Notes from the Plan Boulder County Commissioner Election Forum

Garry and Elise Talking to Lynn

Two of the three Boulder County Commissioner’s seats are up for grab this year, and it’s all but given that whoever secures the Democratic Party’s nomination will end up winning the election.  In District 1 (which includes the city of Boulder as far east as Foothills, see this map) we are losing former Boulder mayor Will Toor, who has served two terms — the maximum allowed.  Vying for his place are Elise Jones and Garry Sanfaçon.  On June 1st, PLAN Boulder County held a lively candidate forum, moderated by Alan Boles.

My notes are necessarily an incomplete record of the exchange.  Unless otherwise indicated by quotation marks, the words below represent my paraphrasing of the candidates statements.

As an introduction, Boles first asked: Who are you, and why are you running?

Elise Jones responded that given the political situation at the state and national level, she felt local politics is where important changes are likely to happen.  She cited her 8 years on the Boulder Planning Board, and more than 20 years working on environmental protection statewide as relevant experience, giving her an intimate understanding of land use issues.  She stated that she is the only candidate with experience working to regulate the oil and gas industry, and that this has been one of her primary focuses over the last decade, “Ever since Dick Cheney declared war on the West.” She was supportive of ending GMO use on county open space, and highlighted climate change as the single largest looming issue facing us (and the world) today, especially given the occurrence this year of some of the warmest, driest spring months on record.

Garry Sanfaçon spoke about his son who just graduated from Nederland High School.  He wants his son to be able to move back to Boulder County some day, and the importance of making sure that we have both jobs and affordable housing to make it possible for regular folks to keep living here.  He highlighted his experience working for the county as the Fourmile Canyon Fire recovery director, as a member of the Boulder County Planning Commission, and as a visioning facilitator for various organizations.  Sanfaçon stated that he’s the candidate taking the “strongest positions” on GMOs and fracking, and said that if elected he “would vote to ban them on day one.”

From the looks exchanged during the introduction, it became clear pretty quickly that fracking was going to be a hot issue, and Boles went directly to it asking: Fracking appears to be a state regulatory issue, and the state is currently dropping the ball.  What can we really do about it, from a legal point of view?

Sanfaçon said that he had never heard of fracking until he started running for the county commissioner’s seat, but that it immediately became one of the top issues.  He held up a map of the region, and pointed out the vast number of gas wells that have already been drilled.  He said that we need to aggressively assert our rights and protect our community and values.  He noted that while the County Attorney has indicated that we cannot ban fracking, outside counsel wrote an opinion saying it wasn’t completely clear.  He pointed out that earlier this year legislation which would have very explicitly preempted local regulation of the oil and gas industry failed at the state level, suggesting that at least some parties feel that the existing rules are ambiguous.

Jones said it was telling that Garry hadn’t heard of fracking until this election.  She pointed out that she’s been working on the issue for a decade, and is thankful that the Front Range communities have finally woken up to the issue.  She said we need to ride the wave of public outcry.  She admitted that there’s really no silver bullet — other communities have already lost in court with outright bans.  She pointed those wanting more information to her position paper online.  She said she doesn’t want us to engage in a symbolic effort that gets crushed immediately, and pointed out the desperate need for stronger regulation at the state level, partly because what goes on in adjacent counties will affect us no matter what we do in Boulder county.  She said it was a given that we would be sued across the board by the oil and gas industry, no matter what kind of regulations we put forward.

Sanfaçon: If the current situation is the result of 10 years of Elise’s efforts, then she doesn’t really deserve another four years to work on it.  He said that the state of Colorado had already threatened Longmont with a lawsuit for their very modest regulations, and stated that he would prefer to aggressively assert our right to local self determination.  He said we can’t fail to act just because we’re afraid someone “might sue us”.

