Western Slope official tries to suppress minority views

Garfield County Commissioner John Martin, cowboy and Republican. (Photo/Garfield-County.com)
Garfield County Commissioner John Martin, cowboy and Republican. (Photo/Garfield-County.com)
One Garfield County commissioner is trying to make the others toe the party line behind majority opinions.

The move comes from incumbent Republican county commissioner John Martin, who won re-election by less than 2 percent of the vote over his opponent, businessman Stephen Bershenyi, in the fall. Two weeks ago, after the swearing-in of two of the county’s three commissioners, Martin introduced a resolution that would ban them from expressing their personal opinions if they are contrary to the majority’s. This rule would obtain when the commissioners are representing the county on various boards and committees, such as Club 20, Rural Resort Region, or the National Association of Counties. If the rep does not comply, Martin’s resolution calls for taking him or her off the committee.

Trési Houpt, the panel’s only Democrat, who was not up for re-election in 2008, stands to take the greatest impact if Martin’s resolution takes effect. The relationship between Houpt and her colleagues has been contentious at best. Despite Garfield County’s nearly equal factions in support of the oil and gas industry, Houpt has often been on the losing side of 2-to-1 votes — for instance, opposing her fellow commissioners on their decision to allow man camps on personal property without the owner’s consent.

Martin said his resolution would allow commissioners to speak as individuals, but when they take positions, it’s important they speak for the commission majority because the majority rules. Houpt said she represents the county’s views on issues when serving on various committees, and when she does express her own views, she is careful to state it is a minority position. But, as noted in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Houpt argues that Martin is trying to quell another elected official’s voice.

Democratic Garfield County Commissioner Trési Houpt. (Photo/Leslie Robinson)
Democratic Garfield County Commissioner Trési Houpt. (Photo/Leslie Robinson)
For his part, Martin defends the idea, saying that the point is to make commissioners more accountable, particularly in connection with board roles that involve spending county money. “What it amounts to is I’m trying to get everybody to play on the same page,” Martin said.

Houpt worries her viewpoint might be muffled because Martin’s proposal threatens removal from boards for non-compliance. “I am elected on an equal plane, and it’s important that our hands aren’t tied as elected officials,” she said.

In addition to her commissioner duties, Houpt also serves on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). She has been outspoken on drilling impact issues and has been instrumental in spearheading efforts to propose new COGCC rules that will enforce more protection for the environment and public health.

Houpt successfully convinced newly elected Mike Samson to table Martin’s resolution for future consideration. For the time being, the measure has not been assigned to a future agenda date.
Bershenyi, Martin’s Democratic opponent in last fall’s election, expressed displeasure over the potential “gag order.”

“I’m very disappointed that Martin, who was all about ‘respect’ during the election, would try to disenfranchise another commissioner — who is his equal, not his subordinate,” Bershenyi said. “I don’t think Martin’s resolution will meet constitutional muster. It prevents Trési from representing her constituency.”

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