Neal Schwieterman believes that society works best when people give back to their community. For him, giving back to Paonia, where he moved to seek a more peaceful place for his family, has meant almost 12 years of service to the Paonia Board of Trustees.
Before arriving in the North Fork Valley, Schwieterman worked 11 years for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department. After his experience as a first responder to the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, he and wife Liane, who discovered the area in her work as a geologist, moved to Paonia. He joined the Police Department, patrolling the streets on bicycle from 1999 to 2003. In December 2003 he was appointed to the town board after a trustee resigned. In 2004 he lost a race for mayor by 16 votes, which isn't uncommon, he said. A lot of trustee seats turn on fewer than 20 votes.
In 2005, the mayor resigned and he was appointed to the seat. In 2008 and 2012 he ran unopposed for mayor. Due to term limits, he will complete his service at the April 12 board meeting.
People often ask how he remained in town government for so long. "My personality type allows me to do these kinds of things, and if that's the gift I have, then I should utilize it for the benefit of the community," he said. "Most of us have the capability, and you give at the time of life when you're most capable."
Schwieterman also wanted to demonstrate the importance of service to daughter Katya, who was 2 when he first ran for office and is now in eighth grade. She recently told him she doesn't remember a time when he wasn't mayor.
"I really didn't want to run a second time," he admits. He also didn't want a new mayor appointed, and when he urged others to run, "They turned and ran the other way."
Schwieterman, who is known for his unrestrained style of running meetings, compares his service as mayor to working in law enforcement. Both involve de-escalating of tension, keeping the peace, giving the other person a chance to state his case, and getting people to work through their differences.
"I would rather talk with somebody for as long as it takes than fight with them, because it's just not worth it," said Schwieterman. "Nobody wins." By allowing people to speak, even if they're wrong, "...they'll turn around and let you put handcuffs on them."
Being mayor isn't easy, but as with law enforcement, it's rewarding. "It's a small town. You really can see the effect of your work." He didn't mind putting in the extra time outside of meetings to talk with people, except when it came to family time. "You can really help people and make an impact, but it's hard to grocery shop," he said.
He quickly found that dealing with the diversity of citizen opinions was difficult to manage. It also works in the town's favor when everybody stays civil and works through those differences. "Then it's easier to find solutions." The best solutions often came when differing opinions were the strongest. He noticed early in his career that the very people he was at odds with often came up with the best solutions, many he wishes he would have thought of himself. Over the years, those people were the ones he turned to for advice on the most divisive of issues. He knew he had to listen, even if he disagreed.
"To come up with that really critical, middle-of-the-road piece that appeals to both sides, it's way easier to dig your heels in and start yelling than it is to sit down, have a civil conversation and work with the other person," he said.
Schwieterman recalls his time on the board with humility. "You have to take your ego and leave it in the back room," he said. "If you notice, many people have very, very strong feeling in this town . . . I know how they feel. Especially if there's no trust, it's hard to start talking. But that's what you have to do."
Early on there was a lot of fighting between board members, which was also played out in the media. One early situation involved differing opinions over an annexation. Both sides had the same end goal, but different ways to get there. One side held a successful recall of the annexation, "which was, to me, a horrible outcome for two sides that wanted the same thing."
When people did start working together, "there was a host of projects that just happened." One was the beautification of Grand Avenue's Poulos Park, which the Paonia Rotary Club chose for its Centennial Project. The town helped with in-kind work, and "In a relative instant it helped beautify downtown."
The Paonia Library, formerly located at 2nd and Grand, had outgrown its space, and the library board was struggling to find a new location. In what Schwieterman called a "genius" idea, trustee Ron Rowell suggested a town-owned camp site on Third Street just east of the Samuel Wade Bridge. The town took a little while to come on board, eventually donating the land for the library. The in-kind value was used to leverage grants.
Vacant town property adjacent to the library that the town had acquired during the 1983-84 flooding was also identified as an ideal location for a pocket park.
"You can't call the library anything but a resounding success," said Schwieterman. "The library transformed half the entrance into town into a symbol of learning."
KVNF, which had also outgrown its tiny Grand Avenue space, transformed an old and inefficient building a few doors away into a state-of-the-art facility. Both the library and KVNF buildings met the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) design standards. "Suddenly the town had two buildings that were cutting edge."
A citizens' group also spearheaded construction of the Paonia Town Park playground next to the gazebo and stage that years before had been proposed by then council member Zach Mann.
"I submit to you that the face of this town changed with those projects," said Schwieterman, "and none of them were my ideas. Many of them weren't even council ideas. But give the public the freedom to present their ideas and look what it can do. If you unleash that potential, look what it can do for your town."
Schwieterman joined the effort to save the Paradise Theatre when it faced closure in 2013, suggesting it was a brilliant idea for the town to own it. "One of the legal things you can do on a dark winter night is go to a movie or to an event at the theater," he said. After discussing it with his advisors, he realized it was unrealistic, "and it's probably for the best." The group went on to form Friends of Paradise Theatre and the Paradise is now a hub of cultural activity.
While he was on the board, the town went through big changes, not the least of which was the decision to do away with the town manager position when mineral severance taxes began shrinking. But the dark cloud over his service "would be the whole Chesnik thing." The former town finance officer was found guilty of embezzling almost $400,000. "She betrayed the trust of the town," he said. "All of us regret it."
Schwieterman said she was very smart, fooling 20 trustees, three town managers, finance committees, and for a time, the town auditor. It eventually became too big for her to manage and the auditor discovered the theft.
While he can't discuss details, he called the lawsuit by former town clerk Barbara Peterson, which remains in litigation, an example of what happens when people can't communicate. "It would be nice if, in a small town, everybody puts differences aside and works things out," said Schwieterman. He said the suit will impact those involved for the rest of their lives. "To me, that's unacceptable."
Schwieterman ends his term on a good note. At his last full meeting on March 22, he gave a presentation on a project involving several parties working together to find a solution to an otherwise sticky problem. Trustees also unanimously approved the naming of the gazebo for the late Howard Berkman, a beloved local musician and personal friend.
Schwieterman admits that he wouldn't seek re-election if he wasn't term-limited. "There's an extent to which you can give, and I probably exceeded that," he said. He's optimistic about the town's future and points to nine candidates running for three board seats this election cycle, where in the past there was never even two people running for every seat, as a sign that people care and want to get involved.
Now he's looking forward to a break. Between his law enforcement work and his service to the town, he's been busy just short of 30 years. "I joke that that's 30 years of listening to people complain," he said.
"So as I end this, the whole family is ending this," he said. They plan to remain in Paonia, despite the difficulties of finding work in a bear economy. "You have to want to be here, and you really have to want to be here to stay here long-term because it's hard to make a living," he said. He'll shift his energy to The Nature Connection, a grant-funded initiative through the Delta County School District Foundation designed to allow school kids in Delta County and Olathe more time in the out-of-doors.
Schwieterman is quick to credit his ability to serve the community, and to be a stay-at-home dad to Katya, to Liane, his wife of 18 years and partner of 20. "It's through my wife's ability to work, and it's through her generosity of taking on responsibility of being the income-earner that I could be a stay-at-home dad, which is the best and hardest job I've ever done," he said. " I have her to thank for that."