With November’s election just weeks away, all four candidates in the La Plata County Commissioner races for districts 2 and 3 played a high-stakes game of offense and biography-heavy game of defense at a crowded candidate forum Monday night at Durango City Hall.
The sharpest exchanges came from the women vying for the District 2 seat, Democratic challenger Gwen Lachelt and Republican incumbent Kellie Hotter, who went head-to-head on natural gas, climate change, who bore greatest responsibility for the county’s ill-fated comprehensive plan and the mysterious role of the United Nations in drafting the county’s $50,000 climate plan.
Hotter, who is recovering from a jaw injury, typed her answers, which were read aloud by Sydny Zink.
Hotter emphasized her family’s local roots, which go back to 1880, and broadcast her small-government bona fides, reminding the audience that in her time as commissioner, 19 staff members had been reduced and the county paid off its debt.
In an apparent dig at both Lachelt and President Barack Obama, Hotter said voters were confronted by a choice “between a proven track record and a community organizer.”
Lachelt, director of Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project, continued to position herself as an advocate of natural-gas and oil regulations, clean-energy development and landowner rights.
She disputed Hotter’s characterization of her work as utterly false, saying she had “25 years of experience managing people and budgets and making payroll.”
She attacked Hotter’s claims to fiscal responsibility, saying Hotter had wasted almost “a million dollars of taxpayers’ money,” pointing to the failure of the comprehensive plan despite its tremendous cost, blaming Hotter for appointing “people who don’t believe in planning,” fearing it to be “an international plot involving the United Nations,” to the county’s Planning Commission.
Hotter parried that Lachelt had inaccurately stated the commission had wasted $700,000 on consultants in formulating the comprehensive plan.
In another echo of the national debate, Lachelt said the county had spent $300,000 on consultants and $450,000 in staff hours throughout the course of two years, concluding that she didn’t understand Hotter’s arithmetic.
The District 3 candidates, Republican Harry Baxstrom, a longtime Bayfield veterinarian, and Democrat Julie Westendorff, a real estate agent, lawyer, former tribal prosecutor and former Bayfield town judge, traded far fewer barbs, grounding their answers in policy specifics as opposed to a political story of heroes and villains.
Both candidates critiqued the failure of the comprehensive plan, with Baxtrom saying the county’s attempts to educate the public, while earnest, were insufficient, in that people might attend meetings, and leave their information, but the county often failed to follow up. Baxtrom said that when people opted to be directly involved in the process, “it would be nice” not to “months later just find out it didn’t work.”
Going forward, Baxstrom said the county could focus on improving the quality of public input by ensuring that different voices within one field, industry, or group were adequately represented. Also, he said, if the county wished to woo the public over, “when a member of the public calls about an issue, they should talk to the same planner every time.”
Westendorff, who attended the comprehensive plan meetings, located much of the blame for their failing in procedural issues, “topics that were discussed, as much as anything.” But she said, “at some point, clearly, discussion seemed to fall away” and this was the county commissioners’ fault, as “they didn’t hold the feet of the planners to the fire and say, ‘Hey, this is the document. You have to work with it.’”
In addition to relitigating the comprehensive plan’s demise, candidates agreed that recycling was best handled by private business, that business would benefit from predictable regulation, and that protecting water rights was critical.