Three candidates are hoping to bring an end to the Republican-dominated Delta County Board of County Commissioners. Two are Democrats who call themselves men of ideas; the third is an independent candidate who says he's frustrated by the "status quo."

Democrat Jere Lowe is facing Republican incumbent Mark Roeber in the District 3 race. In District 2, incumbent Bruce Hovde is term limited. That leaves the race open to Democrat Travis Mills, Republican Don Suppes and Mark Eckhart, the independent candidate.

All five shared the stage at a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Delta County Republican Women last week.

The one-hour forum began with opening comments from each candidate.

Don Suppes, a lifelong resident and local business owner, described himself as a fiscal conservative who gained valuable experience as mayor of Orchard City. "I always looked out for the best interest of the citizens and I plan to do that as a county commissioner," he said.

Travis Mills cited his "concrete, real working experience" in a bipartisan role with federal, state, county and city entities to revitalize economies. He said his vision is to create incentives to attract businesses, protect our water rights, boost ag tourism, promote our unique agricultural exports to the Eastern Slope, support river development and promote the space to create initiative, all in a fiscally responsible manner.

Jere Lowe operates an organic farm and an agriculture supply store. "When we first bought our property 10 1/2 years ago, I had no idea Delta County was one of the poorest counties in Colorado. How could it be? There's simply no logical reason why Delta County shouldn't be one of the most prosperous counties in Colorado due to its resources, our hardworking people and our can-do attitude."

Mark Eckhart is a former professional fireman who now owns and operates Long Haul Products, which manufactures folding sea kayaks and canoes to civilian and military users around the world. He is in his sixth year on the DMEA board of directors, which he says has given him experience in dealing with political issues.

Mark Roeber is running for re-election. "As we transition to a new normal, I feel it will take a steady hand, conservative fiscal practices and coolheadedness." A rancher, he is a graduate of Paonia High School and a lifetime resident of Delta County. "I serve the community because I feel it's important," he said.

Moderator Aaron Clay posed the first question from the audience: The Delta County Planning Commission is working on revising the county zoning regulations. What would you like to see the planning commission accomplish?

Suppes said agriculture should come first. It's also important to protect the livelihoods and the lifestyles of the county's longtime residents. A "cookie cutter" approach will not serve the diverse needs of county residents.

"Everybody is aware of the large lawsuits going on," Mills said. Rather than deal with each issue in a "piecemeal way," Mills said he believes an attorney should be hired to revamp the Master Plan, which was formulated in 1996. "A professional approach would save us millions on the back end," he said.

Lowe stressed citizen input, which he said may vary from district to district. One reason the Master Plan is being reworked, he said, is to allow confined animal feed operations, or CAFOs. "Let me say definitively there will be no CAFOs in the North Fork if I am elected county commissioner." He believes such operations would lower property values and affect quality of life.

Eckhart agreed citizen participation is critical to the Master Plan process. There may be a place for CAFOs in Delta County, he said, but regulations should be developed to protect citizens, their property and their health.

Roeber agreed the Master Plan will take everybody's involvement, and that's the intent. "I don't know that it has to be thrown out and completely rewritten, but it has to be updated," he said. "As far as looking beyond that, I think people have jumped beyond and are already drawing conclusions. People need to decide whether we look at zoning or not. We'll go through that when the time comes; the first step is the Master Plan."

The North Fork Alternative of the BLM Resource Management Plan was the focus of the next question. "Do you support the commissioners in submitting comments to the BLM in support of the North Fork Alternative and other protections from oil and gas?"

"I do support the BoCC having input," Mills said. Citizens needed to have input when the process was started 10 years ago, he stated. "I am completely against fracking in the North Fork. Fracking would completely devastate our ag producers."

Lowe said he also supports the North Fork Alternative. "Let me start by saying I will take our well-managed coal mines over fracking any day. That said, when it comes to the RMP I am taking a strict no oil and gas extraction position. Some places like the North Fork should be left wild no matter how much dirty energy is in the ground." Instead, Lowe said, he is asking the BLM to assign a wilderness designation to areas of the North Fork.

