Six vie for three seats in Orchard City
By Rick Smith & Randy Sunderland
Published Wednesday, March 7, 2018 7:55 am
Orchard City voters will be filling three seats on the board of trustees in this municipal election. The election will be conducted by mail. Ballots will be mailed by mid-March and must be returned by Tuesday, April 3.
The three seats are currently held by Gary Tollefson, who was appointed in May 2016 to fill the balance of the term vacated by Ken Volgamore upon his election to mayor; Bob Eckels; and Tom Huerkamp, who was elected to a two-year term in April 2016. Eckels and Tollefson are seeking reelection.
All seats in this election are four-year terms.
The following are profiles of the candidates, in alphabetical order:
Mel Cook moved to Orchard City about six years ago to be near his children and grandchildren.
"When I arrived here I had $2,000 in my pocket and am now the owner of five thriving businesses," said Cook. These include an auto repair shop, towing service, an antique shop and restaurant operated by his wife, and has teamed up with Janell and Larry Dawson to do an auto wrecking yard.
"I have turned my vision of the needs of the community into successful businesses," he said.
He started his career in the automotive industry at 16. Beginning as a mechanic, he worked his way into a management position and ultimately into ownership of a shop in Spanish Forks near Salt Lake City. "I have a strong work ethic and try to lead by example for all my employees," he said.
When not working, or spending time with his family, Cook likes outdoor activities like hunting, fishing, camping and snowmobiling. "I also have a profound weakness for dogs, hot rods and muscle cars," he added.
"I am not a politician, but I am a businessman and I have learned that it is important to listen...," said Cook. "Isn't that what our politicians should be doing? Listening to problems that the community is having before trying to fix anything. That's what I plan on doing. I've already heard from ... fellow citizens about what they think is wrong with our town. I've been in the business of fixing problems for 30 plus years and I plan on bringing that attitude with me to the board. I'm concerned about the community's problems; not just those we have now but I want my children and their children to have a safe place to grow up and live as citizens."
He agrees with Jan Gage and Doug Keller that the town must find a solution to lower water rates. "We've got people on fixed incomes that simply cannot afford the new high rates. Next, we must transform our town board into one that is responsive to the needs of the community regardless of the issue. And last, we must make our local government work for the people of Orchard City and not against them. We must re-establish the trust of the people."
Cook believes the current board is not transparent to the community. "They appear to be doing things outside of the structure of 'open government.' Take the increase of water rates. When did our community ever have a voice in deciding how much the water rates would be?
"This board seems to have no interest in listening to the people and show little to no respect for those few citizens who do speak out at board meetings." He also noted reports of different answers coming from town employees and board members. "There needs to be better communication within our local government so that the employees and board members speak with one voice."
When asked how familiar he was with the rules and statutory requirements of a trustee, Cook said he is willing to learn and to lean on the more informed board members until he is up to speed. "However, this will not impede my bringing up concerns of the community," said Cook. "My sole purpose for getting on the board is to make our community a better place to live now and in the future."
Bob Eckels was elected to the board of trustees in 2014, and is seeking a second term. He is from Denver, working in the managed care industry. He is a licensed clinical social worker. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Colorado State University, and has attained a Masters degree.
His employment has taken him to South Dakota and in Colorado to Jefferson County and Rangely. He returned to the Denver area, due to his mother's health, and started ACTS Inc. and served as the chief financial officer of that organization.
He moved to Orchard City where he oversaw emergency services on the Western Slope and then as Director of Quality Services for the Center for Mental Health. "This was being in the right place at the right time," said Eckels. "I knew the area because my son and I fished in the area for a number of years. He is also licensed to sell insurance.
He added, "I started a business hydro seeding for landscape trees. I currently still sell trees and have an asparagus farm."
Eckels, in addition to having served as a trustee for the past four years, has served for several years with the Orchard City Planning Commission. He also brings customer service skills from working with the Center for Mental Health and other organizations. "I have strengths in dealing with complaints," said Eckels. "I will look into the issues and get back with you.
"I am big on decorum and civility, for both the citizens and my colleagues," said Eckels. "I strive to work for the greater good, and I believe I have done that."
He views continued services and financial stability as major priorities for the board. Other priorities are often dictated by the town's committees -- Eckels serves on the water and roads committees.
"As a trustee," he noted, "you have to make hard calls sometimes. I may need to support votes I may not agree with from time to time."
