Rebecca will continue to add issue specific viewpoints and videos to this page. To get started, these are her responses to the Montezuma county commissioner positions questions posed to all for candidates from The Journal and in their Election Selection…
What is your motivation for seeking this position?
I love Montezuma County. I want to serve all of its people and help the area sustain us through current and future generations.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein.
What qualifications do you believe make you a good fit for this position?
My background has led me to this moment to guide our county toward a bright future we can build together with local resources and local solutions.
I’ve participated in and led too many local community projects to list here, including work with many boards. I have worked in wildfire preparedness and response, local planning, archaeology, nonprofit leadership, and local service businesses. Since graduating from M-CHS, I’ve earned a B.A. in Anthropology from Fort Lewis College and an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Colorado. I’m young enough to have grown up here during the information age and old enough to know the value of a handshake. I intend to serve full-time as a commissioner.
In your opinion, what challenges are the most important to address? And how do you plan to address those issues?.
On top of individual economic hardships, a projected CO2 bust cycle and public budget cuts make it essential to support local businesses and diversify industry, tourism, and agriculture.
The comprehensive plan for Montezuma County is 25 years old and collecting dust on a shelf. It’s time to build a new, shared vision to align policies, programs, and the county budget to support our future needs and desires. This includes stewarding the land, water, and economy that sustain us.
I will strive to make our county a great place to work and support staff on their initiatives to improve department service delivery.
These are very challenging times for a lot of people in our community when it comes to jobs, food, and housing security, impossible choices between staying employed versus protecting family, and fear of being admonished for wearing or not wearing a mask.
As we work our way out of the current crisis, the community deserves a leader who respects ALL people and will work hard and listen deeply to understand diverse perspectives and make decisions that serve the whole community.
Promoting agriculture and economic development are often touted as candidate priorities. What examples or ideas do you have on how to accomplish these goals?
We need economic development that supports our community, not big box stores with absentee owners. Economic development must support existing local businesses and industries and build new ones that bring money into the community from outside.
I have been engaged in economic development efforts since 2006 when I attended the only meeting where county, Ute tribal, city and town leaders all sat down together. That meeting spurred the development of the Montezuma Community Economic Development Council. Over a decade of hard, collaborative effort with community leaders and business owners which had supported local business growth and broadband expansion was torn down by Montezuma county commissioners. It doesn’t have to be that way. I strongly support county engagement in the more recent tri-city chamber efforts.
Agriculture is a key industry that has a huge impact on our quality of life and in promoting open views and healthy forests while also providing a buffer from global supply disruptions. Some of our biggest opportunities are in sustainable agricultural products, including wood processing and manufacturing businesses and value-added agricultural products such as canned beans, apple juice, and beef jerky. Our community’s security is dependent on water security, and I will engage in regional efforts to maintain local water rights and improve the health of our watersheds.
Renewable energy (solar, wind, biomass, and micro-hydro) is another industry where Montezuma County could easily be an exporter. There are many policy barriers to renewable energy development. I will work with our electric cooperatives and state and federal energy regulators and policy makers toward overcoming these barriers.
What government or life experience qualifies you to be a Montezuma county commissioner?
I have been a registered voter in my district for over a year. Beyond the minimum qualifications, I have been fortunate to grow up, get my education, work, start a family, and play in the heart of the Four Corners. When elected, I intend to serve full-time as a commissioner. I am committed to our community and the health and well-being of the people, the resources that sustain us, and an economy we can depend on.
I’m a young(ish) mother who knows many movers and shakers within and beyond our community. I work hard and listen deeply to understand diverse perspectives which will help me serve the whole community. And all registered voters in the county can vote for me regardless of your district.
I have always been an engaged agent of progress. My Anthropology interest and pursuits reflect my deep respect for culture and history and also instilled my desire to chart a better course forward in my community. This interest led me to a masters degree in “New Directions in Politics and Public Policy.” I was immersed in land use planning for three years, serving Montezuma County, the Town of Mancos, and the City of Cortez. I’m most proud of my facilitation and writing of the Cortez Comprehensive Plan and the graphic 2020 vision for the City of Cortez. I also understand the challenges of long-range planning and short-term land use code implementation in one- and two-person departments.
As I began raising a family with my husband, Joe, I transitioned out of local government service and began contracting with non-profit organizations. In the past nine years, I have focused on community wildfire preparedness. I expanded the scope of this work from bringing Montezuma County neighborhoods together, to supporting Weber Fire recovery, and convening the Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative. I love the fire work, even supporting wildland fire response with the Dolores Volunteer Fire Protection District and learning how to safely use fire as a tool on my 40 acres.
In addition to my ties and experience in the community, I have been part of a network focused on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of wildfire preparedness work across the nation. Since 2018, I’ve served as the Executive Director, Network Coordinator and Financial Manager of the statewide network, Fire Adapted Colorado. I’ve seen a network approach expedite community wildfire readiness throughout the state and country.
Leveraging our community assets and community connections should be a new approach for addressing the many issues that impact our community.
