Bruell column: Brand new year, same old ideas; time for term limits

Debbie Bruell

Here in Garfield County, we need proactive leaders with fresh, innovative ideas to tackle the growing challenges we’re facing — from issues related to housing to jobs to wildfire. 

At the state level, elected officials bring new voices, perspectives and ideas to the table all the time. Colorado’s state legislators are term limited, as are the governor and other state executive positions. Term limits also lead to more fair and competitive elections, and provide more people with real-world experiences from all walks of life the opportunity to serve in elected office.

The last time Garfield County voters considered the question of term limits for county officeholders was 25 years ago. Our communities have changed tremendously since then — yet we’ve had the same three men occupying the commissioner seats, employing the same old tactics, for over a dozen years now. Tom Jankovsky is in his 13th year as commissioner; Mike Samson, his 15th year; and John Martin, his 27th year. The sheriff is in his 20th year in office.

Despite promises about valuing partnerships and collaborations, the current commissioners continuously silo our county off, choosing to work in isolation instead. Martin’s response last year to the request to join the regional housing coalition was typical: “Thank you very much. We’ll take care of ourselves.”

This approach isn’t exactly working. The housing crisis has intensified since they’ve been in office and they’ve brought no new ideas to the table.

Year after year, the commissioners have demonstrated a lack of leadership when it comes to anything other than trying to revive the floundering oil and gas industry. They continuously dump money into the fossil fuel industry, with little to show for it. 

Imagine instead if they had been investing those funds in small businesses and local entrepreneurs. Imagine if they had been proactively taking on issues like child care shortages, public transportation and wildfire safety, as their counterparts in other counties have been doing for years. Imagine where we might be today. 

Despite the countless shortfalls in their leadership, being incumbents without term limits gives the commissioners huge advantages in each election. They have a clear upper hand in terms of name recognition: elected officials are featured and quoted constantly in the local news.

Retaining power term after term also gives the commissioners the advantage of stifling a candid evaluation of their leadership. Democratic commissioner candidates frequently encounter people who support their candidacy — but are afraid to do so publicly because they work for an organization that relies on funding from the county or in a county department that needs to stay in the commissioners’ good graces. 

Others gush their support for a commissioner’s re-election in the hopes that the commissioner will remember that endorsement when, for example, it comes time for the commissioners to distribute grant funds. This kind of quid pro quo — as well as the fear of retribution — should concern every Garfield County voter. 

Nationally, it’s easy to see how incumbents have a financial advantage over new candidates, as well: industry reps donate readily to the re-election of officials they already have in their pockets.

It’s hard to uncover this kind of phenomenon at the local level, but it definitely exists. It took extensive research by an individual citizen to discover that Jankovsky accepted $10,000 in contributions for his original election campaign in 2010 from two individuals who served as officers of the board of a Houston energy company that was hoping to drill in the Thompson Divide. How often have these kinds of contributions boosted the past 12 re-election campaigns of our current commissioners?

An argument against term limits for county offices is that finding people with the skills to serve in these positions may be difficult, especially in small counties. Aside from the position of county coroner (which I do not think needs term limits), I’m confident we can find people with the skills to serve as county clerk, treasurer, assessor, surveyor, commissioner, and sheriff, especially given how well-paid these positions are.

Currently, all nine of our elected county positions are held by Republicans, which is clearly not representative of our county. Voters here deserve fair, competitive elections for these local offices.

Ironically, only the commissioners themselves can decide to put this question about term limits on the ballot; state statutes do not allow citizens to petition questions onto the county ballot. I hope you’ll join the Garfield County Democrats in asking our commissioners to put the issue of term limits for local officials on the 2024 ballot. 

In the words of 2022 county commissioner candidate Ryan Gordon, “We shouldn’t be considering all of these offices as a career or a retirement plan. It’s an honor to serve. You should serve and then step aside.”

Debbie Bruell of Carbondale chairs the Garfield County Democrats and is a past member of the Roaring Fork Schools Board of Education.

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