Summit County Commissioners Davidson, Stiegelmeier say ‘goodbye’ after over a decade of leadership
When members of the Summit County Democratic Party approached Thomas Davidson about running for commissioner in 2006, he wasn’t too sure about the idea.
At the time, Davidson, who was working as the director of development at Vail Resorts Development Co., was involved with a campaign that asked voters to approve a property tax to help support early childhood care and education.
Once that measure passed, Davidson expected things to continue as normal. However, the women he worked with on the campaign had other plans.
“All of these women that I had worked with, who were also active in the Democratic Party, came to me and said, ’We want you to throw your hat in the ring to become the new commissioner,’” he said. “I sort of dismissed that at first, I will admit. I just didn’t think that somebody that worked for Vail Resorts and somebody that was doing real estate development would ever be considered by the Democratic Party to become commissioner.”
Davidson was elected to the Summit Board of County Commissioners in 2007 to fill a vacancy left by Bill Wallace, who stepped down to become the county treasurer. Fourteen years and three election cycles later, Davidson and his fellow commissioner, Karn Stiegelmeier, have completed their full terms as members of the board.
On Tuesday, Jan. 12, newly elected Commissioners Tamara Pogue and Josh Blanchard will be sworn in to replace Davidson and Stiegelmeier.
For Stiegelmeier, joining the board in 2009 was a natural step. At the time, she was the director of Friends of the Lower Blue River, chair of the Blue River Group of the Sierra Club, a board member of the Continental Divide Land Trust and the mountain representative on the I-70 Corridor Collaborative Effort team. She also served as a volunteer on a number of other environmentally focused community groups.
“I was involved in several nonprofits that had me working with commissioners and planning commissions and asking for things,” she said. “When there was an opportunity, I figured out that, ’Oh, it’d be easier to just be the commissioner than to try to get them to do what I want.’”
A dedication to environment and housing
Alongside fellow Commissioner Dan Gibbs, and later Elisabeth Lawrence, Stiegelmeier and Davidson used their expertise in a number of areas to accomplish their goals.
Stiegelmeier’s knowledge of water rights and fire mitigation efforts helped guide the county toward spearheading the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement.
The agreement helped solve longstanding disputes over water territory between Denver Water and the Clinton Ditch & Reservoir Co. It also provided more water to Summit County and other areas on the Colorado River Basin.
“My big position when I started with the county was water is the lifeblood of Summit County,” Stiegelmeier said. “I still believe that is so true, whether it’s snowflakes or water for development or recreation.”
Throughout their time on the board Stiegelmeier, Davidson and Gibbs were able to make strides toward acquiring open space in order to preserve the county’s land and allow for more affordable housing. Davidson pointed to the acquisition of the U.S. Forest Service land for the Lake Hill Workforce Housing Development as an example of the commissioners’ political will.
“Lake Hill would never have happened without Karn Stiegelmeier and Dan Gibbs,” he said.
The county was able to acquire that land through Stiegelmeier’s negotiation skills with the local environmental community and Gibbs’ connections to former Sen. Mark Udall in Washington. It ultimately led to former President Barack Obama signing the Lake Hill Administrative Site Affordable Housing Act in 2014.
“We were able to get a bill through Congress and actually purchase land from the U.S. Forest Service to one day do workforce housing in this particular area,” Gibbs said. “In Summit County, when 80% of the lands are federal, it’s not easy to come up with land (for housing).”
The Lake Hill project, which is expected to bring more than 430 units of affordable housing to a plot of land off Dillon Dam Road, is still in the development stages. The project, which was initially expected to break ground in 2017, has been slow moving while Summit County and the town of Frisco work to complete an impact analysis and address questions about infrastructure.
Gibbs, who served alongside Stiegelmeier and Davidson for eight years, said he’s met few politicians as committed as the two outgoing commissioners, even after he began working as the executive director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
“They are some of the most dedicated public servants I’ve ever met,” he said. “They know Summit County so well … and I think that’s been very, very helpful in their positions as Summit County commissioners.”
