Garfield commissioner candidates talk experience, fresh perspectives during area Realtors’ forum
A defining moment during a Garfield County commissioner candidates video forum hosted by the Glenwood Springs Association of Realtors Thursday came when the five candidates talked about experience and fresh perspectives.
This fall’s election pits six-term incumbent Republican Commissioner John Martin against a pair of political newcomers, Democrat Beatriz Soto and unaffiliated candidate Brian Bark for the District 2 seat.
And, while the race for the District 3 seat includes a pair of longtime Rifle residents in incumbent Republican Mike Samson and Democratic challenger Leslie Robinson, it, too, features an established three-term incumbent against a two-time commissioner candidate who says it’s time for a change.
“Most counties in Colorado have term limits, and it’s for a reason,” Robinson said. “If a politician can’t accomplish goals in eight years, they shouldn’t be continually reelected, and I think it’s time to retire Mike Samson and John Martin.”
The Democratic ticket of she and Soto will introduce “new ideas and new innovations for Garfield County, and a new outlook,” Robinson said.
Samson countered that it will take the experience and knowledge he’s built over 12 years to get through the coming economic crisis resulting from the downturn in the oil and gas industry.
“One reason I think I’m the better candidate that Leslie, is that I think a majority of people in the county agree with me on the one issue she cares the most about, and that’s oil and gas,” Samson said. “I believe people agree and are aligned with me, and that is an important, crucial part of this.
“It’s not the end of all things, but it’s a very big piece of our economy,” he said.
Robinson acknowledged that she’s been a harsh critic of the oil and gas industry, and said the downturn is a change to move on to new ideas around diversifying the county’s economy.
“I also believe in protecting people’s private property rights and their property values,” she said of her support for the state’s proposed 2,000-foot setback between oil and gas facilities and homes and schools.
Martin said he feels he has a better grasp of the facts of the situation, and the “reality of what has happened, and what is going to happen” than his two opponents.
“A new person coming in has a lot of good ideas, but they’re not sure how to apply it. It’s not that they’re bad ideas, and I still have a lot of good ideas,” he said.
County commissioners do have term limits, he said. “It happens every four years when we come up for election.
“If the citizenry does not want you there, they will vote you out, and I advocate that,” Martin said. “But if I’m doing a good job, which apparently I have for six different elections … I think the message is clear that I do have new ideas, and I do have experience.”
Bark said he brings a “different skillset” to the table than Martin or Soto. And that has to do with taking a microscope to the county’s finances and looking for ways to control spending and find new sources of revenue.
“As an unaffiliated candidates, there is no aisle to reach across,” he said. “I can and will work with any party to get the job done, and feel we need fresh eyes out there.”
Soto acknowledged that there would be a steep learning curve for her or any newly elected county commissioner.
“But just like you learned, any of us can also learn and lead … you’re not the end-all go to, and there are other very talented people in our community,” Soto said. “We have incredible talent and human capital to move Garfield County to the 21st century.”
Candidates also touched on their positions regarding a couple of ballot questions, as well as housing issues (to be covered in a future article) and the county budget.
View the GSAR forum in its entirety:
“We have seen oil and gas revenues go down, and they continue to go down,” Soto noted. “The impact of that only shows that we have not been that successful at really diversifying our economy.”
When it comes to budget cuts, Soto offered that, even though revenues are declining, investments in capital projects and even borrowing where necessary are prudent fiscal policies.
“Capital projects improve property value, and improve the quality of life of our community,” she said. “And they provide jobs, as well …
“We need to invest in our community and make sure that we are taking advantage of the fact that, right now, we have the lowest interest rates to borrow money, if that is needed,” Soto said. “Don’t dismiss that option.”
Bark said he would question some of the capital expenses that county has been making.
“We’re currently spending more than we’re taking in, so for all intents and purposes we’re living above our means,” he said. “One of things I would bring to the table is looking at the projects we have going, and where money being spent, and determine if it’s a necessary project or just a want.”
Martin said the county administration and elected officials have worked hard to balance the budget and make responsible use of the county’s more than $90 million in reserves.
“We’ve come through that very efficiently, and we work with each and every elected officials, as well as administrative staff, to balance the operational budget,” he said.
And, to Soto’s point, Martin said the county has only cut capital spending by 10%.
“We’re not eliminating that by any means,” he said. “Those capital projects are very important to our economy, but we still have to look at some reductions.”
Robinson also criticized the current commissioners for deficit spending from reserves.
“That is not being very fiscally responsible, nor conservative with the county funds,” she said. “If the county commissioners keep dipping into our reserves, there’s going to be little left to contend with the economic downturns caused by Covid and dropping oil and gas market values.”
Across-the-board cuts, especially when it comes to jobs, should also be avoided, she said.
Samson agreed with Martin that the county has done a good job of keeping a balanced budget and making good use of reserve funds.
“The reason we have done that is because we have been fiscally conservative,” Samson said. “We have those funds, and we have dipped into it, because we were prepared that this day may come.”
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