When I’m not tied up with county business, you’ll find me with my family: gardening, hiking, enjoying a dip at a local reservoir, cross-country skiing, taking my .30 .30 for a walk-in the woods for that special week in the fall, doing a CrossFit workout, or volunteering for the Dolores Volunteer Fire Protection District, Dolores Elementary School, Wildfire Adapted Partnership, or the Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative.
What do you see as the role of a Montezuma county commissioner, and what are some of your priorities? How would you describe your governance style?
As a commissioner, I will work on a process with the other commissioners, staff, municipalities, Ute Mountain Ute nation, and community organizations to understand the collective will of the people who call Montezuma County home. A long-range plan for the county is 25 years old, and the efforts made toward that plan have been largely stripped away by recent and current commissioners. With a shared vision, we can better align policies, programs, and the county budget to support our future needs and desires. I will strive to make our county a great place to work and support staff on their initiatives to improve department service delivery.
I’m an ideas person who inherently sees opportunities to address underlying problems. I am not afraid to suggest or try a new approach, but I generally test a new strategy at a trial scale. I seek network solutions looking to others who have handled similar situations to inform our own local solutions. I encourage residents to get engaged on the issues most important to them and to work toward win-win solutions.
No single person is going to change the trajectory of where we are headed. A Montezuma county commissioner must serve the long-term best interests of the entire county even through difficult times. One must also understand and follow policies and make decisions on everything from the county budget to events at the fairgrounds.
What are the pros and cons of the current commissioners’ leadership style and actions?
Pros – The commissioners care about many aspects of this place and want to serve their community. I appreciate current District 3 representative, Commissioner Suckla, raising issues to higher levels of government and elevating our county’s voice around issues he believes in. I also admire his desire for more action and less talk, though sometimes you have to “go slow to go fast”. Commissioner Candelaria has been a voice of reason.
Cons – There is no vision or effort at long-range planning from our commissioners. Outgoing commissioners have participated in efforts as a token representative, nodding agreement, remaining silent, or not showing up, then tearing down what has often been built through years of hard work and collaboration, such as the Montezuma Community Economic Development Association and the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group. For the past eight years, commissioners have dismantled and ignored the few county policies that arose out of the County Comprehensive Plan. The county governance has persistently hoped for different results from the same old thinking and tactics.
At worst, commissioner micromanagement, cut holidays, ignoring expertise, and no cost-of-living increase in six years has eroded employee morale and caused great employees to leave. Formulating final opinions without taking into account all or best available info, blaming rather than finding common ground, and questionably self-serving policy and staff directives have contributed to a less productive and representative leadership than this county deserves.
Governance can be a rocky road when there is disagreement. How would you deal with a controversial topic or tough decision where there is strong debate and emotion on all sides about the best approach?
I start by looking for common ground and work within the rules and regulations to make a decision that supports the long-term best interest of the most citizens. I would listen to different viewpoints to try to understand the specific issues and base my decisions off of the best available information. If something is well within the rules and there are still many negative feelings and dissent about a decision, we would need to look at amending our policies to align with the desires of our citizens, including the silent majority who may not attend a public hearing. I’ll make a motion to table a decision to gather more information and community input if a decision is not clear.
The Montezuma county commissioners make final decisions on land-use applications based on the county land use code. Have you read the land use code?
I have read the current code… which provides very little direction for how we want the county to develop. The county has not had the capacity to implement much of what was built into the land-use code as recommendations of the 25 year-old comprehensive plan and other community engagement processes. As a result, many build first and ask for forgiveness later. This unintentionally punishes those who consult the county and follow the code. Past and current commissioners have been eroding very deliberately, collaboratively developed plans rather than figuring out ways to improve the implementation and enforcement of well-reasoned policies.
I worked in the planning departments for Montezuma County, Mancos and Cortez from 2006-2009, initiating a regional planning group to support our professional development. In a small government, a professional network is helpful for understanding opportunities and consequences of various land-use approaches.
If there were a Heavy Industrial application request in an agricultural area with substantial agricultural and residential opposition, how would you handle the situation?
Property rights are paramount, but should not infringe on the rights of your neighbors. We can do a better job providing incoming landowners information about county zones and land use policies. If a property is already zoned for the proposed industrial use and the development standards can be met, it is ultimately the neighbors responsibility to know the allowable development pattern where they live. If the property is not zoned for the industrial use, I would prefer to see a rezoning request.
For a rezoning or a simpler High Impact Permit process, our code includes notification to neighboring residents and a public comment period to allow them to weigh in on how a proposed development may impact them. If there is reason to believe the new use will impose on the rights of the neighboring landowners in ways that cannot be reasonably mitigated and there are other more suitable locations for the industrial development, I would guide the industry to a different location if possible.
We need to align our county land use code with a comprehensive plan for community development, including creating some certainty about potential land uses in an area and a more robust public engagement process.
If there were an application for a new oil or gas well near a residential subdivision whose residents have concerns regarding the construction process and hazards, how would you handle the situation?
