Commission candidates square off
White and Phelps discuss growth, land-use plan

by Amy Maestas

Wally White, 62

Occupation: Rancher, livestock transportation

Hobbies: Skiing, rafting, hiking, music

Car you drive: Volvo, Ford F-250

Favorite local restaurant: East by Southwest

Last book read: Under a Sickle Moon: A Journey Through Afghanistan by Peregrine Hodson

If a tape got stuck in your car stereo what would it be?: Charlie Musselwhite “Continental Drifter”

Famous figure you most identify with: Never thought about it.

Dream vacation: Sailing in the Caribbean

: Roger Phelps, 44

Occupation: Guest services director and facilities manager, Sky Ute Casino; general and electrical contractor, SWIFT Agriculture producer

Hobbies: Guitar, singing, skiing (water and snow), agriculture

Type of car you drive: Oldsmobile Alero, Suzuki Intruder motorcycle, Ford truck

Favorite local restaurant: Francisco’s

Last book read: La Plata County Land Use Code

If a tape got stuck in your car stereo what would it be?: AC/DC, Gretchen Wilson

Famous figure you most identify with: Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy

Dream vacation: South Seas, warm water with good friends and family

Two candidates with radically different backgrounds are currently trying to court La Plata County voters in a similar way. Democrat Wally White and Republican Roger Phelps, the two candidates vying for the District 3 position of La Plata County commissioner, are both courting voters by promising to insert fresh fingerprints on finishing touches of the county’s Land Use Code. But how fresh those imprints should be depends on the candidate.

The county is currently in the process of updating its Land Use Code – an effort that has been under way for the past few years.

Democrat Wally White believes that the county has to pass the Land Use Code soon – and make sure the code has regulatory potency. Because the Responsible Growth Initiative before Durango city voters could impact growth in the county, White says passing the document must come sooner than later. This is despite the fact that two out of the 10 planning districts in the county have not received county approval for their plans. White says although those plans are not yet acceptable, that should not hold up approval of the entire land-use plan.

“One of those plans is a non-plan and should not be passed. It does not represent the majority of the residents in that district,” he says. “District plans must reflect the desires and concerns of the citizens.”

His Republican opponent, Roger Phelps, disagrees.

“What’s the rush?” he asks. “Let’s do this thing right the first time. Another two or three months is not going to make that big of a difference.”

If passed, the Responsible Growth Initiative would require the City of Durango to obtain voter approval on annexations of more than 10 residential units or construction of commercial developments of more than 40,000 square feet. It also would require that the city have adequate infrastructure for future annexations and developments.

White and Phelps agree that a victory for the initiative will oblige county officials to more closely evaluate how they treat growth and development issues, which are becoming increasingly controversial.

“Win or lose, the message is loud and clear,” Phelps says.

Phelps, who is an Allison resident but opposes the initiative nonetheless, says that the county’s Land Use Code must be adequately prepared to deal with the outcome of the initiative so county residents aren’t negatively impacted by things like unchecked growth or inadequate public facilities. As a fourth-generation and lifelong La Plata County resident, Phelps explains that he understands peoples’ anxiety about growth eroding the quality of life in La Plata County, especially keeping it an affordable place to live. But he doesn’t want the reaction to that message to be at the expense of public input. Phelps believes the county is failing to take the land-use plan to outlying communities. Holding meetings in Durango and requiring residents to travel there to give input is unacceptable. He advocates holding more meetings in outlying towns.

“It’s economic bigotry by not taking the plan to those communities and getting their input,” Phelps says.

That sentiment is what drives Phelps to also promise to bring local government entities to the table for frequent communication.

“Right now, we don’t have good partnerships among the local governments. We need to develop those partnerships, because the fact that we can’t get a clear definition of where the county is going is not good,” he says.

White agrees that partnerships are key to the future of county.

“We need to get the various municipalities to sit down and talk,” he adds. “There is a diversity of interests that need to be heard. There are differences between urban and rural residents, and with my experience, I can provide attention to that.”

White says such a vision might be a “bit idealistic,” but he’d be remiss in not trying.

The candidates say growth is such a hot topic among voters because voters realize it drives all other issues in the county, such as water availability, traffic, open space and agriculture. The economy is also critical, says White, especially since the county is facing declining revenue from oil and gas production.

“I think the county needs to focus more on economic development. We have to be able to accommodate people moving here,” White says. Such focus includes attracting new businesses that pay living wages and are profitable enough to add to the local tax base. White says there are several ways to do this, among them providing tax incentives. He favors discussions about building a new industrial park, particularly since Bodo Park is built out.

Phelps says one option is to possibly restructure the sales tax plan to make it economically viable for businesses to start up in the county.

“There needs to be a formula for taxes that would entice those businesses, so that at least in the first five years of business they are profitable,” he explains.

