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By JEFF BURKHEAD
RBC I They may not have a vote personally, but the companies they represent have a vested interest in whoever wins the election for county commissioner.
Representatives of some of the oil and gas companies operating in Rio Blanco County had a chance to hear from — and ask questions of — the three Republican candidates vying for a seat on the County Commission during a July 20 forum at Mountain Valley Bank, sponsored by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. Some of the industry representatives in attendance live outside of Rio Blanco County, but their companies have employees who live here and would be eligible to vote in the Aug. 10 primary election. Ballots for the mail-in election went out July 19.
“The natural gas operators, service providers and vendors in the natural gas business represent a large portion of Rio Blanco County’s tax base and economy. The natural gas industry employs thousands of women and men throughout the Piceance Basin, and many of them work and or live in Rio Blanco County,” said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association in Grand Junction. “Local regulatory policy has a tremendous impact on the region’s natural gas industry.”
The purpose of the forum was to give the Rio Blanco County Operators’ Task Force a chance to hear from the candidates directly.
“Our hope is for the candidates … to share with our task force how you believe natural gas operations should be addressed in Rio Blanco County,” Ludlam said.
All three candidates — Shawn Bolton, Wendy Gutierrez and Pat Hughes — gave an opening statement and then took turns answering questions.
“I pretty much know most people in here …,” said Bolton, who owns a construction company in Meeker. “Like you, we have dealt with a lot of the hardships coming down from our government. … The fees and regulations are out of control. Right now, it’s crippling business, like mine, like yours. Until we get this under control, there won’t be any business. We need to cut fees, so we can go back to work.”
“I’m set apart (from the other candidates) because I am female, but other than that, the biggest reason I’m running is … the No. 1 thing I like to do when I see something not going in the direction I think it should be going is get involved,” said Gutierrez, who owns and operates retail businesses in Meeker. “I think our county government is not responsive. I would like to create a business friendly atmosphere. I feel our commissioners are working on one level and the staff is working on another. We’re not all moving toward the same goal. We’re seeing such a downturn (economically) and it’s unfortunate, because we have the world’s largest (oil and gas) companies working in our vicinity. We need to bring them to the table.”
“For me, what started this process … I went to the state assembly as a delegate and I got more involved in the political avenues, said Hughes, who owns a sod business in Meeker. “The biggest thing I see is this movement toward socialism. We need to look at this and get back to our more conservative values.”
Ludlam, executive director of the oil and gas association, started off the questions, asking candidates about their thoughts on the local regulatory structure and its impact on the industry.
“I think it’s very important, from a rural county, that we spend as much time as possible talking to CCI (Colorado Counties Inc.) and spend as much time as possible in Denver (during the legislative session) to make sure when a bill is up, that our voice is heard. That’s my goal, to represent northwest Colorado. The last thing we want to do is be a shrinking violet at the state level. I think involvement is key, and staying home is not the name of the game,” Gutierrez said.
Hughes said, “I think we have a lot to do at the state level and the local level … I think it’s the commissioners’ job to educate the local people about what’s going on.”
Bolton said, “I think on the state level, you need to make your presence known. You can’t be a pansy. You have to stand up for what you believe in. You have to fight tooth and nail for everything. I’m going to fight every step of the way. That’s just how I’m built.”
The next question asked the candidates to identify what they think is the No. 1 issue the county is facing regarding energy development. This time, it was Hughes’ turn to answer first.
“Obviously, our regulations … we need to streamline this process. The second is infrastructure. We need to maintain these roadways to make sure everybody has the access, so we can go to work. I know the 2006 IBC (International Building Code) book can definitely be amended by the commissioners. That’s where you start.”
“That’s pretty much it, the regulations and the fees and the unwillingness to do business,” Bolton said. “Nobody wants to do business … when you walk into a room and you get the cold shoulder and you’re the bad guy. We’re not an agricultural county anymore. Everyone knows oil and gas is the No. 1 tax-paying base. It’s what pays the bills. You need to get rid of the fees to get this thing to start workin’ again.”
“With all due respect, the impact fees — those were put in place in some form to help the industry help the county to get those roads (impacted by the industry) back in shape,” Gutierrez said. “My goal is educate county employees on a level of customer service to talk to you, to find out what it is you want and how we can help, so you can get back to work. If the impact fees are not doing that and you feel we’re not cooperating, then we need to sit down and talk about how we can help you get your jobs done. The county needs to help streamline the process … You need to be able to react quickly, and government does not do that and we need to fix that.”
