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A county in change

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

6th Judicial District Chief Judge Gregory Lyman swears in Julie Westendorff as a La Plata County Commissioner Tuesday morning in his courtroom. An overflow crowd of county officials and supporters watched.

By Emery Cowan Herald staff writer

A packed courtroom greeted La Plata County’s newest commissioners as they were sworn into office Tuesday. Democrats Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff joined 6th Judicial District Attorney Todd Risberg, who ran unopposed in November, for the official swearing-in ceremony.

Cheers and applause greeted the newly minted officials as they formally affirmed their dedication to the job.

“It was very emotional,” said Lachelt, who held back tears during the ceremony. “I was overwhelmed with the community support.”

After her swearing in, Westendorff said the smile on her face was one “you couldn’t wipe off.”

Both women won their seats by slim margins in the November election. Lachelt beat Republican incumbent Kellie Hotter by 174 votes and Westendorff beat Republican Harry Baxstrom by 320 votes.

Even so, the county’s two outgoing commissioners agreed that the election of two Democratic commissioners represented a changing tide.

The November election showed a shift away from the county’s “grounded conservative rural roots” because of a “liberal influx” caused in part by the college, Hotter said.

“The rural, agricultural, conservative group is fighting so hard, and it is losing ground,” she said.

Outgoing District 3 Commissioner Wally White agreed that the board’s new, Democratic-leaning represents the county’s changing demographics.

Throughout his eight years, White said he also has seen the county become more receptive to zoning, which has long incited fierce opposition by those who saw it as a threat to personal-property rights.

White said he expects the county to implement some type of zoning in the next four to eight years.

“It’s an economic-development issue,” because zoning allows people to plan development, White said.

County staff members assured the new commissioners they will have their plates full from the get-go. In the near term, the commissioners will rule on land-use code revisions and begin implementation of a facilities master plan that outlines future construction and renovations of county buildings.

In the longer term, commissioners will need to address the county’s now-shelved draft comprehensive plan.

Both outgoing commissioners said they regretted the way the comprehensive plan process played out in 2011.

“We didn’t see the chaos with the comprehensive plan early enough to thwart it,” Hotter said.

But both former commissioners said highlights and successes from the job far outweighed any regrets or disappointments.

As they look to the future, White and Hotter said they looked forward to catching up on the life they put aside to serve the county.

White said he has travel plans that include attending the Memphis Blues Festival, driving the Blues Highway and possibly taking a trip to Mexico. He also has eight years of deferred maintenance on his farm that he is looking forward to tackling.

Hotter said she turned down a position directing a national organization of counties working toward energy independence but plans to volunteer for that organization and others working on similar causes.

The director position would have been a dream job, but Hotter said she decided “at this point I’m going to take a break.”

“I’m happy to breathe for a while,” she said.


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