Quarrel over future of Fruita takes center stage in commission primary
Sharp elbows have characterized the battle between two Republicans seeking the party’s nomination for one of the two open seats on the Mesa County Commission.
Ken Henry and John Justman have sparred for years over the way business was conducted in Fruita and their dispute now has countywide implications as they seek the District 1 seat held by Craig Meis, who is term-limited after eight years on the board.
Republican voters will get the final say on their nominee in the June 26 primary election, for which ballots are being mailed on Monday.
GOP voters also have a choice in the District 3 race, in which only Rose Pugliese’s name appears on the ballot. Another Republican, Woody Walcher, is challenging Pugliese as a write-in-candidate. Pugliese swamped two opponents, one of them Walcher, at the GOP county convention in March, forcing them to seek other means of getting before voters. Walcher opted for a write-in candidacy.
Although candidates are required to live in the districts they represent, they run at large, meaning that all county Republicans can vote in both races.
Henry is a former Fruita mayor in his first campaign for county office. Justman is a Lower Valley farmer who lost his bid for the GOP nomination for commissioner eight years ago to Meis.
Justman and Henry each have fashioned their positions in many ways around their continuing debate about Fruita.
Henry at the convention said Justman “hates Fruita,” a charge rejected by Justman, who insists that while he’s sometimes critical of the city, he spends plenty of money and time there.
The heart of the dispute is a trail plan drawn up by Fruita that showed a trail through Justman’s property.
“I understand putting a trail system” on a map, Justman said, but drawing one through his land, “I thought it exceeded their authority.”
The trail map was intended to put developers on notice that Fruita wanted a trail system and not a claim on Justman’s land, Henry said, pointing out that he is a co-chairman of the Colorado Riverfront Commission.
Justman “has never complimented Fruita on one thing,” Henry said, but comes in to “bitch and complain.”
Fruita officials have told him that while he’s been critical, he has never been obnoxious, Justman said.
The two differed sharply on how Fruita should have reacted to insistence by the federal government that it pay Davis-Bacon wages for work on its wastewater treatment plant.
The county should muster other cities and counties and elected officials to oppose federal overreach, Henry said.
Fruita should have filed suit in that case, Justman said, even though Henry said the city ran the risk of being fined thousands of dollars a day.
Elected officials aren’t jailed for opposing unwanted federal mandates, Justman said Friday.
“I say settle on the courthouse steps,” he said.
Henry “sounded just like John Justman” in recent statements about the need for common opposition when the federal government oversteps its bounds, Justman said.
Pressed on Friday by Redlands Rotary Club members about what they would do to encourage economic development, Justman said the county’s landscaping requirements should be reduced to lower the costs of development.
Henry pointed to Fruita’s $135,000 participation in economic-development efforts as paying off in new businesses moving to town.
Justman said he would like to see companies encouraged to locate in the Grand Valley, but that he was skeptical such spending would pay off.
“How well has it worked in the past?” Justman said. “Sometimes not so well.”
Pugliese said she also has questions about some county spending, pointing to a county contribution to the Legends Project, which includes statues of Grand Valley historical figures such as Grand Junction founder George Crawford, Daily Sentinel Publisher Walter Walker and Colorado National Monument visionary John Otto.
“You get into a debate about how much that contributes to economic development,” Pugliese said. “I’m not spending $40,000 on statues, no.”
Pugliese, an attorney who lives in Palisade with her husband and daughter, is making her second bid for elective office. She was defeated in the first, a run for the District 51 Board of Education.
Mesa County should be in the forefront of encouraging development, such as natural gas and oil shale, Pugliese said.
“We’re at a severe disadvantage if we close down energy development on our public lands,” Pugliese said. “I think it’s a fight we need to engage in.”
Walcher, a longtime resident of East Orchard Mesa and member of the county planning commission, said voters are telling him that taxes are too high.
Sales taxes also need to be distributed differently, Walcher said, calling for a ballot measure that would alter the way the municipal share of the county’s sales tax is distributed. More of that money should go to smaller communities or unincorporated areas, Walcher said.
“We need to tweak the tax thing to help everybody out,” Walcher said.
Votes for Walcher can count only if voters fill in the write-in oval on the ballot and write his name on it.