RIFLE, Colo. - Former six-term Congressman Scott McInnis wasn't necessarily looking for a return to the political realm when he got an offer last summer to head up the five-county Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado.But the part-time executive director's position with AGNC turned out to be a good foray back into the issues that the Glenwood Springs native and longtime state and U.S. representative from Colorado's 3rd Congressional District considered important during his many years in office."I had underestimated how much I missed the issues and the people involved in those issues," McInnis said.Protection of the Western Slope's water resources and support of a multiple-use approach to public lands were cornerstones of McInnis' positions during 10 years as a Republican member of the Colorado Legislature and 12 years in Congress.McInnis said he still embraces those and other policy positions of AGNC, such as support for responsible energy development and ensuring an equitable distribution of severance tax and federal mineral lease dollars to local governments."About two-thirds of the five northwest Colorado counties (Garfield, Mesa, Rio Blanco, Moffat and Routt) is federal land, so we don't get taxes for those lands," McInnis said. "It's critically important that those (federal dollars) come back to the local governments where the funds were generated."Multiple use of federal lands is also an important interest for AGNC's membership, he said."We are totally dependent on those lands for our livelihood," McInnis said.AGNC has provided a powerful lobbying voice in the Colorado Legislature, as well as in Washington, D.C., for more than four decades.In addition to its political involvement, AGNC also administers the Area Council on the Aging programs in the five-county area, and serves as the fiscal agent for the newly reopened Dinosaur Welcome Center.But in the years since the recession hit in 2008, the organization's membership has dropped off and its influence has diminished some."After (former AGNC director) Jim Evans left a couple of years ago, the organization had sort of drifted and lost several members," McInnis said. "So it was a good opportunity for me to help get them back on track."
McInnis, 59, had been known for having never lost an election since he first entered the political scene as a young upstart lawyer from Glenwood Springs running for a seat in the State House of Representatives in 1982.But he admits he has become soured on politics following an unsuccessful attempt to earn the Republican Party's nomination to run for Colorado governor in 2010.That effort was derailed when McInnis was forced to admit that portions of a series of articles on water rights issues that he wrote as part of a two-year, $300,000 fellowship with the Hasan Family Foundation were plagiarized.Unbeknownst to him at the time, a researcher had provided copies of essays written on the same topic by a Colorado Supreme Court justice, parts of which ended up in the reports without providing attribution.McInnis later apologized and agreed to pay the foundation back for the work. But the damage to his gubernatorial bid had already been done, and he ended up losing to Tea Party favorite Dan Maes in that year's Republican primary."Any time you get into a race like that, you have to have a plan if you lose," said McInnis, who also points out that he was exonerated of any wrongdoing by the Colorado Supreme Court.A lawyer by profession, McInnis had spent his years immediately after leaving Congress in 2005 with the Denver law firm of Hogan and Hartson.Rather than returning to law or politics after the 2010 gubernatorial run, though, McInnis settled for a quieter life at his home in Grand Junction.Since then, he has been taking care of family business and has become active as a volunteer with the local hospice organization."They were wonderful in working with my dad," said McInnis, who lost his father, longtime Glenwood Springs resident Kohler McInnis, last March. "I wanted to be able to give back."
The offer to take on the executive director's role for AGNC was an intriguing one, and McInnis decided to jump at the opportunity.AGNC's membership had fallen in recent years to just the five core county governments and a handful of municipalities.McInnis started the job in July 2012, and has spent the last six months working to shore up the membership base.In addition to the five county governments, about a dozen municipalities within those counties are either coming back after a hiatus, or have agreed to renew as members for 2013, McInnis said."We have seen a big surge in membership, and we have a board that is really aggressive in looking at the issues and having a strong organization to represent the interests of northwest Colorado," he said.AGNC is organized as a statutorial council of governments. Its membership is restricted to government organizations, unlike another well-known Western Slope lobbying group, Club 20, which includes both public- and private-sector members.AGNC's 10-member governing board is made up entirely of elected officials from the five counties, including Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson, who currently sits as the board chairman.As a quasi-governmental organization, AGNC is also subject to an annual audit of its roughly $120,000 budget.AGNC retains the family law firm of Orf & Orf in Denver as its contract lobbyists at the state capitol."We are politically active, but we are not partisan. By law, we can't be," McInnis said."What we do is protect the interests of these five counties," as determined by the elected representatives from AGNC's membership, he said."If we're not at the table, we're not going to get anything but scraps," McInnis added.Last year, AGNC actively monitored 44 bills, supporting 15 and opposing 13.The organization's board also re-issued policy statements on energy development, natural resources and public lands, and severance tax and mineral leasing distributions.AGNC also issued a strong political statement opposing U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet's efforts to halt future gas leasing of federal lands in the Thompson Divide area southwest of Glenwood Springs."That is a big swath of land to completely take out of consideration," McInnis said in support of AGNC's position. "You have to look at the bigger picture when it comes to federal lands."McInnis said AGNC is also drafting a position statement in response to the Denver City Council's recent support of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's scaled-back oil shale leasing policy.Denver officials have cited the potential negative impact on water supplies from large-scale oil shale development. Garfield County and other AGNC member counties have protested the BLM's leasing plan, saying it's too limiting.