Attendees at a meet-the-candidate event Wednesday night got the most all-encompassing view yet of local candidates on the ballot.
The forum, hosted by the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association, brought together La Plata’s four county commissioner candidates as well as 59th state House District candidates Mike McLachlan and J. Paul Brown.
While the forum’s audience was dominated by those from the agricultural sector, many questions focused on natural-gas and oil development in the county.
Julie Westendorff, Democratic candidate for District 3, said she supports natural-gas development in the county, citing its importance to county revenues, royalties for landowners and employment. Commissioners also must pay attention to how such industry affects the safety and welfare of citizens, she said.
She supports individual property-owner rights only to the extent they don’t negatively affect someone else’s rights.
Kellie Hotter, the Republican incumbent in District 2, also supports the use of natural gas while the county considers other renewable-energy options.
In terms of regulation of the energy industry, Harry Baxstrom, Westendorff’s opponent in District 3, said he supports current fact-based regulations in La Plata County and warned against drilling regulations similar to those written by the city of Longmont that could make it “prohibitively expensive” for industry and business to function locally.
Declining county revenue as natural-gas and oil drilling declines demonstrates the need to diversify the county’s tax base to cover lost revenue from those resources, said Gwen Lachelt, the Democratic candidate in District 2. Lachelt is a strong proponent of turning the county’s focus to renewable-energy alternatives and said she supports recommendations from the Climate & Energy Action Plan that commissioners declined to adopt in March. She defended her work to create regulations on the gas and oil industry that protect property-owner rights.
“You can call me an activist, but I’m proud of what I have done to hold oil and gas accountable,” Lachelt said.
Lachelt also highlighted the need for a comprehensive plan to carry the county into the future.
Hotter countered that the two-year comprehensive plan process revealed that “an all-encompassing comprehensive plan won’t be appropriate” for a rural county like La Plata. She instead supports the county’s incoming planning director in addressing the county’s planning needs area by area.
Hotter’s responses were read by state Sen. Ellen Roberts because Hotter fractured her jaw in a fall last week, and her mouth is wired shut.
Hotter also touted her fiscal responsibility, emphasizing that the county became debt free and has downsized by 19 employees during her 5½ years as commissioner.
Baxstrom emphasized his fiscal responsibility, as well. The county needs to guard against depleting its reserves, he said.
Brown emphasized his goals to limit government, including, if need be, agricultural subsidies such as those he receives as a rancher near Ignacio.
“The federal government is $16 trillion in debt,” said Brown, the Republican incumbent. “We cannot continue down this road, and I’m willing to take the cut like anybody else.”
Brown also highlighted his efforts to reinstate a property-tax exemption for seniors and tax breaks for bull semen, among other agricultural products.
McLachlan’s priorities center on water and education.
“I will fight against efforts to reduce water rights in this district,” McLachlan said. He said he would oppose any transcontinental diversion projects that would take Western Slope water to the Front Range.
McLachlan expressed different thoughts toward government in general.
“I believe in good government, not necessarily the destruction of government,” he said, pointing to state infrastructure and education as government money well spent.
At the end of the debate, an audience member lauded the candidates’ courage and conviction. “It takes guts to stand up in the firing line to run for public office,” he said.