Jones countered that if voters want to compare the candidates on the basis of their environmental records, they have nothing to go on from Sanfaçon but talk.  She described her work getting the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission’s composition changed, reducing the number of guaranteed industry representatives from 5 to 3 (out of a total of 9), and including representatives from local government and environmental experts.  Now you’ve actually got to have a liner for your waste water ponds.  Now you can’t drill right next to a municipal water supply.  Are we done?  Of course not!  Are we actually fighting?  Yes!  Am I afraid of lawsuits?  In fact, in my current position (Executive Director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition), I’m leading our organization in pursuing multiple lawsuits, mostly against the federal government.  The thing is, I like winning.  There’s no lawyer that works on oil, gas, and land issues in Colorado that thinks Garry’s position will stand up in court.  We really need to get the democrats back in power in the State House, so we can actually devolve more power to the local communities in Colorado.

At this point the moderator had to cut the heated debate off, so the forum could move on to address other issues, including the use of GMOs on county open space.  Tell us what your position is with respect to GMOs on open space, and how does it differ from your opponent?

Jones: Our positions are pretty similar on GMOs, but I recognize that I will have to work with the other commissioners.  What we need to do is work with the farmers who are currently under contract, so that we can create stories of successful migrations away from GMOs toward more sustainable ag practices.  Those success will serve us well in future negotiations and publicity efforts.  We should create infrastructure at the county level that enables more economical local food production, connecting local producers directly to local distributors and retailers.  We also need to look at relaxing some of the restrictions that currently apply to agricultural land in the county — for instance letting farms host weddings or other events on-site — in order to help the farms be more economically viable.

Sanfaçon:  I’ve been anti-GMO since 2004, and I pledge to vote on day one against their use on county open space lands.  But this isn’t really just about GMOs.  We need to create a long-term vision for a more sustainable, affordable, accessible agricultural system county wide.

How many farmers have you each actually talked to about this issue?

Sanfaçon: Most of them — there are only about a dozen farmers working on open space land.  I was clear with them that I would ban GMOs, but also that I would stand with them to assist in the transition.

Jones: This is not a black and white issue.  If we swap GMOs for more pesticide intensive farming, that’s not necessarily good overall.  We also have serious water issues, with the oil and gas industry regularly out-bidding farmers for scarce water rights to use in fracking operations.  It’s hard to be a farmer in Boulder County right now.

The Area III planning reserve in North Boulder is currently governed by a 4-body review process.  If the County is not willing to revise the process, should we allow the memorandum of understanding to expire in 2018?

Jones: We’ve so far done a great job of preventing sprawling development within the county.  Having seen the review process from the Planning Board repeatedly, I think it should be preserved, potentially for a very long time.  The 4-body review should persist, but it could be a much more elegant process.  Before we go developing this area, we’ve got to remember, it’s all we’ve got from now until the end of time.

Sanfaçon: I’m also familiar with the 4-body review process, from my time on the Boulder County Planning Commission, and I agree that the current process is cumbersome.  That said, I think we should really consider the possibility of never developing the planning reserve.  Regardless of what we do, at some point, all we’ll have left is infill and re-development, so why not just say that’s where we are now, and leave that area alone?

EnergySmart funding is set to expire in 2013.  What should we do?

Sanfaçon: I support EnergySmart, and I support extending the program.  However, we need to look at how it dovetails with the city’s Climate Action Plan.  The county is talking about asking for money via a broad “sustainability tax” in the fall election, but really we need to develop a larger vision.  It’s premature to be raising funds and developing programs until we’ve done a greenhouse gas inventory and actually come up with some high level county-wide goals.

Jones: Yes, we should extend EnergySmart.  Of course we’ve got to be evidence based, but there’s a lot of good data showing that energy efficiency really is the most cost effective way to go about reducing GHG emissions.  It might be more important to make sure that the city’s Climate Action Plan tax passes this time araound, but I think we can do them both if the city and the county collaborate on their messaging.  We also need to move forward on a county-wide zero-waste plan, and on changing our transportation system emissions.  We need to think carefully about what the right division of labor between the city and county is on these things.

How should we be paying to maintain the roads in the unincorporated subdivisions within the county?  Should it come out of the county general fund?  Should we tell the residents to do it themselves via improvement districts?  Should the county do the work and bill the residents for it?