"We should not be fracking the North Fork," Eckhart agreed. He referred audience members to his promotional literature, in which he advocates a "sensible compromise" that would restrict fracking to about 7 percent of the BLM-Uncompahgre lands.

Roeber agrees with parts of the North Fork Alternative, but said as a whole the county should support BLM's mission of multiple use. "Granted, there are places they don't need to drill, but an overall policy of no extraction of any kind is, I think, irresponsible to the next generation and beyond. We have to find ways to work together and not set up lines of division right and left."

Suppes agrees there are some areas that should be off limits to drilling, "but I also agree we need to be responsible with those natural resources." He cited Delta County's efforts to ensure well safety by working with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. "I have faith Delta County will ensure wells go in the proper place, that we will make sure our water is clean ... but we also have to be responsible and understand this country is not ready to be done with fossil fuels. That is a naive concept."

All five candidates voiced support for DMEA initiatives to tap into renewable energy and to deliver high-speed internet to homes and businesses. Delta County has the resources to pursue energy independency, and broadband provides a ray of hope for economic development and job creation.

The next question went to a basic function of county government -- funding and maintaining roads and other infrastructure.

Mark Eckhart used the question as a jumping off point for a related issue -- "the mother of all bypasses." He said the county is acquiring right-of-way for a road project that would eventually extend Highway 65 from the intersection with Highway 92 down to just south of the technical college. It is not in Delta's best interest to divert tourist traffic around the downtown area, he said.

Getting back to the question, Mark Roeber said that prioritizing road improvements starts with public safety. Traffic counts, accident reports and budget restrictions all have to be taken into account.

Don Suppes advocated a scientific approach that takes into account future growth. The county may have to look at combining the efforts and resources of the three county road and bridge departments to meet future budget constraints.

A solid infrastructure is critical to job growth in the area, Mills said. He pointed out it's far cheaper to maintain roads than to let them degrade to the point where they have to be replaced. He returned to the issue of fracking, saying 18-wheelers running nonstop to drill sites will "tear our roads to pieces and I promise you we're going to be the ones paying for it."

Jere Lowe said roads, bridges, sidewalks and trails in Delta County have suffered from years of neglect and mismanagement. "Attracting employers and creating economic prosperity in Delta County will be pretty tough if we don't invest more in our infrastructure," he said, adding his pledge to be a better steward of tax dollars than previous county commissioners.

All five candidates said they support the property tax increase sought by the Delta County Ambulance District, although the question does not apply to the two candidates who are served by the North Fork Ambulance Service.

"It won't affect my pocket directly," Lowe said, "but that's how government works. They tax us a little, they provide us a service. Unlike a lot of Democrats, I support TABOR. I believe citizens should be asked every time they're going to get a tax increase."

In his closing comments, Lowe briefly outlined his ideas to invigorate Delta County's economy. "Staying the course is simply not an option for Delta County," he said. "The economic crisis we face requires action and fresh new ideas, and the concept of fresh new ideas simply does not align with voting Republican in Delta County."

Mills said this election is not about political afficiliation, it's about ideas. "This is about two people who can stand out from the nepotism and the musical chairs that our opponents happen to be members of. Basically you have three professional politicians up here running against two men with ideas who want to serve the community. Myself and Jere Lowe just happen to be those two men."

"The taxpayers in Delta County are going to be making an investment in someone here," Mark Eckhart said. "I can assure you I'm the guy with the new blood, with the new ideas." He talked about taking action to bust up the "pension deal" at DMEA and exposing its contracted tree trimming "scam." He continues to advocate for a swap of Confluence Drive and Main Street Delta, to get the trucks out of downtown Delta. "I understand no money will change hands on that deal, but we need to take action."

Mark Roeber talked about the knowledge and the relationships he's acquired in his first term in office. "This is not a job you step into and learn overnight," he said. "I learned for four years and if I continue I'm sure I'll learn for another four years." He talked about the difficult choices that lie ahead, urging caution "because you can throw away money real easy."

Don Suppes promised to be a public servant in the mold of his father, a longtime police officer for the City of Delta. He said his father taught him to treat everyone with decency and respect. "I know we can have disagreements and still be amicable ... still be proud members of Delta County."FROM PAGE A1

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