SAGUACHE — Candidates made one of their last rounds of appearances at the Cozy Castle Theater in Saguache Tuesday evening to debate a series of questions submitted by residents and state their positions on key issues.
The event opened with Sheriff Dan Warwick, who appeared alone on the stage. His opponent, sheriff’s candidate Nobel Havens, canceled at the last moment.
When asked about pursuing illegal grows and policing legal grows, Warwick said the state is in the process of changing its regulations and the main concern regarding illegal grows at the moment are those growing at home who are exceeding the 12-plant count limit. He said the public is the sheriff’s office biggest ally in addressing larger grows, encouraging residents to report what they see to law enforcement.
The county will soon have a full-time code enforcement officer and will call in the sheriff’s office if any criminal violations are discovered. He reminded residents that while it may appear that some grows are exceeding their limit, if they are medical grows with the proper county permission they may grow additional plants and still remain legal.
The sheriff’s office is policing Saguache and is working to better patrol Crestone, Warwick said. He believes his staff is receiving adequate training but would like to see more training opportunities. Unfortunately, not much funding for training is available from the state, especially for rural law enforcement agencies, and this will need to be addressed by the state legislature, he told the audience.
When asked about current relations between the commissioners and the sheriff’s office, Warwick said they have improved recently, but he and the commissioners still do not see eye-to-eye on funding issues and commissioners tend to view him as “an angry individual.” Warwick invited citizens to visit him in his office any time just to talk, or and take a tour of the facilities.
County clerk candidates
County Clerk Trish Gilbert and clerk’s candidate Rene Hazard took the stage, with Hazard telling the crowd that she “loves deadlines” and thinking of new ways to address any problems that would arise in the course of her service should she be elected county clerk.
Gilbert described her efforts to update services at the clerk’s office with new online motor vehicle registration system that is especially helpful for veterans and older seniors. She also mentioned the recent installation of new recording equipment, funded by a grant and said she hopes to receive a second grant to install an indexing system if elected as clerk.
She also emphasized that everyone in her office is a team player and she and her employees put customers first. As for better open records policies, Gilbert said her office is streamlining the open records process and prefers to simply grant customer requests for records rather than require them to go through the process of a formal open records request.
Hazard noted that most records are online, with recording of commissioner meetings and meeting minutes available on the county website. Since the Colorado Open Records Act is a state statute, Hazard said, as clerk she would follow the law and do what she had to do.
Gilbert said she also posts her “Clips from the Clerk” column each week to help keep the public informed about clerk’s office activities. Hazard stressed the need to update technology-wise, and Gilbert noted her office has made several technological advances over the past several months.
As to fair and open elections, Gilbert said all her employees, save one, are trained and 100 percent certified to run elections and the new voting machines eliminates the need for as many election judges as previously employed. All judges who participate, however, are also properly trained, she added.
Hazard says she would invite party chairs to participate and the public should feel free to come in and observe the election process, see how ballots are kept secret and ask questions. She added that she has “a huge passion for elections.”
Both women agreed that the Colorado voting system is safer than most regarding any cybersecurity threat, but Gilbert observed the threat is still real. Hazard said she doesn’t believe there is voter fraud in the county, but Gilbert noted that one instance of an unverified signature was reported to the district attorney’s office during the last election.
Gilbert said she has 20 years of experience in budget management and knows the process, has been trained in the new voting system and has made significant changes in the office since she took over as clerk in January. Hazard said she has the stamina to keep up with the fast pace of the office and knows she can do the job if elected.
Commissioner candidate debate
Veterans Terry Gillette and Lisa Rosen and lifelong Saguache County resident and current county commissioner Tim Lovato took the stage to discuss issues facing commissioners. One of the first questions asked is whether there is nepotism and cronyism among commissioners and county employees and Lovato denied this existed at the courthouse. Policy updates have assured this is not a problem going forward, he said.
Gillette stressed that only the most qualified candidates for positions should get jobs and Rosen suggested commissioners move to a more modern process where greater scrutiny for job candidates is received both from those in higher and lower county positions.
Safety of county residents should be a high priority, all candidates agreed, with Rosen stating money should be diverted from safety funds only if something catastrophic occurs.
Lovato told listeners that the commissioners cannot use the proposed sales tax increase on the ballot this November for anything other than urgent public safety needs, pointing to a recent clarification in the Center Post-Dispatch. If the sales tax proposal passes, he added, it would provide $300,000 to $400,000 in additional funds for law enforcement and safety issues.
Increased excise tax collection also will help augment safety funds available, and Gillette and Rosen demanded that the property tax collection issue should be addressed to also add money to county coffers. Lovato said increased assessments by County Assessor Peter Peterson have added $10 million in taxable properties.
Gillette told Lovato some experts suggest the county is not collecting as much in funds as it should be. Rosen said she would act more aggressively to address this, since it seems a lot of money is not accounted for. She suggested better utilizing sales tax grants and going after opioid abuse grants to help public health and the sheriff’s office address that problem.
She also suggested better use of vacant property in the county to bring in revenue, and Gillette agreed there is a lot of real estate in the county that could be used more efficiently. Lovato pointed out that the county brought in $118,000 in county-owned property last year.
Gillette stated that unless housing is developed for low income families it will be hard to draw anyone to the county for economic development. Rosen suggested public partnerships could be forged and advised the county should “get creative” in providing additional housing.
Both Gillette and Rosen also agreed that something should be done about fund for transportation of veterans who cannot receive adequate medical and other services in the Valley.
Lovato contends that the county has increased transparency over the years with the recording of meetings, also open bidding on county jobs and properties. Rosen said she recently searched the county’s website and could not find minutes for September, adding that if someone has to search for something, it is not readily available. She recommended livestreaming of commissioner and other meetings and posting shared calendars.
When questions were asked about improvements in county services and operations, Lovato pointed to the recent hiring of a new administrator and human resources person for the county to help address the existing problems mentioned. Gillette noted there needs to be better networking, and a separate board of health not governed by commissioners was suggested by Rosen, with actual health experts on the board.
All agreed there is a need to increase interest in county affairs among county residents and get them involved in helping to find solutions to issues currently facing the county. They urged county residents to get people out to vote and become involved in their communities.