Bernot to Carbondale leaders: ‘Do what’s best for the community’
Family was at the center of Stacey Bernot’s decision to take a housing opportunity in Redstone that would force her to give up her position as mayor.
And family was at the center of her decision to get involved in local government in the first place.
Many in town have called her a faithful representation of “old Carbondale.” She’s a fifth-generation Carbondalian on her mother’s side with family history in Carbondale’s coal-mining past, having lost her father to a mine explosion in 1981.
She experienced more tragedy just five years later when her mother and sister died in a car accident.
From then on she was raised by Paul and Celia Nieslanik on their ranch.
Bernot said she grew up in a bit of a fishbowl. Different people knew her in different contexts, but Carbondale always had a small-town feel with residents closely connected to one another.
The former mayor recalled the days when Carbondale had fewer than 1,000 residents and how that population has doubled itself a couple times over since.
Bernot was heavily involved in athletics as a youth, an interest carried over to her early 20s, when she was raising kids of her own.
Even today, wrangling Bernot in for an interview means catching her when she’s between her kids’ sporting events.
Seeing that the town’s programs for youth were becoming more expensive and less accessible than in her own youth, Bernot got a position on the Parks and Recreation Commission, which she held for four years.
This was a time of transition, as the town had just lost its parks and recreation director, but during this time the commission also finished a new master plan and built the new recreation center.
She was on the commission when she was pregnant with her second child, and at the same time she became more involved with the Board of Trustees, reporting to them frequently as the chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission.
The trustees at that time were all in the 40-years and older crowd, she said. They had a diversity of perspectives, but Bernot thought they were so focused on the town’s growth and development that some of their decisions didn’t have families like her own in mind.
Despite being a young mother with 3- and 5-year-olds, Bernot ran and got elected to the Board of Trustees. She’d end up spending 12 years on the Carbondale council, six as a trustee and then six as mayor.
She was first elected in 2004 during the “boom years of construction and tourism.”
“But when the recession hit, we saw families we’ve known for decades have to leave because the jobs weren’t there or because their house was underwater and they had to walk away.”
Even amidst the more recent recovery, she’s seen the housing crisis grow, and she recently expressed doubts that her own children could afford to stay in Carbondale if they wanted to.
The town has seen cultural changes during her time as well.
She describes the Carbondalians of the 1980s as “tolerant rednecks” who allowed the diversity of the town to thrive. People who came in the ‘80s were more easily integrated into the community than people trying to move here today, she said.
“So I miss that mentality. Anymore we have these self-appointed gatekeepers that want to put restrictions on who can come and how. Then conversely we have people who come to the community with really great ideas but who don’t take the time to assimilate themselves into what Carbondale is all about.”
Bernot has also been a grounding force, pushing her idealistic colleagues to weigh their big-picture goals in the context of their limited resources and effect on other standards of living.
“All of our decisions are linked and have an impact.”
Bernot said among all of Carbondale’s changes, she didn’t see a decision during her tenure that made it a more affordable place to live, which is something the community will continue to grapple with.
Several of her colleagues on the Board of Trustees praised Bernot’s service and said one of her valuable characteristics was her ability to consider different points of view and change her mind.
With just about everything that came before the board, she knew the names and knew the issues, said former Trustee John Hoffmann. “She could speak to just about anything that came before her with clarity and knowledge.”
At the same time she had a full-time job, but she could still absorb the intricacies of the town’s issues, he said.
As mayor, she was dedicated to service to the community and tried to be thoughtful to all its diverse members, said former Trustee Pam Zentmyer.
Her moving is a big loss to Carbondale, said former Trustee Allyn Harvey. She was never afraid to say what she thought, and at times she adjusted her point of view, which requires a person to keep an open mind about their changing community, he said.
Said Bernot, “I’ve always felt my role was to simply serve the community the best I can – that’s listening to people’s different points of view, get as much factual information as I can and at the end of the day make the tough decision and be able to explain my position.”
As advice to the new trustees, she said, “Everyone that runs has the best interests of Carbondale at heart, but make sure you’re listening comprehensively.”
A trustee’s or mayor’s job is not to just focus on pet projects and the community members with whom they associate; it’s to represent the whole community, she said.
Bernot encouraged trustees to do their homework and rely heavily on the town staff.
“And at the end of the day, do what’s best for the community,” she said.
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Officer Haley Walker sat beside her stepmother in a windowless interrogation room just before starting the overnight shift on Thursday evening.