Janet Rowland key for child advocacy, drug fight

Outgoing Mesa County Commissioners Craig Meis and Janet Rowland sit in the pews in the commissioners' hearing room recently at the old Mesa County Courthouse. Meis and Rowland are proud of their tenure during especially tough economic times in Mesa County.

Janet Rowland has not strayed far from her roots in the Mesa County Department of Human Services, where she spent 10 years as a "closet Republican" among only a "handful of conservatives" in the department.

Looking back on her eight-year term as a Mesa County commissioner — a job coming to a close in a matter of weeks — she remembers her experiences at the Department of Human Services formed her approach to making board-level, countywide decisions.

"I never was really involved with politics. I never grew up talking about it much, or thinking about it much," she said recently. But after 10 years at the department, "I realized the impact that commissioners can have on human services."

"It's what I view as a true definition of 'compassionate conservatism.' There are ways to help people that don't keep them dependent," the 50-year-old Rowland said. "I wanted to make sure that we had a commissioner in office who really did see the value in that and support that."

Like many aspects of her tenure as commissioner, it's been an up-and-down road to get to a place today where she said she is "really comfortable leaving office" with the leadership in place at the Department of Human Services.

She recalled when she was first elected that one of the first tasks was to untangle a statewide human services database she called "a disaster." She also recalls several directors there "who didn't always have the same vision that we did." The current director, Tracey Garcher, is the third to lead the department since Rowland and fellow term-limited Commissioner Craig Meis took office in 2005. The board fired Jim Garrett over differences in how the department should deal with recipients of services, while Len Stewart resigned over a disagreement over budget cuts.

The niche Rowland's most closely aligned with — child welfare and protection — is one in which the county has made some headway during her time, though it's nearly impossible to measure, she said.

The "How Are the Children?" initiative, begun a number of years ago, was the result of a communitywide effort, and its aims are reflected in the current strategy at the Department of Human Services, she said.

"It really is a balance between making sure that we protect the children, and at the same time support the families," she said. "Kids really shouldn't be raised by the county. They should be raised by families."

County Administrator Chantal Unfug, in looking at the unique skill sets of each of the three members of the board, said Mesa County was fortunate to have Rowland, "who has a full passion and full understanding of human services," perhaps the most complicated of county departments.

Unfug contrasted Rowland's approach with Meis' blunt go-and-do-it style.

"Janet is much more interested in really understanding all the details," she said. "Which is why, in my opinion, they really balance each other out very well."

During her time as commissioner, Rowland has also been front and center fighting a drug scourge; methamphetamine use seemed to peak right when she took office.

Rowland, who was highly visible in helping organize new resources for enforcement, treatment and prevention, said she was "fortunate" to be in a position to help at a critical time.

"You had law-abiding citizens who never were involved with the criminal justice system — now they're addicted to meth and their lives are a disaster," she remembered. "People were much more willing to try unique solutions," like the treatment center built by the county some five years ago.

Today, felony filings for meth are down, and the task force set up to deal directly with meth's proliferation is set to transition to other threats, like rising heroin use.

The rocky economy hit hard in 2009, and Rowland and her fellow commissioners were faced with making deep cuts to the county budget — and to individual departments — after some high times in the years before.

"My personality style is not to worry too much about what people think of me. I just do what I think is right. But when you see colleagues getting laid off, that doesn't feel good at all," she said.

That said, Rowland maintains those difficult cuts may just have been part of a recurring cycle.

"If it weren't for downturns in the economy, government probably wouldn't (cut back significantly) at all," she said, staying pegged to her philosophy of limited government.

The recent national political cycle has her concerned as well.

"I was not prepared to lose that soon, by that much, and that badly," she said about the GOP's November drubbing, including for the presidency. "I think we're shifting to a place where more of the citizens rely on the government for some sort of assistance."

Rowland has been a leader in the local Republican party, something that she hopes to be more involved with after leaving the commissioner's office.

She notably nominated Rep.-elect Jared Wright, who won his seat despite his well-publicized troubles in connection with his departure from the Fruita Police Department and a personal bankruptcy.

While she said Wright didn't necessarily get "a fair shake," she also admits she wishes local Republican leaders like herself had more information about him before the nomination.

"He's a good kid who has made mistakes — but at the end of the day, I know how he's going to vote at the Legislature," she said about Wright.

Rowland, the commissioner, will seemingly always be aligned with Meis — a fellow Republican with whom she "shares the same values, on almost all issues" and who also will be leaving the board in January after eight years. She pushed back on the notion that the two were some kind of voting bloc.

"With (Craig), what you see is what you get. I find that refreshing," she said.

It's been more difficult for her to get a handle on the other commissioner with whom she served — Steve Acquafresca.

"I just prefer disagreements to be upfront, honest and open and out on the table," she said about Acquafresca. "There were times when we were totally blindsided — up to the very moment of a vote — and realized he was voting differently."

Looking ahead, Rowland won't rule out the idea of casting votes from an elected position sometime in the future, but that's not her focus right now.

She plans to start a new consultation and education business for local governments and says she enjoys "being behind the scenes" as much as being out in front.

Even so, if she did run for office again, she thinks it would be for the city council or local school board.

"Change happens best at the local level," she said. "That's where you can make changes quickly, to positively impact people."

"You get to the state and federal level ... what success do you ever see there?" she wondered.

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