T he Cortez City Council election is fast approaching, and this spring, 14 candidates are vying for five seats.
The municipal election is April 7, and residents may vote for up to five candidates. The top three vote-getters will be elected for four-year terms, and fourth- and fifth-place candidates will serve two-year terms.
The candidates, in the order they will appear on the ballot, are: Stephanie Carver, Jason A. Witt, Arlina Yazzie, Raymond Ralph Goodall, Rafe M. O’Brien, Sue Betts, Justin Vasterling, David N. Rainey, Rachel Medina, Amy Huckins, Geof Byerly, Joe Farley, Bill Banks and Leroy A. Roberts.
To help readers get to know the candidates, The Journal asked them questions about themselves and their perspectives on a variety of issues, for a two-part series. This is the second set of questions and answers. Both sets are linked at the-journal.com.
Responses have been edited for clarity, brevity and style. Candidates’ answers are placed in the order they will appear on the ballot.
The city recently saw some controversy over the proposed land use code, which was ultimately rejected by council on Jan. 28. How do you think the city should move forward with the code after this? And how would you engage local citizens in the process?
CARVER (EMAIL):</CHARACTER> Perhaps the city could look at amending the code that is currently in place and tailor it to fit this community and its needs. The people have spoken, and the city responded.
I think any future large expenses that really have an impact should be discussed more, and as long as the citizens keep participating, a possible clearer agenda will come into place. The land use codes and ordinances are an important part of growth and maintaining the city. So there has to be motivation for growth on all sides.
WITT (EMAIL):</CHARACTER> As a taskforce member from the Four Corners Board of Realtors, I helped to raise awareness of the potential property interest risk embedded in the land use code. With encouragement from community members such as David and Lana Waters, I became involved in public forums against the code.
Reviewing the proposed new land use code brought to light the need to make changes to our existing code. I would encourage continued forums, outreach sessions and public notices. I feel that any change would come from knowing the needs of the community members first.
YAZZIE (EMAIL):</CHARACTER> I believe that a good learning opportunity came from the rejection of the land use code: There was a breakdown in communication between the city and its constituency. I attended the City Council meeting where the LUC was rejected, and I was happy to see so many community members concerned and able to voice their opinion. I thought it was fantastic that the Board of Realtors was willing to create a task force to assist with an update of the existing land use code.
I think the best way to move forward would be to update the existing land use code and look to other communities for successful examples of how they worked to inform and involve the public in these discussions. I would like to assess the way the city outreached the public for the land use code meetings, as well as the median project to see where there were gaps, so we don’t run into the same issue in the future.
GOODALL (PHONE):</CHARACTER> I don’t know a whole lot about that yet. I’m kind of set in my ways. If I own property, I like to be the one in control of it. And I think most people are like that. I know there are probably advantages to it, and I would like to see and hear somebody explain some of that to me and how they reach their decisions, who was involved in doing it – was it local people?
I’m not so set I can’t be persuaded. But it’s got to be beneficial. And it should be done so everyone feels it’s an advantage.
O’BRIEN (EMAIL):</CHARACTER> The City Council will be able to start from scratch and they can use local people, resources and information, similar to the county. The PLUC City Council meeting showed there is support from the community to make a code the right way, that reflects all the people of Cortez.
There are many ways for people to get citizens engaged, like social media, door-to-door flyers, going to businesses physically, providing information to committees to spread information or utilizing the communications through the city and county to make phone calls.
BETTS (EMAIL):</CHARACTER> The land use code is going to be a very time-consuming project. I believe for now we should continue to use the present codes. The proposal I suggested at the council meeting was to form different committees to look at the codes to see if or what changes need to be made, and change only what is necessary.
VASTERLING (EMAIL):</CHARACTER> As a City Council member I will not support a new land use code.
We have several channels available to reach out to our community that have not been used. Social media is only one way, and to be honest, tends to be the most poisonous. We all have addresses, we all get bills in the mail, and it will be easy to distribute a monthly calendar/newsletter to every city/county resident.
