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Three going, three coming: New commishes cant make county gov worse. Or can they?

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Two months from now, in the heat of the August summer, the Grand Old Party's most faithful voters will likely hand-select three new El Paso County commissioners that we all will live with for the next four years.

Can it possibly get any worse than it's been?

That depends, local activists say, on who gets picked.

Specifically, whether the combative, anti-tax, anti-government Douglas Bruce, who calls himself an "unpolitician," succeeds -- after 23 years trying -- in getting elected to public office.

Developers in control

The five-member Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) oversees an annual budget of $214 million -- approximately $400 for every El Paso County resident.

In addition to presiding over and setting policy for matters ranging from roads to parks to transportation and human health services, they work with five offices headed by independently elected officials including the district attorney, sheriff, assessor, clerk and recorder and county coroner.

The current BOCC is stocked with five Republican Party activists backed by the local arbiters of political viability; in short, the development industry. These are the folks who build stuff (Home Builders Association of Colorado Springs), sell built stuff (Pikes Peak Association of Realtors), and host an interest group of stuff-sellers (Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce).

In a recent study by local analyst David Bamberger, home building accounted for over 8,500 construction jobs in El Paso County. Toss in jobs from related fields and the number shoots north of 17,000. All told, home building accounted for 8 percent of all county jobs in 2001. This figure doesn't include nonresidential commercial development.

click to enlarge Commissioner Wayne Williams
  • Commissioner Wayne Williams

While the job description for county commissioner doesn't include shilling for developers, a quick perusal of contributors list of two most recent successful candidates -- Wayne Williams and Jim Bensberg, who were elected in 2002 -- reveals a veritable who's who of realtors, developers and vendors.

During the course of his campaign Williams received more than $25,000 from pro-development interests -- or 44 percent of total contributions. Bensberg collected $20,000 from this powerful constituency -- or 40 percent of all his contributions.

As Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy puts it, "You don't live in this community long without being told that the most powerful players are the housing industry."

Highlight of lowlights

This November, Commissioners Chuck Brown and Jeri Howells will be term-limited from office. After serving a single four-year term that has been rife with controversy, Tom Huffman plans to move to Arizona.

That leaves Bensberg and Williams, whose chilly relationship has grown tenuous at times -- and who have made headlines in their own right in recent months (For more, see links to past stories at www.csindy.com).

The three new commissioners will not only inherit a polarized board, but a political entity whose last two years have witnessed a litany of personnel scandals, vituperative infighting and investigations regarding bloated budgets, conflicts of interest and harassment.

Highlights of the lowlights include:

November 2002: A ballot item asking voters to approve $40 million for the expansion of the county jail was overwhelmingly rejected by voters. Within weeks, the BOCC (with the exception of Jeri Howells) voted to go ahead with the project anyway, citing the need to fill a state mandate for the new facility. To pay for the new jail, along with an expanded courthouse, they opted for bonds known as COPS: certificates of participation, which do not require voter approval. The move left taxpayers (and their progeny) footing a bill of $154 million with an estimated payoff date of 2027.

Their maneuver prompted a grass-roots campaign for a voter recall of commissioners Brown and Huffman. The effort fell short; in subsequent interviews Huffman described the recall as a de facto referendum affirming his leadership.

click to enlarge Commissioner Jim Bensberg
  • Commissioner Jim Bensberg

July 2003: Prompted by Huffman, the BOCC voted 4-1 to require majority approval before an individual county commissioner can ask staff to perform research that costs more than $100 in work time. Many critics saw the move as an attempt to quash Howells' inquiry into the information technology department, which came under scrutiny after it issued a no-bid software contract to a company with ties to IT department head Bill Miller.

September 2003: Barbara Nugent, the director of the county's Parks Department, was dismissed after a lengthy suspension. After appealing her firing through arbitration, Nugent received a $50,000 settlement from the county. As part of the taxpayer-financed settlement, neither county officials nor Nugent are allowed to comment on the reasons behind her dismissal.

January 2004: County Attorney Michael Lucas, who had pressured his staff to hire his sister Diann, resigned amidst controversy. He departed with $36,000 in salary and vacation time.

February 2004: County Coroner David Bowerman came under the scrutiny of Huffman, who accused him of overcharging the county for autopsies. Bowerman, who is also a forensic pathologist, was investigated for exploiting his perch as elected coroner to perform autopsies for other counties while charging overhead costs back to taxpayers. The county spent more than $28,000 investigating.