Paving the way for social equality
Davidson and Stiegelmeier also worked to address social issues.
In 2015, Davidson, the state’s first openly gay commissioner, established a set of policies to protect transgender employees at the county and implement transgender-inclusive health coverage.
Davidson said some people questioned the county’s decision to work on that effort as people doubted that there were transgender employees at the time. Then, in 2017, Lesley Mumford, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office operation commander and SWAT team leader at the time, came out as a transgender woman.
In a Summit Daily News article, Mumford said the county’s policy decision kept her in Summit County at a time when she was ready to quit.
“When they made that announcement, I went home to Sarah and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, look at what the county did,’” Mumford said in 2017 about telling her wife. “I was ready to walk away from all of this, but that move the county made compelled us to stay here and be part of this community.”
For Davidson, the fact that he is gay was largely a nonissue in Summit County. The county has a history of supporting gay rights, even when it wasn’t a popular thing to do. In 1992, the state passed Amendment 2, prohibiting cities, counties and towns from enacting anti-discrimination policies for the LGBTQ community. Summit County was one of three counties in the state to openly oppose the amendment at the time.
While it seems like no big deal now, Davidson said he and Blanchard, who is also gay, are paving the way for younger people.
“If you talk with young people that are trying to navigate coming out, it’s helpful to them to know that they’re in a community where people can be a judge, or a commissioner, or have a leadership role and be not just accepted or tolerated but even celebrated,” he said.
Leaving a legacy in a time of crisis
Neither Stiegelmeier nor Davidson expected the past year of their decadeslong terms to go the way it did.
For Stiegelmeier, working as a commissioner during the pandemic can be described in one word: “hell.” The commissioners have had to attend biweekly Board of Health meetings, which were previously only three or four times a month. They’ve had their say in local restrictions, and they’ve been the target of scrutiny for those decisions.
“I’ve gotten just constant complaints from people, and it’s all about, ’You’re not doing enough. You’re doing too much,’” Stiegelmeier said.
Starting Tuesday, Stiegelmeier and Davidson no longer will be fielding those complaints. Knowing that their time on the board was nearing an end, both commissioners made an effort to let Lawrence, who was elected in November, lead the way on the COVID-19 effort.
“As I’m beginning this next term, I’m really grateful that I have all this COVID experience to carry over, that there’s some continuity in the community,” Lawrence said. “Thomas and Karn have done a nice job of supporting me throughout that.”
Lawrence added that if it wasn’t for Stiegelmeier and Davidson’s work building the county’s emergency reserve fund, the county wouldn’t have been able to fund business and rent relief efforts.
When Davidson joined the board in 2007, the reserve fund was around $6 million. It has since grown to more than $30 million.
“During their tenure, they have done such a great service to the community by their fiscal management,” Lawrence said. “In their time, they saved so much money that now has proven to be helpful.”
A decade and a half of public service can wear anyone out.
Stiegelmeier plans to take some time to relax for the next few months before she starts getting involved in local environmental groups again.
“I have made a commitment to myself that I’m not going to say ’yes’ to anything until I’ve had a couple of months of being retired,” she said.
Davidson will be taking on a new role as the first executive manager of Counties & Commissioners Acting Together, an organization that was formed to help commissioners lobby the state government for changes to benefit their communities.
Davidson said he will be keeping his home in Summit County but also will be spending a significant amount of time in Denver, where he will work closely with state leaders on oil and gas, housing, health care and other issues.
“The issues that (the organization) is focused on are issues that are all incredibly near and dear to my heart and things that I’ve worked on actively as a commissioner here in Summit County,” he said.
As they embark on new adventures, Davidson and Stiegelmeier feel comfortable leaving the county in the hands of Lawrence, Pogue and Blanchard.
“All three of them came to Summit County and had to really fight to survive,” Davidson said. “They are all incredibly driven and hardworking. They’re going to make me look like a slacker as soon as they get in here.”
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