RAINEY (EMAIL): The recent land use code controversy highlights the underlying problem of the challenges all communities and community agencies, boards, etc., face – that of how to engage citizens. What are the effective methods to get citizens to step up and volunteer for boards, commissions, committees, etc.?
I think the City Council could take a page from Mancos’ playbook: They spent the last five years or so developing a new land use code that successfully passed. Let’s get input from their Town Board members about what worked and why.
MEDINA (EMAIL):</CHARACTER> I believe that if we decide to amend the current land use code (LUC), public outreach and engagement should be at the forefront of the process. It is important to have input from our community, whether it be public discussions and surveys or committees formed to represent various stakeholders (e.g., construction and builders, business owners, realtors and homeowners, arborists and landscapers, etc.).
The LUC should be easy to interpret and enforce, be business-friendly and protect private property rights. If we choose to use a third party to update the LUC, we should aim to use a company that is familiar with Colorado state statutes and standards.
HUCKINS (EMAIL):</CHARACTER> We have minutes from the Jan 28th meeting we can pull from, but, from that meeting I heard that people would like to be more involved in the creation of this code that has such an impact on their lives. Give our citizens the opportunity to weigh in on what they want our city to look like through solution-based, public held meetings.
BYERLY (EMAIL):</CHARACTER> We will be most effective in facilitating change in the community by being intentional, transparent and inclusive in our consideration of policies impacting our residents. Ensuring buy-in for any initiative will require current consideration through means that ensure wide sampling from the community.
Given the recent challenges and controversy around the land use code, it is important for us to remember and practice positive approaches to communication to inform next steps.
FARLEY (EMAIL):</CHARACTER> It is vital to any area to have a land use code and city ordinances that are understandable and enforceable. Our land use code needs to have community involvement during its development.
I believe town hall meetings and community workshops to gather input from local citizens are crucial to gaining community support.
BANKS (EMAIL):</CHARACTER> I believe that the citizens of Cortez stood up to the council, and it was their voice that changed the proposed direction the council had planned. I would continue to listen to my constituency, rather than forcing my own opinion on the city’s citizens.
ROBERTS (EMAIL):</CHARACTER> The City Council only had three meetings on this subject in the past two years. I don’t feel like this was presented correctly to the people of Cortez. There are a lot of issues in this land use code that weren’t presented fully. There was a fine to be implemented if the property owners did not comply. The amount was outrageous.
I was at the meeting that night, and not many people had read the proposal due to its length. I feel we need to get the city and the county involved in the proposal and see if the people of Cortez can be more involved to see a change.
Teacher retention is an issue challenging many rural areas across the country, including Cortez. Last year, Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 proposed a mill levy override as a way to increase teacher salaries, but that was rejected in the November election. What steps do you think Cortez and/or local school districts should take to attract and retain educators?CARVER: Salaries. Teachers need to be heard. I spoke to a teacher who is currently wearing three hats in her job as an educator. In my opinion, teachers are dedicated, and they deserve to be heard and paid.
WITT: I feel that the mill levy override was voted down because of the lack of trust on how the funds would be used. In order to move forward, a relationship of trust needs to be built with the community members. Like the land use code issue, communication is important to gain insight and share information.
Teachers who’ve taken jobs with local school districts often find a lack of affordable housing. Lower pay and higher rent make it difficult for educators to stay in the area. Alternative schedules such as a four-day school week, established after-school events through the city, local health care access and quality are other ways to help compensate for lower salaries.
YAZZIE: We need to come together with stakeholders to figure out how we can support our teachers in other ways since the community has rejected the mill levy override. Are there monies to tap into to support affordable housing or free housing for one year? What sort of perks can be offered to teachers?
Flexible scheduling, opportunities for continuing education or discounts on basic needs (water bill, phone bill, electric, internet). Are there ways we can show appreciation from the community, like celebrate teachers week? The community has shown that it wants something different, so we need to pull together the best minds in the community, including the county, to talk about real solutions.
GOODALL: There’s nothing more important than an education. I don’t think we need any better teachers. I think we should raise the money. We’ve got to converse with them and find out why our students aren’t up to par if they’re not up to par.