March 2004: Commissioner Bensberg and county planning official Imad Karaki were investigated after Shyla Tulley, the county's intergovernmental affairs officer, filed a formal complaint alleging that the men retaliated against her after she had spurned their romantic advances. An investigation conducted by Mountain States Employers Council -- which specializes in representing employers -- submitted a report that exonerated Bensberg and Karaki. Bensberg, who cast the deciding vote absolving himself and the county from any wrongdoing, also cast the lone vote against developing a sexual harassment program for county employees and elected officials. The investigation was denounced by Commissioners Huffman and Williams as a whitewash.

The County expects costs to exceed $40,000 on the investigation and legal fees.

Where the similarities end

It's hard to imagine why anyone would want to join this all-Republican club -- until you learn that the job requires you to attend only two official meetings a week, does not require set office hours, and pays $63,200 plus a full benefits package, pension and other perks.

Most commissioners swear that despite the lack of formal office hours, they work tirelessly to better the lives of their constituents.

The candidates who are running all say they want to do the same and many of them have been stumping that they want to restore public trust in county government. But that's about where the similarities end.

click to enlarge Commissioner Chuck Brown
  • Commissioner Chuck Brown

Take District 2, the current domain of Huffman, a man so ready to shed public life he told this reporter, "You'll hold office before I ever do."

The district includes the rapidly growing urban section of Colorado Springs' east side, as well as the vast geographic landmass of Eastern El Paso County.

It is also home to what's arguably the most competitive, complex and ugly of all three races. Vying for the seat are two familiar names in local Republican politics: the aforementioned Bruce and current City Councilwoman Radford.

Another well-known candidate -- Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition chairman Bernie Herpin -- had initially gotten the support of the city's powerful business and Republican leaders but failed to get on the ballot during the May 1 Republican county assembly.

Instead, Bruce -- who has built a reputation as a bully whose acerbic comments and angry missives have been directed at public officials throughout Colorado for more than a decade -- received 43 percent of the vote at the assembly. Radford did not receive the 30 percent convention support needed and subsequently has turned in 4,110 signatures -- way more than the 1,700 necessary -- to petition her way onto the Republican primary ballot. A third candidate, rancher James Day, has also submitted signatures to petition onto the ballot; the county clerk and recorder's office has until June 16 to verify the signatures.

In a recent interview, Radford credited her inability to garner enough support at the county assembly to splitting the moderate Republican vote with Herpin -- and to last-minute mudslinging from the Bruce campaign.

In fact, Radford says Bruce backers smeared her for having once been a Democrat. "Since I wasn't apparently born a Republican, it was an issue for me," Radford said, noting that Bruce himself ran for the California state Senate in 1981 as a Democrat.

If past races involving Bruce as a candidate for public office are a barometer, Radford can expect additional mudslinging between now and the August primary.

The Bruce factor

With Herpin now out of the picture, Radford says she's received an outpouring of support from his former backers and others who recoil at the prospect of a Bruce victory.

click to enlarge Commissioner Jeri Howells
  • Commissioner Jeri Howells

And in fact, many local and state officials have spent the past several months asking themselves and others their equivalent of nuclear winter: "What if Doug Bruce wins?"

This is the third attempt in Colorado for Bruce, the author of Colorado's 1992 Taxpayer Bill of Rights, to hold public office. Bruce, who paints himself as a government outsider, lost primaries to state Sen. Ron May in 2000 and former Senate President Ray Powers in 1996. He also, as Radford noted, ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the California State Assembly in 1981.

Since his 1992 TABOR amendment success, Bruce's anti-government rhetoric has rankled the feathers of moderates -- and even conservatives -- who consider him as an ideological purist who badgers, bullies and grandstands to get what he wants.

"I have seen him repeatedly mislead and misinform the people who trust him in order to advance his agenda," said Huffman, noting erroneous information Bruce has placed in county voter guides in relation to ballot initiatives that involved increasing taxes.

"A lot of his ideas are good ideas," says local Republican operative Bob Gardner -- who has also placed erroneous information in county voter guides. "But sometimes his presentation lacks in charm. You're either with him or against him. One is never able to form a political coalition with him."

