Looking over a list of accomplishments supplied by El Paso County's three outgoing term-limited commissioners, you might think they'd done something akin to building the Panama Canal. Actually, it took less time to carve the 48-mile canal (a decade) than the 12 years Sallie Clark and Dennis Hisey held office — a controversy unto itself.
Clark and Hisey, who left office Tuesday, see their tenure as pivotal, and Amy Lathen, who bailed in July after eight-plus years in office to run the political activist group Colorado Springs Forward, is equally self-congratulatory.
And perhaps that's warranted.
Since 2005, commissioners have dealt with a wide range of topics: guns, moths, fish, dogs, roads, fires, computers, kids, drunks and soldiers, to name a few.
They oversaw the biggest facilities expansion in the county's history, racking up a debt they've left future commissioners to pay off. The county's debt, through leases and certificates of participation that sidestep voter approval, has grown from $97.1 million in 2005 to $157.5 million in 2015, the most recent data available. That's an increase of 62 percent.
To recap, let's start with how Hisey and Clark served three terms despite now being limited by voters to two.
In 2010, they, along with Commissioners Lathen and Wayne Williams (now Colorado Secretary of State), agreed to ask voters if commissioners and other county elected officials should be "limited to serving three consecutive terms, a modification of the current limits permitted by Article XVIII, Section 11 of the Colorado constitution." (Then-Commissioner Jim Bensberg opposed the measure.)
Voters — who some argue were duped by the wording — extended commissioners' term limits from two four-year terms to three. But when voters realized what had happened, many reacted negatively. In 2012, commissioners submitted a new measure returning to a two-term limit.
It passed, but in the same election, voters gave Clark and Hisey their final terms, which increased their potential retirement benefit by about $600 a month, to about $1,938. (Only Jeri Howells and Chuck Brown served longer in the recent past — four terms. Term limits weren't adopted until 1994.) Lathen, first elected in 2008 after being appointed to an open seat in January that year, was also reelected for a second term. The 2012 term-limits vote made her ineligible for a third.
Clark tells the Indy that her third term aided taxpayers, enabling relationships with local, state and federal officials that led to a plethora of benefits for the county.
"I don't think most people understand how complicated being a commissioner is," she says. "There's a benefit to having institutional knowledge. You're able to get things done and keep things moving forward."
She also became a force in the National Association of Counties and was elected president in 2015, a post that took her to 45 states and Japan.
All of which might suggest Clark would support lifting term limits, so other commissioners might serve more effectively. But that's not the case.
"At this point," she says, "the voters have spoken."
During the past dozen years, commissioners have seen a lot of action, some with controversy. They cheered then-Sheriff Terry Maketa for stepping up to fund and run a detoxification facility (for addicts) after AspenPointe closed its program, but they turned on Maketa in 2014 after revelations of inappropriate relationships with female employees and other missteps. Maketa now faces criminal charges, and commissioners have spent nearly $1 million on investigations and settlements.
On the brighter side, they also presided over:
major improvements to Interstate 25 and Highway 115 to accommodate Fort Carson;
construction of a public firing range near Carson;
creation of a buffer zone to insulate the Mountain Post from pressing development;
birth of the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District;
progress toward the new Cimarron interchange;
approval of cable agreements to give county residents access to broadband;
acquisition of Jones Park open space;
voter approval of a tax increase for public safety;
voter-approval to extend the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority road tax;
starting an overhaul of West Colorado and Manitou avenues;
expanding the Emergency Services Agency from a tiny, casual board to a 12-member panel supported with full-time staff;
road projects too numerous to name, and
development of programs for children and families.
In short, they widened the reach of government to fulfill what were seen as community needs.
Their most costly project, tagged "Strategic Moves," was a massive expansion of county facilities, costing at least $68 million.
Unveiled in June 2010, amid the Great Recession when the county laid off about 200 workers, it included spending $61 million to buy the 300,000-square-foot Intel building at 1675 Garden of the Gods Road and renovate it into the Citizens Service Center. The project placed Public Health, the treasurer, assessor, clerk and recorder, Pikes Peak Workforce Center and the Department of Human Services under one roof. Commissioners also remodeled their own offices and Centennial Hall at 200 S. Cascade Ave., and overhauled the former administration building, at 27 E. Vermijo Ave., for the sheriff. They spent another $7.3 million to buy and redo a property on Mark Dabling Boulevard for emergency operations.
Though the projects spiked the county's debt, Lathen notes via email that "conservative budgeting practices" helped reduce the county's interest rate, which saved money and "will continue to do so."
Lathen also boasts about reducing land development code regulations and streamlining processes, which she says helped boost the economy.
Hisey points to smaller undertakings that impacted neighborhoods, among them the reopening of Willow Springs Pond for fishing after years of closure due to pollution from Schlage Lock; adopting a "quiet zone" for railroad tracks in Widefield and Security; and moving the Stratmoor area out of a flood plain through mapping, which spared hundreds of homeowners from paying flood insurance.
All three agree their biggest challenges were natural disasters — the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire and 2013 Black Forest Fire, which together claimed some 900 homes and four lives, and the floods that followed.
Clark takes credit, with then-U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner and Sen. Michael Bennet, for hammering away at federal officials for flood mitigation money after Waldo in 2012, even as the Beltway crowd dealt with the horrific Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast. Eventually, the region got $19 million in federal emergency watershed protection funds, Clark notes.
"That's how my relationship-building on the state and federal levels helped," she says.
While Lathen left early for CSF, Hisey hasn't announced his plans. Clark, an innkeeper, vows to stay active in community issues and says she won't rule out running for elected office again.
"I'm running for everything. Haven't you heard?" she quips.
Replacing the three are Mark Waller, Longinos Gonzalez Jr. and Stan VanderWerf. Only Waller, a former state representative, has prior elective office experience.