He is familiar with the regulations pertaining to the role of trustee, such as campaign finance. He has also received training through seminars offered through Colorado Municipal League. The statutes are clear and must be abided by, he noted.
"No business by the board is hidden behind a veil of secrecy," said Eckels. All meeting schedules are posted at the town hall and on the town's website.
He added that he has great respect for the mayor and trustees. Often, he said, trustees pay for their own expenses regarding research, time and travel. As an example, he cited Gary Tollefson paying for gas while out inspecting and traveling the 64 miles of roads in the town.
Eckels would like citizens to do their homework when they bring issues before the trustees. "They should submit a substantive history and cite sources other than their own. If possible, give historical references."
Jan Gage has called Orchard City home for more than 12 years. "About 35 years ago we visited good friends here in Orchard City and found ourselves falling in love with the area," she said. "As soon as I was able to set my retirement date, the hunt for our new home began ... we found the perfect location here in Orchard City."
Gage began her career in the paper and packaging business when she was 22 years old as an inventory clerk. She worked her way up through many positions, including sales management and vice president/division manager. Ultimately she was promoted to the company's corporate offices and went on to being responsible for the entire United States and Mexico.
"Running a town is much like running a business," explained Gage. "Trustees must make decisions that keep the town financially healthy, and that look after the well-being of citizens of the town. This is exactly what I did in the 36 years before my retirement.
"I am a strong leader and believe in complete transparency. I have no tolerance for dishonesty. These two things helped me to have a career that was successful and helped keep my employer financially healthy. That's exactly what we need here in Orchard City."
She also has "tremendous knowledge" in the area of water. As a former trustee, and as vice president of Orchard City Irrigation District, Gage has spent hundreds of hours getting educated about water, both municipal and irrigation. "This education has served me well," she noted.
A priority for Gage is trust. "I believe it is extremely important for trustees to be in tune with the public. To do that, one must know what the citizens want ... one must seek out citizens and then listen to their concerns and their ideas for improving the town," said Gage.about asking citizens for tax dollars when you're not prepared to show them everything you've done to reduce expenditures." She believes the town needs to work hard on cost reduction, and only then it is appropriate to consider new enterprises or taxes.
Gage said, "Because I feel so strongly about reaching out and successfully representing the citizens of our town, I am aligning with two other like-minded candidates: Mel Cook and Doug Keller. We believe if we dig into current expenditures and if we listen to the citizens, then we will be able to reduce water rates, forego asking the citizens for new unwarranted taxes and we will be able to accomplish what the citizens of Orchard City want to have accomplished."
She notes that most of the current board does not seem to listen to the citizens who come to them with problems or potential solutions. "They have now officially put a limit on how long a constituent may talk, which sends a strong message that the board doesn't really want to hear what folks have to say."
"The mayor and board of trustees are elected to represent the citizens of Orchard City," said Gage. "To best do that, they need to know what people are thinking about both problems and solutions. We have a lot of very smart people in this town. It only makes sense to listen to them."
Joe Garrod has been a resident of the Surface Creek area for 60 years, graduating from Cedaredge High School.
He has farm experience with fruit and cattle, 15 years as an electrician and five years as supervisor of Kroger Construction. He has also worked for many years in water management -- seven years as water administrator for Leon Lake and six years with Orchard City Irrigation District, primarily on Fogg Ditch.
His experience with construction and water are strengths that Garrod would bring to the board as trustee. "My construction and water experience, especially being on the water board, gives me a strong familiarity with water issues," said Garrod. "I am willing to work with people and get back to them with real answers when they call me with questions or problems."
A priority for Garrod as trustee would be to "get rid of the 'cookie' system where someone asks for a fudge cookie and is told, 'No. You can't have it.' So that person comes back and asks for another type of cookie."
He said, "I will listen to the concerns of the constituents and will be available to meet with them, and return phone calls."
Water is also a top priority.
Garrod believes the board members are doing the best they can, but there needs to be more communication with the citizens. "There is also fat in the current system that I believe can be trimmed, with the proper research," he added.
Law enforcement is also an issue. "There is no police force," said Garrod. He explained that Orchard City has access to enforcement through the Delta County Sheriff's Department, and it can take as long as 45 minutes for a deputy to respond. Normally, it is only a single officer to respond.
While not familiar with the regulations pertaining to the role of trustee, he is capable and willing to learn. He is willing to attend classes and seminars to learn. He is very familiar with water issues and regulations.