Nevertheless, in this race, Bruce has been endorsed by Colorado U.S. Representatives Tom Tancredo and Marilyn Musgrave, in addition to state Sen. Doug Lamborn and state Rep. Dave Schultheis. Even moderate Republican state Rep. Mark Cloer has endorsed Bruce, though he does note there are other "fine candidates in the race."

Bruce said he does not seek endorsements of interest groups because he doesn't want to be beholden to anyone. His campaign, he claims, is entirely self-funded. However, in April, he paid $20 each to sign up new Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition members during a meeting designed to determine who to endorse.

He walked away with their blessing.

While his opponents draw from a similar base of mainstream and Christian conservatives, Bruce, a rabble-rousing stump speaker, appeals to a more ardently right-wing base and is fond of referring to his rivals as RINOs: "Republicans in Name Only."

This confuses Commissioner Williams, who noted that Bruce made a sizable contribution to Colorado's Libertarian Party in the 2000 presidential race. "Someone giving money to Libertarians concerns me as past chairman of the Republican Party and chairman of Bush's 2000 campaign," Williams said.

click to enlarge Candidate Margaret Radford
  • Candidate Margaret Radford

If elected, Bruce says he will cut spending on staff and programs.

"We have an assistant county administrator who makes more than the governor of Colorado," he told the El Paso County Federation of Republican Women in March, before identifying the Penrose Equestrian Center, the County Fair and the Pikes Peak Center as programs he would want to strip funding from if elected.

However, Bruce is sure to note that he's "not an anarchist." Though he's outspoken in opposing the county's Rural Transportation Authority aimed at funding transportation infrastructure, Bruce said he would spring for roads servicing his district, including state Highways 24 and 94 and a sheriff's substation for rural parts of his district.

For her part, Radford has been campaigning on her experience serving three years on City Council. In candidate forums, including at the El Paso County Federation of Republican Women and the Council of Neighborhood Organizations (CONO), Radford boasted of the agreement she helped broker with the city of Pueblo that will help secure the city's water supply for the next 40 years.

In the closing of her stump speeches, Radford toasts a glass of water and proclaims: "I hold in my hand, crystal-clear proof of my commitment to you."

So far, Radford has been the only candidate in any of the three races to bring up same-sex benefits -- which was the benchmark in last year's City Council races. By her own admission, it's not an issue that's likely to surface within county government. Radford said that it's an issue that her constituents ask her about. "They want to know where I stand," she said. "I voted against gay partner benefits three times."

Insider vs. insider's outsider

The other hot race this year has ex-City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Sallie Clark squaring off against Jack Gloriod, a retired Army colonel and real-estate magnate. The two are vying to represent District 3, currently Brown's district, which encompasses the county's west side.

Both successfully got enough support to be nominated by their fellow Republicans during the May 1 assembly, though Clark whomped Gloriod by a nearly 2 to 1 margin.

Gloriod, who has not previously held public office, has received help from his pals in the development industry, including endorsements from the Housing and Building Association, the Realtors PAC and the Chamber of Commerce.

click to enlarge Candidate Sallie Clark
  • Candidate Sallie Clark

Clark, meanwhile, has gotten backing from the local Firefighters Association, Colorado Springs Employees Association, as well as state Rep. Mark Cloer, Senate Majority Leader Mark Hillman and former Mayor Bob Isaac.

Clark has been campaigning primarily on bread-and-butter neighborhood issues, including taking credit for a city council resolution banning flammable wood roof shingles. Clark noted that she worked to support Cloer's meth lab cleanup bill, while her opponent, she alleges, has sold a house that was a former meth lab.

For his part, Gloriod has been running as the outsider, with rhetoric more pragmatic than populist.

"Political experience and real experience are two different things," Gloriod said last month at a meet-and-greet at Marigold's restaurant. "You can spend a lifetime in politics and not have any down-to-earth, feet-on-the-ground experience. I've got decades of experience running large operations with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars."

Gloriod said he views his rival as "part of the political machine." However, Gloriod's own impressive resume makes him something of an insider's outsider. He served not only on the Chamber of Commerce's transportation board and the government affairs committee of the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors, but also on the executive and finance committee of the El Paso County Republican Party.

With two months to rally support before the Aug. 10 primary, Gloriod said he's confident he can muster the public to his side.