Jones: The county has a bad track record here.  Lots of people didn’t realize that these roads were not the county’s responsibility.  The county absolutely does not have the money to take on this maintenance right now.  We need to work with the residents to figure out  the most economical way for them to invest in their own infrastructure.  There are more than 100 subdivisions in the unincorporated portions of the county.  Our role at this point is probably just to facilitate the conversation among them about how to get the work done as cost effectively as possible.  And the sooner we can do that the better, because as the road quality degrades it just gets more and more expensive to fix it.

Sanfaçon: I live in the unincorporated county, so I’m intimately familiar with this issue.  The way these maintenance responsibilities have been allocated since 1996 really isn’t appropriate, but they’re not going to change now.  We can’t take the money from the general fund — it just isn’t there.  I think the county needs to do more listening.  We probably aren’t going to be able to make all of these folks happy; really there’s no way we can.

At this point, the forum moved on to questions from the audience, which had been written up on 3×5 cards, and handed in to the moderator.

Do you think current county energy policies are effective?  What would you change?

Jones: I think we’ve been a leader.  Our property assessed clean energy (PACE) program was a national model, until it was shut down by the Federal Housing Finance Agency.  Our congressional delegation is working on getting the program back up and running in DC.  Removing the up-front financing issues with clean energy and energy efficiency investments can be done at close to a net-zero cost to the government.  We’ve also got to figure out how to do solar gardens (small scale, shared solar generation facilities) so that those who don’t own their own homes, or who don’t have good siting for solar can still participate.  We’ve also got to make sure that all the cities in the county actually enforce the energy efficiency provisions in our building codes.

Sanfaçon: I fought hard to make sure that the BuildSmart regulations were enforced on the homes built to replace those destroyed by the Fourmile Fire.  And again, we need to develop a broader vision for our long term energy goals within the county.  Another thing we could work on is streamlining the rooftop solar permitting process.  It should be an over-the-counter transaction, not a month long headache to get a project approved.

Should the County Commission always have a resident of Boulder on it?

Sanfaçon: I’m definitely running to represent the entire county, though I’ll admit that the mountain people have been very enthusiastic at the prospect of being directly represented on the commission.

Jones: Our job really will be to represent the entire county.  Yes, it’s never been the case that the commission hasn’t had a Boulder resident on it, but I doubt that the entire City Council has endorsed me just because they want representation from someone who lives within the city limits.

You (Jones) once wrote that we should “collaborate” with the oil and gas industry, given some conditions.  Is that really still possible at this point?

Jones: We unfortunately cannot get rid of the gas drilling today.  We absolutely do need the gas for a while, at least as a way of firming renewables, until we get cheap, utility scale electrical storage developed.  What I said to the gas industry was, rather than fighting the communities they do business in tooth and nail, they need to work with them, and submit to much more comprehensive regulations that effectively minimize the harm that gas production does.

Sanfaçon: I keep hearing you say that drilling is unstoppable, and I’m just not willing to give up yet.

Jones: We all use natural gas, and it’s got to come from somewhere.  Satisfying that demand with gas from elsewhere just shifts the burden onto some other community.  Yes, we’ve got to get off gas as fast as possible, but until we’re actually off of it, the best we can do is to regulate it effectively!

Closing remarks:

Sanfaçon: The primary election on June 26th will decide who becomes the county commissioner.  There is no republican candidate.  We need to build a vision, a strategic plan for the county.  I’ve taken the strongest position on these key environmental issues.  I’ve lived in the county for 21 years, worked for the county for 4 years, and been campaigning for the last 15 months.  I’ve done a lot of listening, and I know Boulder County.

Jones: The difference here is Talk vs. Action.  I’m not making promises I can’t keep.  I’ve got 20 years of experience.  I’ve worked on 130 different laws at the state level.  I’ve been an executive for a state wide organization.  No county commissioner or former county commissioner is endorsing Garry, and the entire city council is endorsing me, as well as representative Jared Polis, and state representative Claire Levy.  I’ve already worked with these folks plenty, and hope you’ll let me continue doing so as county commissioner.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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