But, he adds, the county’s actions in seeking additional revenue must not harm downtown Durango businesses by forcing commercial success into outlying areas.

Tackling these issues requires strong leaders, which both men tout themselves as. Each points to his background as evidence. White says he has been involved in land use and planning for more than 20 years. A resident of La Plata County since 1979, he says his service on the La Plata County Planning Commission from 1984-86 entailed making the first 4 revisions on the county’s Land Use Code.

“I have a good balance in having a background in planning issues,” he explains. “I understand the need to compromise.”

White admits that he has a “bit of a reputation of always being opposed.” He actively fought a few developments in the Grandview area, where he lives. And when Mercy Medical Center announced its plans to build a new hospital there, White was vocal about its location. However, opposition, he says, does not mean he resists development entirely.

“I’ve spoken out against things in order to bring an awareness of the issues out in the open. It doesn’t always mean not letting a project happen.”

On the other hand, Phelps says he’s relying on his own history of civic service to prove to voters he is the correct choice. After years of serving on various boards and commissions, including the Ignacio School Board and the county’s Budget Advisory Committee, he believes it’s time for him to bump it up a level.

“A lot of politics are about timing,” says Phelps. “With the issues facing the county now, the timing is right for me to be in this role.”

Phelps says he’s anxious to change the status quo of county politics. It is time to be visionary instead of reactionary, he adds.

Regardless of their differing opinions about the county’s growth policies, both candidates are optimistic about La Plata County’s future. Neither feels that it is too late to change direction where necessary. For White, he reiterates the approval of the Land Use Code.

“The Board of County Commissioners has done a good job,” he says. “But there should be no more waiting on the land codes. It’s always possible to make amendments and revisions, because this is a work in process. Right now is the time to take control of our own destiny.”

White says that can’t be done without citizen participation. He says manufacturing the future requires people get involved early in the governmental process.
Phelps agrees, adding: “Public input is critical. Government is run by people who show up.”

Phelps responds to allegations of sexual harassment

by Amy Maestas

Republican La Plata County Commission candidate Roger Phelps is trying hard to dodge recently damaging claims. Last week, current Commissioner Bob Lieb announced that his daughter, Lisa Lieb, was sexually harassed by Phelps while the two worked together. However, Phelps says Lieb’s claims against him are politically motivated and stem from a recent public meeting where he opposed Lieb on adopting the county’s Land Use Code.

“This came from out of the blue,” Phelps said. “I question his timing because he seemed to act after we were at a planning forum and I didn’t support what he was supporting.”
Last week, Lieb announced that his daughter was the recipient of sexually harassing e-mails from Phelps in the spring of 2003, when they both worked at the Sky Ute Casino. Phelps says because the commissioner – who is also Republican – did not bring them up when he announced his candidacy in mid-March, it indicates that Lieb has an underlying issue with his politics.
But Lieb denies there is anything political going on.

“This is a strong attempt by him in trying to cast blame away from himself,” Lieb told the Telegraph. “It’s only political inasmuch as he’s running for office.”

Lieb said he called Phelps recently to ask for a meeting where the two could discuss the e-mails, with Lieb hoping to clear the air about the past incidents. Lieb said he wanted to give Phelps a chance to “own up” to his actions. In between the phone call and the in-person meeting, the two attended a public forum on the county’s land-use plan, where Phelps disagreed with Lieb on planning issues.

“At the forum we did differ on some things, but that was not what motivated me,” Lieb said.

Lisa Lieb never did report Phelps to her employer; she later resigned from her position and went to work for her family’s business. “If it was an issue a couple of years ago, why didn’t it come up then?” Phelps asked.

Lieb responded that when the e-mail exchanges took place, he and his family talked and decided to forgive Phelps for his actions. He also explained that he did not publicly talk about it when Phelps entered the commission race because Lieb’s wife was gravely ill and her situation consumed his time and attention. Lieb’s wife later passed away, and it’s been only recently, Lieb said, that he has begun to emerge from a grieving period.

“I hate to use my wife as an excuse, but that’s exactly why I didn’t do it at the time. I had other things on my mind,” Lieb said.

When Lieb decided to confront Phelps, he said he didn’t necessarily think he’d go public with the statements. It was only after Phelps failed to apologize and take responsibility that Lieb went public.

“At the end of our meeting, I told him that it would come out,” said Lieb, adding that he did not specifically tell Phelps what that meant.

Phelps told the Telegraph that in hindsight, the e-mails probably were “inappropriate.” But he said he never harassed Lisa Lieb. He said he continues to be baffled about the attacks on his character.

Still, Lieb said neither he nor his daughter has received an apology from Phelps. And he said he believes that voters deserve to know this when they vote in a couple of weeks.

“Just the fact that he’s in denial is a testament to his character,” Lieb said. “I feel the voters had a right to know the major flaws in his character. This isn’t about politics.”





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