Fresh from the local Republicans' restructuring gathering, El Paso County's all-GOP leadership squad begins a February meeting with some cheerleading.
Wayne Williams, opening a comment period for the five county commissioners, notes warmly that Amy Lathen, the board's newest member, was the top vote-getter to serve in the party's local inner circle as one of 32 "bonus" members.
"And she's quite a bonus to our board," Commissioner Sallie Clark adds, drawing laughter.
Next, Clark gets down to business — actually other elected officials' business — knocking the School District 11 board for limiting public input into their school-closure process.
Jim Bensberg, just elevated to board chair, sets his sights higher, chiding President Barack Obama for his stimulus plan.
"I just find it outrageous that the federal government is engaging in this kind of spending," Bensberg says.
As the U.S. economy has imploded and fearsome city and state budget gaps have opened, El Paso County commissioners have met twice weekly for meetings that often veer between soapbox session and pep rally. These are the most visible of the efforts earning each commissioner $87,300 a year.
The Feb. 12 meeting lasts 1 hour and 19 minutes. A week later, commissioners finish in 20 minutes with Bensberg's parting words: "Hallelujah, we're adjourned."
Other meetings take longer, with commissioners spending hours on, say, discussing how to stop county residents from doing professional auto repairs in their driveways. With all the seriousness looming elsewhere, it's a sweet time to be a county commissioner.
Budget and Bruce
To their credit, commissioners avoided some aggravation by taking their $232 million budget by the horns last year. They cut $9 million from 2008 spending, kept most county offices closed on Fridays and based this year's budget on bleak revenue projections.
That they haven't had to cut deeper has helped make for some breezy meetings. In January, only two lasted longer than an hour. By the end of March, only one 2009 meeting had exceeded two hours, when commissioners wrestled with liquor-code violations.
Williams is philosophical about this new reality. Since the budget has been scaled back, commissioners don't need to consider as many spending contracts. Commissioners are responsible for land-use decisions, but the construction slump means fewer of those are happening. And with 200 fewer county employees than there were a couple years ago, fewer come to the board with issues.
"There's just not as much going on in the county as there once was," Williams says.
Douglas Bruce, author of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, can take some credit for that. He's also indirectly responsible for the new and friendly vibe on the board. Before Bruce left the commission in 2007 for his spectacular flame-out in the state Legislature, county meetings were full of insults and a lot of 4-1 votes.
Commissioners still seem starry-eyed about Lathen, who replaced Bruce, and there's now markedly less disagreement: Through dozens of votes at their March meetings, only two items each received a single "no" vote, with the others all passing unanimously.
Bruce also distinguished himself for refusing to vote on "ceremonial" resolutions. On April 7, commissioners showed solidarity in passing three such resolutions, a possible record, declaring Child Abuse Prevention Month, National Work Zone Safety Awareness Week and National Telecommunicators' Week, all in April.
Before last fall's election, Democratic commission candidate Andre Vigil, himself a county employee, questioned whether El Paso County needed five commissioners. With budget cuts eliminating many jobs, he asked, why not also cut at the top?
The answer is complicated. State lawmakers, who make around $30,000 a year, actually set commissioners' salaries. But state law only establishes a minimum number of members, allowing counties with more than 70,000 residents to decide whether they want to jump from the standard three commissioners to five.
El Paso County voters decided in 1976 they wanted five. Clark says the county still needs five, arguing that much of what she and other commissioners do is "behind the scenes," serving on local and state-wide committees, testifying before the legislature and working on land-use and transportation projects. Commissioners also oversee the sheriff's office, including the county jail, as well as local health and human services departments.
"We get paid to be hands-on people," she says. "On a daily basis, I have four to five meetings."
Clark says these meetings, discussions with constituents and other responsibilities consume at least 60 hours a week. Three commissioners, she says, couldn't handle the load.
Even with the long hours, there's no shortage of interest in running for county commission. City Councilor Darryl Glenn, who now collects just over $6,000 a year for serving the city, has said he might run in 2010. Lionel Rivera, making the same as mayor, has also been mentioned as a commission candidate, and other county elected officials could become candidates, including the county clerk and the treasurer, both of whom make commissioner-level salaries right now, but face term limits. On the Democratic side, term-limited Rep. Mike Merrifield has been mentioned as a possibility.
One thing that makes the county commission such a cushy job for Republicans: The sitting board gets to set district boundaries every two years. John Morris, former chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party, says this is one of several factors that makes it difficult to shake things up.
"It's been all Republican the last 40 years," he says.
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