Tim Webber, director of the Western Rio Blanco Recreation and Park District in Rangely, said he was tired of mandates coming down from the state and federal levels and asked the candidates how they felt about it.
“Unfunded mandates have to stop, I agree, absolutely, Tim,” Gutierrez said.
“That’s where you need good leadership,” Hughes said. “Are we going to stand our ground? That’s the question that needs to be answered by a good leader. That’s the main thing, to stay focused and remember why you got in the race — to make a difference.”
“You can tell anybody no,” Bolton said. “What are they (the state and federal government) going to do? A lot of money goes to them before it ever returns here.”
“I agree with standing up, but I believe you get a lot more done with cooperation,” Gutierrez said. “A lot of the money going into County Road 5 is being funded by DOLA (Colorado Department of Local Affairs) grants. That’s how you get things done, with a spirit of cooperation. If you go into it with a hard head, you’re going to lose.”
Fred Slagle of Rangely, who works for EnCana, asked what contacts the candidates had at the state level that could be “stepping stones to get things moving for Rio Blanco County.”
“The state level, that’s a place where I have to go and learn a lot,” Bolton said, “The first thing I want to do is go through the regulations. There’s no reason to have federal, state and county regulations all identical. I would love to get this same panel of people together to get going on these regulations and show a willingness to start working with you, not against you, and actually mean what we say … when you feel like you can trust somebody in county government. You’ve got to get some honesty in here.”
Gutierrez said, “I know all three (current county) commissioners, and I know they are honest men. I know Randy (Baumgardner, state representative for District 57 from Hot Sulphur Springs who represents RBC) and I’ve met Al (White, state senator for the 8th District from Hayden who represents RBC). There are some people who are on our side and know we have a need to have a voice heard in state government. If we don’t make our voice heard, we will get pushed and shoved. I’m very concerned Scott (Mcinnis, Republican candidate for governor) might not make it in. I think he’s our best hope to have a voice. We have a small town, but a large county with a lot of money. We need to make sure our voice gets heard.”
Hughes said, “As far as state contacts, I’ve had opportunities to meet with several.”
The three commissioner candidates were asked what best distinguishes them from their competitors.
Hughes responded first, saying, “Leadership is the biggest thing and will continue to be a key role in how we do business at the county level. Also, my history here. I feel like I pretty much know everybody around here and they can come talk to me about any issue, from horses to water to oil and gas.”
Bolton said, “I’m the only candidate with a background in the oil and gas industry. I deal with the same problems you guys deal with on a daily basis. I’m not the status quo. I’ve never been in government. I think government is a broken tool. I’m bringing in the business aspect of things.”
Gutierrez said, “I don’t have a background in the oil and gas industry, but I have a background in government and community involvement. With our local chamber, I jumped in and decided I wanted to change some things. I’m willing to take that same energy and see what we can do to fix what is broken here. I have the strongest background in county government of the three candidates. I’m not trying to pander to you, but I understand. I get it. I’ve lived here for 30 years and I’m tired of watching the wheel go around. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be moving forward.”
Lastly, the candidates were asked about their leadership experience and consensus building with other groups.
Gutierrez said, “I was a board member of the Meeker Chamber and, currently, my husband is on that board. I was on the hospital board. I understand team building. I don’t believe by alienating (other people) you can get things done. If things need to change, you need someone willing to step up.”
Bolton said, “I’ve always been real good on my organization skills. We oversee about 100 people (with his business) right now. It’s about collecting all of the factual information and stepping forward with the facts. If you want to be a leader, you take out feelings and you need to keep a clear head. That’s all it takes. Leadership is not rocket science. It’s a willingness to work with somebody.”
Hughes concluded by saying “I’ve served on several boards. I’m a participative leadership style, which is good in a democracy. All of the current commissioners will tell you this, there’s no way to know everything about everything. You have to listen to other people and it’s your job to find out the information from those people.”
Oil and gas association director Ludlam said the candidate forum was informative for his members.
“It’s both beneficial and healthy anytime one of northwest Colorado’s most important economic sectors has an opportunity to hear from and interact with would-be elected officials from Rio Blanco County,” he said.