Whittling the field

Last but not least is District 4, which spans south from the southern city limits of Colorado Springs through the Fountain Valley and the Security-Widefield area.

The seat that Jeri Howells has occupied for the last eight years was initially challenged by no less than seven Republicans.

Through the lens of endorsements and name recognition, the race seems solidly in the hands of Dennis Hisey, who runs a small home-remodeling franchise and who has gotten the backing from the big three PACs as well as sitting commissioners Bensberg and Williams.

click to enlarge Candidate Dennis Hisey
  • Candidate Dennis Hisey

Hisey's received more than 60 percent of delegates' votes at the May 1 assembly.

Hisey's closest rival, Auddie Cox, who works at NORAD, received 19 percent of the assembly vote and has subsequently collected 973 petition signatures. With the county clerk still verifying signatures as of press time, Cox needs 714 legitimate signatures to get on the ballot.

Hisey, who unsuccessfully attempted to unseat Commissioner Howells in 2000, said he's been preparing his campaign for several years. Though he believes he will face at least one other candidate in the primary, Hisey is convinced he will prevail. "I won't be outworked."

The donkeys are braying

In currently one-party El Paso County government, it's easy to dismiss the opposition party particularly when they dismiss themselves.

Months after Republicans launched campaign Web sites and put out lawn signs, the El Paso Democratic Party had only one candidate actively campaigning. However, after the party's April 24 assembly at Palmer High School the candidate roster filled out. Democratic challengers include Vietnam veteran, gun owner, and former teacher Stanley Hildahl in District 2 and county electrician Andre Vigil in District 4.

Avant-garde arts activist Tom McElroy (aka Atomic Elroy) initially announced plans to run in District 3, but has already dropped out of the race, citing a family member's health problems.

Local Democratic Party Chairman Ed Raye attributed his party's dormancy to the grim demographic reality Democrats confront. Recruiting candidates, he says, can be a hard sell. "It's always a tough proposition in El Paso County," Raye said. "You tell people you're outnumbered three to one; who goes up against it?"

However, Raye noted that the county harbors pockets where Democrats can succeed. Most noteworthy, he claims, is District 4, where, in 1992, former television newscaster and Democrat Bill Huddy received 45 percent of the vote against Jeri Howells.

This year, Democratic candidate Vigil has been the only Democrat to show up to stump at the Republican dominated CONO forum as well as the Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition meeting.

click to enlarge Candidate Douglas Bruce
  • Candidate Douglas Bruce

Vigil, whose uncle, Ricardo LaFore, manages Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's Denver office, says he's an admirer of the outgoing Republican he wants to replace. "She always returns my calls." Vigil said.

For his part, Vigil is attempting to energize what he sees as a growing Democratic base in District 4. "A lot of Dems don't vote because the only choice they ever had was between Republicans."

As for oppositional suspects outside the Democratic fold, Jan Martin of Together for Effective Alternatives (TEA), which organized last year's recall effort against Brown and Huffman, finds herself at a loss.

"We're not going to endorse anybody," Martin said. A lifelong Republican, Martin says the sustained one-party domination of local politics has led to "political inbreeding" among Republicans.

That said, Martin said she believes that only candidates Clark and Radford have proven themselves as being open to the public. Both, she said, have proven that they are both respectful and open to public comment.

Structural in nature

To what extent three rookie commissioners can change county politics remains to be seen. Outgoing Commissioners Huffman and Brown both say that some of the county's problems are structural in nature, owing to tension between rural and urban interests.

Huffman calls it " district parochialism," and supports Brown's shelved idea of redrawing districts into three geographic districts and two additional at-large commissioner seats.

Candidates, elected officials and observes generally agree that the personality clashes that have marred recent years are just that -- personality conflicts -- and are not indicative of anything inherent in the county government that creates the equivalent of a viper pit.

Gardner, whose own tactics in past political campaigns have been well-documented, says that despite a spate of embarrassments, county government has drastically improved from days gone by, when commissioners might send a road crew to pave the driveway of a constituent.

"There's been a sea change in the expectations of citizens as well as the scrutiny of government actions," Gardner said. "They don't come without pain. What was acceptable in local governments 25 yeas ago is not acceptable today."

Cara DeGette contributed to this report.

  • Three going, three coming: New commishes cant make county gov worse. Or can they?

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