A progressive commissioner takes the heat

  • Montezuma County Commissioner Tom Colbert

    Ann Bond/US Forest Service

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, A Colorado county tries a novel approach: work the system, in a special issue about collaboration.

The last hurdle rancher Tom Colbert has to clear as county commissioner may be his toughest.

The commissioners are working to complete a county-wide comprehensive land-use plan ordered in 1994 by Montezuma County voters. In an election year when anti-planning rhetoric was as common as sagebrush in the West, the 56 perent vote in favor of the plan was remarkable. It was even more remarkable given Montezuma County's historic aversion to planning: In 1989, county residents trounced a comprehensive plan put together by the commissioners.

"We took a pounding on that one," admits Colbert, 57. But rapid growth convinced voters the county needed to get some regulations in place.

Colbert knew it wouldn't be easy this time, either. Not long after the vote, a faction of the agricultural community organized a rally at the county fairgrounds where they lambasted planning as an attempt to take away property rights.

Elected officials are doing to the citizenry "what the bulls do when they serve the cows," one landowner told the cheering crowd of 200. "When these people who you have elected say they want to serve you, you'd better brace yourself."

Colbert sat in the crowd that night absorbing the punishment, but after the last speaker, he stood up and defended the need for planning. Although he may not have swayed many people that night, the next day he defended planning again in the local newspaper.

"Agriculture has to share some of the burden for creating the problems," he told the Cortez Sentinel. "Every time you split up a piece of land, you create problems for you or your neighbor or the county or the school district. We just have to realize that we can't keep dividing this county up in three-acre tracts without some long-term plan.

"I hate rules and regulations and I don't particularly like government, but you have to have it," he continued. "Local regulations are the best kind, if we have to have them. Nowhere are people more in control than at the local level. There isn't a person in the county that can't reach the county commissioners."

Colbert's message, and his stature in the community, eventually beat back the attempt to torpedo the planning process. The commissioners assembled a citizens' working group last year, including several representatives from the agricultural community. A draft comprehensive plan is nearing completion.

"This plan will have more credibility," says Colbert. "There's still some criticism from the livestock community, but I've seen tremendous changes over the past six months."

Colbert's admirers credit him with making Montezuma County's adventure in collaborative planning possible. "I could be the best facilitator in the world," says Mike Preston, the coordinator of the county's federal lands program and the county's comprehensive plan. "But if we didn't have the political leadership, nothing would get accomplished."

Colbert says he has tried to abide by a simple philosophy. "The first thing you've got to do (when you win an elected office) is forget your political career and do what's right and fair for the community," he says. "You've got to take the hits from both sides. We've stepped up and we're willing to take the heat."

When he retires in November, Colbert plans to spend his time rebuilding his ranching operation.

"It's hard being a commissioner," says Colbert. "I've lost a lot of money since being on the commission. I bring home less than $1,500 a month. You never leave the job, but then again .... I asked for it."

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