Doug Keller has been an Orchard City resident for 22 years, having moved his business to Austin in 1996.
He was born and raised in Montana. He earned a BA in humanities from the University of Montana, and returned to get a BS in accounting. He moved to Colorado in 1985, working as a staff auditor with a CPA firm which audited long-term care facilities for the state Department of Social Services. He was promoted to manager and acted as liaison between the firm, the state and the provider community. He went into business for himself in 1989 as a consultant to the provider community. He assisted long term care facilities in all aspects of financial operations, from establishing accounting systems and internal controls to year-end statements.
"My 20 plus years in long-term care made me an advocate for the elderly," said Keller.
"After working 20 to 25 years in the field of accounting," said Keller, "I can bring a new perspective to the board which will better enable them to understand and analyze the financial impact of their options. This includes not only how their decisions will affect the town coffers but, more importantly, the impact on the residents of Orchard City."
"Mel Cook, Jan Gage and I have formed an alliance," said Keller, "making our number one priority to uphold Article II, Section of the State Constitution ... that all political power is vested in the people.
"We believe together we can achieve the following: Lower water rates from the 25 percent plus increase which occurred in 2017; work to create a more welcoming environment for our town residents to more easily participate in our political process; and make the government work for and with the people."
He added, "With every decision we make we will remember that decisions made on the local level are not likely to change the world, but they are likely to change somebody's world and that somebody is living in our town."
Keller believes the current board of trustees is not in tune with the public. It also has a credibility issue. As an example, Keller said he repeatedly asked the board for a projected income from the new rates. The response was "either dead silence or some obfuscation about there being too many variables to make a prediction."
"They voted blindly without having any knowledge as to how much revenue the new rates would produce. They voted blindly without having any knowledge of the consequences of their action ... to me, the board completely abandoned their fiduciary responsibilities," said Keller.
Keller has worked to familiarize himself with town issues. Over the past year Keller has attended every regular board meeting and most of the board work sessions, and researched topics that were either brought before the board or brought up by the board.
"I have already proven my ability to work with different political entities through my years of working with the Colorado Department of Social Services, the Colorado Attorneys General Office and the Colorado Health Care Association," he said.
"Regardless of the outcome of the election, I will continue to speak out on behalf of the people."
Gary Tollefson was appointed to the Board of Trustees in May 2016 to fill the balance of the term vacated after Ken Volgamore was elected mayor.
Tollefson has lived in Orchard City since 1978.
A graduate of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology with a degree in civil engineering, thanks to a three-year stint in the U.S. Army. He said, "A stint in the U.S. Army allowed me to use the GI Bill to complete my education. My service included Germany and Vietnam." He is a life member of Post 9221 VFW of Cedaredge.
"My life work has been as a civil engineer, working for the U.S. Forest Service for 23 years and self employed since," said Tollefson. He has owned a home inspection business and an energy auditing business before retiring.
"I enjoyed the freedom of home ownership here without all the noise of Fort Collins," he said. "I stay here because this area is a little known secret. Many of us have stumbled upon this secret and been fortunate enough to stay."
After following the progress of the town for the past 40 years, Tollefson only recently dedicated the time to serve the community. As a trustee, he serves on the roads and parks committees.
"My priorities are to preserve the investment that taxpayers have made in our roads, and our beautiful and well used park," said Tollefson. He also puts a priority on the town's reserves. He prefers to increase revenues rather than borrowing for yearly maintenance. "Normal maintenance costs are increasing," he noted, "while revenues have decreased as severance taxed-based funds have all but disappeared. New revenue sources in the form of taxes are presently up for your review and approval at the April 3 municipal election."
As for town roads, Tollefson said the priority is on the roads which carry the most traffic. Failure to do the necessary maintenance on these roads now, which deteriorate at a higher rate due to use, will ultimately cost more to reconstruct later on. Topping the list of these roads include 2100 Road, Austin Road, North Road, Meyers Road, Fairview, Iris and Happy Hollow.
When asked about his familiarity of the rules and statutory requirements of a trustee, Tollefson said he took the oath of office, affirming that he will support the Constitution and laws of the United States and Colorado, and the ordinances of the Town of Orchard City. In addition he had training by the town attorney on the Colorado Municipal League Handbook on ethics, liability and best practices.
He also said, "Communication with all citizens is welcomed. I understand that everyone can not be in complete agreement, but everyone can be respectful, even in disagreement. It is a sign of faith in local government that people care enough to voice their opinions."