I wish we could be better.
O’BRIEN: Work on changing state legislative laws. Amend the state law that utilized the BEST grants for other needs in the state, like teacher salaries. That same amendment to the existing laws could include help the funding of roads/highways, emergency fire funding, school remodels/improvements and state wildlife park funding, not just focused on brick and mortar school projects. Many people assume that the money was going to be used for some of the issues above, and they are not.
BETTS: I believe the teachers do need higher wages. I know that we have lost some very good teachers because they could not live on the wages being paid. The city of Cortez has the same problem. The Police Department wages are low as well, and they cannot keep officers once they have trained them. Once they get some experience and training, they leave to other places with higher pay scales. I know there are other departments and professions having the same problem.
VASTERLING: I have reason to believe that the way “we” went about communicating and explaining the mill levy doomed it to failure. We love our kids, but more important, we must love our families.
I do not believe that teacher pay is the only metric we should use to measure the future of our children. If you run a business, you know throwing money at problems does not fix them. Do we really want teachers who are here for the sole reason that we pay better?
Our community should be such that it could sway a teacher, a business and a young family to move here despite the lower pay. That is our issue. That is why we lack candidates for the Police Department, new businesses seeking to make their start here, and new families seeking to make Cortez their new home.
RAINEY: This is an issue that I feel very strongly about as a substitute teacher, a parent and grandparent, and a citizen of our community. Teachers are the lifeblood of our community, and to pay them less than a fair and living wage is wrong – that’s all there is to it. We cannot hope to attract and retain teachers without a living wage, plain and simple.
Our teachers shouldn’t have to work two and three jobs, and many do. Our teachers shouldn’t have to drive to Durango or Shiprock in order to be paid a living wage, as many must. I believe we should apply to the state of Colorado to fund all unfunded mandates, and mount another mill levy effort.
MEDINA: Our teachers deserve to be paid better, and our schools should be properly funded. I think trust and transparency is important when taxpayer money is involved. If voters know exactly where their money is being allocated, I believe there is a chance to get a mill levy override. I want to see this money go straight to teachers who dedicate their lives to instructing our children.
HUCKINS: Looking at the root of retention in the job marketplace, you may find that people stay at their job because they take pride in that job, and they feel that they are paid a fair wage for that job. I think that pride is palpable; with teachers exuding pride in the job they are doing, they could inspire the youths in their classrooms to stay in this community and become teachers.
BYERLY: When our beautiful surroundings and salary are not enough to attract teachers, we might explore and incentivize with other forms of “currency.” Is there potential to incentivize multiyear contracted teachers coming to area schools through housing vouchers, child care, family leave or utility support? Being employed with the Piñon Project, I get to witness efforts to support teachers and families through very intentional and evidence-based interventions at the school level.
Support for teachers can take many forms. As the community prepares to fully embrace the next mill levy, and there is considerable buy-in, we get to continue having persuasive conversations with voters and positively support the reality that long term it is in all of our interest to have the best schools for our children.
FARLEY: The education of our children is something we should all be concerned about. I work as a substitute teacher for Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 and see how hard our educators work in order to help our students reach their educational goals. We must find a way to retain and attract teachers and paraprofessionals to work in our district. Finding ways to increase pay is vital to keeping the teachers and paraprofessionals we have and to attract others to consider education as a vocation.
BANKS: There should be a clearly defined guarantee that mill levies or tax increases proposed to the citizens will be used specifically for teacher salaries and not administrative costs. Communication and transparency are the best ways to get voters behind any initiative.
ROBERTS: The school district seems to always spend money on large projects when some of that money could go toward the supplies that the teachers need and possibly a better wage to keep them here. Tax levies never seem to pass because the elderly people don’t have the money for a higher tax and also they feel like their children are grown so they shouldn’t have to pay for this. I’m not saying that this is right, but there needs to be an in-depth discussion with the school board and the City Council and the county.
In your opinion, what should collaboration between the city of Cortez and Montezuma County look like?
CARVER: I think that would start with meeting Montezuma County leaders and having a discussion about what they would like to see, and what they think is lacking as far as collaboration.