Our policies have room to consider all impacts of a proposed land use and there are often reasonable ways to mitigate neighboring concerns. As Commissioner, I will advocate for a process that engages neighboring residents earlier through more robust public notice, mailing notice to more neighboring landowners and recommending that land-use applicants talk with their neighbors about their proposal when they first contact the planning office. There is also a need to review updated mineral development policies from the state to ensure our county land use decisions align with policies adopted by the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
The current county commission supports completion of the 17-mile Paths to Mesa Verde trail connecting Mancos and Cortez, and has obtained grant funding for final planning. Would you support moving forward on this project?
New trails should be for the local community first. We need local control over how we design, build, use and maintain a new trail. I support a trail linkage between Mancos, Mesa Verde, the Fairgrounds, and Cortez. In fact, I dug up the original plans for such a trail with Jay Harrington when he was Cortez’s City Manager, and convened the initial discussion with City, County, Mesa Verde, and Mancos decision makers to consider pursuing the project again. I am excited that the old plans are off the shelf and there has been a great deal of public engagement to define what kind of trail the community wants.
It is naive to think that a 17 mile trail won’t cost anything including for long-term maintenance, but I also think that the current bids that have come back for engineering are outrageous. We need to secure good right-of-ways, focus on trails that will truly be multi-use, and determine a trail surface that will meet ADA accessibility closer to key public access points. If the county can secure the right-of-way, minimize use of CDOT ROW and minimize road and waterway crossings, I believe we can leverage grants with a small local investment to create a great new trail.
Trails increase surrounding property values. They can also connect visitors with local products and services if trailheads give ample information and encouragement to spend money in the community.
The county commission has banned retail and commercial marijuana operations in the unincorporated county. Do you support this ban, why or why not?
I was surprised at the ban on commercial growing in a community that prides itself on agricultural production, though I agree with the initial reaction to wait to see how industry challenges get worked out before opening production in a border county. There is a lot more experience today to guide any changes to this ban. I support the ban on retail sales as there are a plethora of shops in the local city and towns and the county would receive very limited revenues from state sales tax. I wouldn’t consider changing these bans unless a proposal came forward that was able to address all of the concerns of law enforcement and neighboring landowners.
What should the county commission do to help to protect the community from the COVID-19 virus?
The Montezuma County Commissioners should show leadership in establishing new norms and should not promote dichotomous tensions or pretend to be health experts. Montezuma County is a statutory county and must follow and support the policies of the state. Commissioners are statutorily responsible for the health, safety and welfare of the citizens.
The county commission should listen to and support the recommendations of experts and health officials and make informed decisions. Commissioners should demonstrate and help the community adapt to necessary new ways of doing business. We have some excellent public health staff that have been doing a tremendous job trying to protect our community. We should not sacrifice the vulnerable among us just because we want things to be ‘normal’ again.
Kinder Morgan’s CO2 production provides more than 50% of the county tax base. What suggestions do you have to replace that tax revenue and job base when the CO2 resources begin to decline?
CO2 extraction is a boom bust industry founded on non-renewable resources, but it will be an important part of our landscape for a long time to come. We are likely looking at a drop in tax revenues in 2022 from the current production downturn associated with global market pressure. This will affect all county and special district services. We are going to have to tighten our belts and focus on maintaining services rather than carrying out long-range projects, while simultaneously working to support local businesses and base industries. We may also consider new revenue sources such as a sales tax that can distribute the cost of services among visitors and locals.
Montezuma County does not collect a sales tax. There has been discussion in recent years to ask the voters for a 1% sales tax. Do you support this idea, why or why not? Would you support putting this tax question on the ballot?
I support a county visioning process to map out our community values and what we want to maintain and improve in our county as a basis for any ballot proposal to adopt a countywide sales tax. If voters were to consider a sales tax, it could be structured so it doesn’t add tax to essential goods such as food. Some communities even offer rebates back to locals on their sales tax to incentivize other desirable actions.
Colorado open meeting laws require adequate public notice be given any time two or more commissioners meet to discuss county government business, including through email and phone communication. Will you comply with this law?
Of course. I can say hello to a fellow commissioner at an event of mutual interest, but we cannot discuss county business together without public notice since two of us would make a quorum. I will abstain from phone calls with other commissioners. I will be diligent to make sure we don’t discuss items during an executive session that should be part of the public record.
Will you be transparent about potential conflicts of interest and abstain from voting on decisions where you have a conflict of interest?
Yes! County Commissioners should avoid a conflict of interest when we have a financial, personal or private interest in a matter. If there is a perceived conflict of interest, I will recuse myself and leave the room, as appropriate, during discussion and decision making. We should also consider placing confidentiality walls between ourselves and the purchasing process to help remove personal bias from purchasing decisions.
Tell us a little more about yourself.
My dad, Everett Whitehead, a U.S. Army and NPS law-enforcement veteran, moved us to Mesa Verde before I turned one. My mom, Sue, provided speech therapy in Montezuma and nearby Diné schools. They instilled in me the values of service to others and community involvement.
I grew up, got an education, and am blessed to be raising two sons here with my husband, Joe. He keeps the kids learning and growing, the garden green, meat in the freezer, vehicles running, and owns a residential inspection business. We live south of Summit Ridge in the home my parents built after moving down from the park in 1995.