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Outgoing La Plata County commissioners reflect on past eight years

Wildfires, mine spill, pandemic – leaders navigated several crises in office
La Plata County commissioners Julie Westendorff, left, and Gwen Lachelt, cleaned out their offices this week. The pair are term-limited and set to hand over the reins to new commissioners Marsha Porter-Norton and Matt Salka on Tuesday.

In 2013, when incoming La Plata County commissioners Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff stepped into office, the county’s operating budget was spiraling, the oil and gas industry was plummeting and drastic cuts needed to be made.

In short, it kind of felt like the sky was falling.

“Our revenues were just dropping precipitously,” Lachelt said. “That was a really difficult transition to go through.”

On Monday, Lachelt and Westendorff, both term-limited, will wrap up eight years in office. The next day, newly elected commissioners Marsha Porter-Norton and Matt Salka will take their places.

“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Lachelt said.

For Westendorff, not so much.

“I can’t say I feel bittersweet at all,” Westendorff said. “You know it’s coming and your brain prepares you for that. I think we’ve accomplished a lot for the long-term resilience of the county.”

Rewind to 2012 in La Plata County, and it’s much different than the landscape today.

For years, La Plata County’s operating budget depended heavily on property tax revenues from the oil and gas industry. But the industry was in a steep decline as natural gas prices dropped and operators found cheaper places to drill.

From 2010 to 2018, for instance, the county’s property tax revenue dropped about 50% – from $29.4 million to $14.9 million – forcing cuts to county services and staff.

Hard choices had to be made, Westendorff said.

“We had to restructure the way the county spends its money,” she said. “And I’m really pleased where we are today versus eight years ago. I feel like there’s less anxiety about the county moving forward than when we stepped in.”

Indeed, in recent years, staff members have said the county’s budget has evened out, allowing for a reinvestment in staff and services. It’s reflected in this year’s budget, which looks to provide an economic jolt to the community by spending millions of dollars on a number of construction and development projects.

Looking back, both Lachelt and Westendorff were almost identical in naming their proudest achievements during their time in office.

Atop the list: the new land-use code.

La Plata County’s decades-old land-use code had not been updated for years, and was widely seen among county officials and members of the public as a hindrance to new development and businesses in the community.

For years, previous county commissions tried to update the regulations, but those efforts continually ran into controversy among people with differing views about how land should be managed and regulated.

La Plata County commissioners Julie Westendorff, left, and Gwen Lachelt, said that among their proudest achievements was updating the county’s land-use code, which was sorely out-of-date, despite past commissions’ attempts to update it.

Lachelt and Westendorff both made campaign promises to finally deliver a new land-use code. In early 2016, the pair, along with then-commissioner Brad Blake, directed county staff members to begin the process.

It wasn’t smooth, at first.

“It definitely could have been done differently and better,” Westendorff said. “But I still think the engagement we ended up having was valuable.”

A draft set of codes, written by an outside contractor, was met with fierce opposition in fall 2016. It led to a meeting at the La Plata County Fairgrounds that drew an estimated 1,000 people who said the codes were out of line.

“We heard every last person,” Lachelt said. “We stood strong in the face of adversity.”

The county brought the land-use revision in house and scaled it back. After a more than four-year effort, the new codes were finalized this fall, with little opposition voiced from the public.

“Given that it was about 30 years out of date, I’m not going to apologize it took eight years to get it done,” Westendorff said in jest.

Amid the land-use rewrite, Lachelt also faced a recall after some county residents said her work on environmental issues affected her work as a commissioner. The effort to trigger a recall election fell short by 36 signatures and failed.

“The most difficult part of that was just how uncivil our society has become – the attacks I faced on social media,” Lachelt said. “It was a pretty dark time, but we came out on the other side of it and prevailed.”

Regardless, eight years are hard to sum up.

Lachelt and Westendorff navigated through several disasters, such as the Gold King Mine spill in 2015, the 416 Fire in 2018 and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended nearly every facet of daily life.

The pair worked with county staff members and other commissioners to acquire long-term facilities for county departments, helped influence state oil and gas reforms, rewrote the building code and acquired long-demanded Denver TV.

But there were some low moments. Westendorff said she wished voters would have approved a tax increase for road and bridge improvements. And she worries about the friction in the community, a reflection of nationwide politics.

“We have done our best to help people understand we are one community,” she said. “But if people are anxious or fearful, it’s harder to be patient and listen to other people. That has changed a lot in the last eight years. I wish it were different.”

La Plata County commissioners Julie Westendorff, left, and Gwen Lachelt, say the biggest challenge for the new commission will be navigating the hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lachelt and Westendorff said the new commissioners face great challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic, which requires constant advocacy at the state level.

“That is fundamental in your role as a commissioner, because we are a long way from Denver, and we need an effective way to advocate for our community,” Westendorff said.

The other major issue going forward: affordable housing.

“And not just talking about it,” Lachelt said. “They need to write that chapter.”

So what’s next for the outgoing commissioners?

Lachelt said she’s going to take some time off, initially, and then likely become more involved with the nonprofit she started in 2017, Western Leaders Network. She said she’s not opposed to running for an elected office in the future, if the right opportunity should present itself.

“I’m looking forward to a little down time and not being in that seat,” she said.

Westendorff said her first priority is going fishing with her husband. Then after, she may reactivate her law license.

“I’m just happy to sit back and be an ordinary citizen for a while,” she said.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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