WITT: Simple open lines of communication are important for the overlapping dependency that both parties have for the other. What the county does affects the city, and visa versa. We will be stronger as a community the more we work with each other. “Our strength is our community.”
YAZZIE: Collaboration between the city of Cortez and Montezuma County should look respectful and productive. Policy change or inaction from one affects the other; our growth and decline are intertwined. I work full time, and my PTO has been depleted due to a three-week illness, so I am not as easily able to meet the commissioners at a meeting during a weekday. I would like the opportunity to engage with the commissioners outside a regular 8-5 workday. I think that others may also take advantage of participating in meetings outside of the normal workday.
GOODALL: They should work together as one. I think we could help each other a lot, I really do.
If you have a disagreement, there’s nothing better than pouring a cup of coffee and sitting down and ironing it out. I think we could help our commissioners a lot, and I would enjoy and welcome anything they could suggest that we could do to be a better city.
O’BRIEN: There should be a better relationship between the two. They should be able to meet and talk about the issues because county issues affect some city residents, and some city issues will affect business and landowners who do not have a say in the city. There is no reason why our community shouldn’t work together for the people of the area.
BETTS: I think we should be open to ideas and projects that benefit both the city and the county as long as both sides are respectful and pay fair amounts for whatever projects they are working on.
VASTERLING: I have been going to the county commissioners’ meetings they have once a week. I have never seen a City Council person there. At the last BOCC meeting, only two other candidates showed up, Rafe O’Brien and Rachel Medina, two smart young people.
I have seen our county administrator, Mr. Powers, and Commissioner Candelaria at many City Council meetings. I like Commissioner Suckla’s idea of a renewed Quarterly Shared Board Breakfast where we all get on the same page and organize our efforts and resources. After all, we all live in Montezuma County, and all of us who live in the county but not the city still eat, shop, work, own property and do business in the city. I expect our board to attend BOCC meetings; currently, they don’t.
RAINEY: The city of Cortez and Montezuma County already collaborate successfully in some areas, particularly the fair, accountable administration of elections, and law enforcement. I believe that exploring areas where duplication of services can be minimized or eliminated could yield some monetary and human resource savings. Examples might include equipment and facilities use, joint contracts, exploration of joint grants, etc. Of course, county commissioners are full time and fairly paid administrators, whereas city councilors are very part time and only compensated for work sessions and council meetings, although they certainly put in additional uncompensated time. So expecting the same time commitment to determining additional areas of collaboration is unrealistic.
MEDINA: I think the city and the county should create an Economic Development Taskforce. Our communities are so interconnected that working together to bring jobs here would benefit all of us. I also think City Council members and county commissioners should have joint public meetings to discuss various projects and opportunities where they can work together for the betterment of our communities.
HUCKINS: While running for this election, I have heard in overwhelming numbers, “I would vote for you, but I can’t,” indicating that the person lives “out.” There are so many members of our community who own businesses or work in town or shop, etc., that live outside of Cortez city limits, in the county. Using this acknowledgement mentality, we can open up the discussion in public citizen meetings to create the bridge we need to all cross together.
BYERLY: It is exciting to consider collaboration between the city and county. Outside of direct involvement with the existing meeting schedules and workshops by officials from either body, it would be interesting to participate in combined structured opportunities for the governing bodies to work through mutually significant issues. Dolores, Mancos and Towaoc might also contribute to conversations that impact the region. If an example of this effective collaboration exists in or outside the state, we can certainly learn from lessons supporting their success.
FARLEY: I feel county commissioners and City Council members should meet on a recurring basis both formal and informal in order to foster the level of collaboration and understanding that is needed to bridge the gap between the two entities.
BANKS: Both government entities already appear to do a great job of cooperating; i.e., the Cortez Police Department and the Montezuma Sheriff’s Department. I would endeavor to encourage a deeper sense of teamwork to the benefit of all the residents of Montezuma County.
ROBERTS: I feel that one member from each side should attend the other’s meetings so we can know what’s going on in the city and county. That way, we can work together as one.