character of Pitkin County, to conserve our natural resources and to collaborate in order to move things forward,” Newman said. “I still believe in those three basic tenets.”
To that end, he points to highlights in his first term like the county acquisition of the Sky Mountain Park open space from the Droste family, setting up the Healthy Rivers and Streams Board and introducing the tri-county Energy Smart loan program.
Newman and the board also supported last year’s county airport runway expansion, which ushered in the addition of American Airlines to Sardy Field.
“That’s been a great immediate benefit to the community and hopefully we’ll see more [airlines],” Newman said.
He’s also been supportive of the airport master plan process. Commissioners are expected to ratify the master plan by year’s end, after which they’re likely to take up the land-use process and decide the size and look of a new airport terminal.
Newman supports the library expansion question on the county ballot this fall and has endorsed congressional candidate Sal Pace to unseat Rep. Scott Tipton.
During his first term, Newman has made multiple trips to Washington, D.C., which he counts as successful. One was to lobby for a $24 million federal grant for the new valleywide bus-rapid transit system, which was at risk of being cut from the 2010 federal budget. Another trip, with the nonprofit Wilderness Society, focused on gas drilling in the Thompson Divide, which Newman opposes and, he said, contributed to Sen. Michael Bennet’s bill to delay action on gas leases there.
Newman said he expects water issues and trans-mountain diversions to the Front Range to grow more urgent over his next term, especially if drought conditions like this summer’s return.
“We need to continue to protect our streams here,” he said. “And I think we’ll become increasingly involved in those issues over the next four years.”
Newman has been alone on the board in advocating for shrinking the county’s maximum home size from 5,750 square feet, as part of a recasting of the county’s transferable development rights (TDR) program. He said he will continue to push for that initiative in his next term.
“I’ll try and keep that conversation going and see whether there’s an opportunity to look at it,” he said.
His biggest disappointment from his first term, he said, was failing to reach an agreement with the Wexner family on their proposed land swap on the flanks of Mount Sopris.
“I’m hoping we can have a discussion again with the applicant to see if there’s a way to meet all of our needs,” he said.
In recent years, both the Wexner land exchange and gas drilling in the Thompson Divide have left Owsley and the county commissioners grappling with federal policies that pose risks to county land.
Owsley said the board should be unwavering in its opposition to such land decisions.
“You have to make a fuss about it,” Owsley said. “You may not, in the final analysis, be able to prevent it, but you need to say what your principles are. That goes for oil and gas, and it goes for land exchanges. You stand on your principles and you act on those principles as best you can. When people come to Pitkin County they know what to expect and that should be no deals on oil and gas, and no deals on land exchanges.”
With a five-member board, he noted, commissioners need to be able to work together — and none of them can truly claim credit for doing anything themselves.
“You can have some impact on that board but you can’t do it alone,” he said.
That said, Owsley did begin the county initiative to expand broadband access and cellular coverage in the county — a continuing initiative. He said he’s hoping for the improved technology, through partnership with the Aspen Skiing Co. and U.S. Forest Service, to be in place before he leaves office in 2017.
Adding cellular phone service to the Maroon Bells area, parts of Maroon Creek Road, and the local ski areas, he said, are both a safety necessity and a tourism amenity.
“We could probably get cell service at the Maroon Bells,” he said. “So that when there is an emergency, and there frequently is there, people can call for help. When you have to drive 12 miles to get help, that’s a real 19th century kind of thing and we need to have better service than that.”
He recalled when expanded television and radio service first came to the valley in the late 1960s, when he was new to Aspen, because people sought isolation here but wanted to keep in touch with the outside world. Countywide broadband and cell service, he said, is an extension of those needs today.
Owsley advocates adding “energy budgets” to the local land-use process, which would limit energy consumption on new large homes. The limit, he reasoned, would encourage wealthy landowners here to invest in the latest energy efficiency technology, which would eventually improve and become affordable enough for the general public.
“That’s how I would use large houses,” he said. “I wouldn’t shrink them, I would exploit them.”
Owsley is voting for the library expansion on the ballot this fall, and has championed the facility’s service to the community.
He is supportive of the airport master plan, and expects to vote in favor of it this year. The controversy over the plan, he said, is unfounded.
“People think, ‘well, the commissioners want to build and an 80,000-square-foot terminal.’ That has never been the case,” he said. “The next step would be, possibly, a public discussion of what the terminal should be and that will be another long public process.”
Through his first two terms, Owsley has advocated for Pitkin County government becoming more transparent and more accessible to residents.
“I think the county is better at keeping in touch with its constituents and offering services, but it could still be better,” he said.
He still wants to improve the county’s website, he said, and improve communication with constituents. Staffers, commissioners and the county manager have made strides in recent years to make themselves accessible, he said. But, he added, he is disappointed when locals object to board action or raise concerns too late in the game, such as on the final public hearing for an ordinance.
“People don’t necessarily understand that that’s too late,” he said. “And that’s our fault, I think.”