Craig Meis leaves office unapologetic, satisfied
Craig Meis is just a few weeks shy from going back to being an engineer again.
After two terms and eight years of outspoken service as a Mesa County commissioner, one gets the feeling that he’s relishing that return, satisfied.
“Come in, serve your time, and then go back to work,” he said recently. “This isn’t a career path. It shouldn’t be.”
Befitting his plain-spoken style, Meis is also not one to look back and measure his accomplishments, or dwell on regrets.
“We had the unique opportunity to see both the best of economic times and the worst of economic times,” he said, referring to the eight years served with fellow Republican term-limited Commissioner Janet Rowland.
“I think my proudest accomplishment, maybe, is that we didn’t get euphoric in those best of times,” he said. “We kept ourselves grounded, maintained our fiscal responsibility.”
The road to Meis’ current confident hand-off to the next board of commissioners was, however, noteworthy for its elevated ups and decidedly shallow downs.
Meis came into the office with a tilt toward streamlining planning and processes for businesses in negotiating county red tape. As the owner of an energy services company, and being hit with things like the business personal property tax, he recalled his mindset in seeking the office.
“Either get engaged, or quit bitchin’,” he said.
One event from the early days he smiled about was when he and Rowland held picket signs in Rifle against then-Gov. Bill Ritter’s proposed oil and gas rules. He called those “high times” for energy around here, but he claims he was already preparing for the worst.
He talked about those Ritter rules, companies beginning to deploy resources in other basins, directional drilling and the permeation of local land-use authority.
“All the signs that this industry was about to come to a screeching halt — that’s when Mesa County got ready for the train wreck,” he said.
He and his fellow commissioners throttled back and started shrinking the budget “during the highest of times,” he said.
When the depths hit, he and the board were faced with significant cuts to the county budget, a time when he was criticized for being cold to employees.
“We pulled together, and we made tough cuts together,” Meis said of all the county departments back then. “By the second or third round, we were definitely beyond cutting fat — we were into the meat.”
That was necessary, Meis thinks, noting his unwavering resistance to asking people to pay more in difficult times.
“We can’t go ask for more taxes, just so we don’t have to make tough decisions,” he said.
Not shrinking from big problems was particularly remarkable to County Administrator Chantal Unfug, who said both Meis and Rowland never shied away from tough or complex issues.
“I have been really amazed that they never hesitate to make a difficult decision, or to lead the way,” Unfug said. “They step up.”
Ken Henry, the former mayor of Fruita, and a friend, said Meis represented District 1, which covers the west end of the county, well.
“There were issues where (Meis) did not agree with decisions made by the city of Fruita, but he did respond where he could and I believe Fruita and the Lower Valley benefited from his tenure,” Henry said.
Later in that tenure, the altruism of Meis’ everyman, “citizen legislator” approach was tested when The Daily Sentinel published in 2010 a series of articles detailing how Meis was issued a number of minor tickets and reportedly raised his position as a county commissioner with ticketing officers.
Meis said he learned the lesson that “not all reporters are the same,” calling some of the articles that appeared in the Sentinel “sensationalism.”
He also recalled a quote from State Sen. Steve King: “Everybody has their turn in the barrel.”
He similarly brushes aside other criticisms, like him being too closely aligned with the energy industry.
“I’m happy to be somebody who has actually turned a wrench in my life,” he said. “Too many people in local government don’t know anything about energy. You end up with emotional, knee-jerk reactions.”
Here, Meis is particularly averse to mincing words.
He predicts a “rough road” for northwest Colorado energy-wise, particularly because the region is dominated by federal lands. He says the area is headed for $5 gas, utility rates that are “through the roof” because of renewable energy, and a future price point for energy that will drive consumers to demand widescale drilling pretty much everywhere.
“People love Bambi up until the point where they are inconvenienced with their wallet, or inconvenienced in their lives,” Meis said.
Regarding recent conversations about hydraulic fracturing, which is increasingly happening across the country, he takes aim at the environmental groups raising the issue. He calls those advocacy groups “bigger business than most corporations” — and that fracking is an ideal issue for them in that the oil and gas industry is forced to defensively prove their innocence.
“The best fundraising (environmental groups) can do is to scare the crap out of people and have them write checks back to them,” Meis said.
Eight years of policy-making on the Mesa County board has clearly not softened Meis’ edges. He’s as blunt and brusque now as ever.
“My mouth sometimes gets engaged before my brain. I’ll be the first to admit that … I’m not perfect,” said Meis, the 42-year-old father of five children, including two kids adopted through foster care during his two terms on the board.
“I have very strong values, and morals and beliefs, and I’m never going to see which way the wind’s blowing when I get in that hearing room.”
“I tend to say what I mean, and mean what I say,” he said. “That probably doesn’t make for a good politician.”
It does make for a local lawmaker with a particular lack of regard for public perception of him. Meis is satisfied to leave it up to his soon-to-be former constituents to decide whether that approach was ultimately beneficial to the county or not.