The election season has barely begun in La Plata County, but the line between two candidates for county commissioner became starkly clear at a candidate forum Tuesday night.
Gwen Lachelt and Kellie Hotter gave different views on natural gas, climate change and long-term planning at the forum hosted by the Durango Patriots, a group focused on fiscal responsibility, limited government and personal liberty.
It was the first encounter between the two candidates vying for the commission’s District 2 seat, which Hotter currently holds.
Lachelt, director of Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project, positioned herself as an advocate of natural-gas and oil regulations, clean-energy development and landowner rights.
“The most important job of the county commissioners is to develop plans for the long term,” Lachelt said. A five-year strategic plan Hotter suggested would do more harm than good, Lachelt said.
She advocated for a long-range comprehensive plan that would include plans for energy conservation, elderly and affordable housing and protecting rural culture.
Hotter said rural water systems, business predictability and joint planning areas are her top planning priorities. But, unlike Lachelt, Hotter emphasized a more “incremental” process. She emphasized her small-business experience has given her a perspective on the county’s planning process that Lachelt lacks.
The November election will be a referendum on differing philosophies about the role of government, Hotter said. She repeatedly emphasized the need for government to stay within its state-mandated responsibilities. Through a focus on smaller government and fiscal responsibility the county has downsized its staff by 19 employees and paid off all of debts, Hotter said.
But Lachelt questioned Hotter’s fiscal record, calling out her decisions against adopting new comprehensive and climate energy action plans after the county spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on consulting fees and staff time to develop both documents.
“I cannot understand how you can say you acted in a fiscally responsible way,” Lachelt told Hotter. “You’re flip-flopping on very important issues and wasting taxpayer dollars.”
Hotter said commissioners had simply decided to take a time-out on a very polarized and emotional issue.
Energy issues revealed some of the biggest differences between the candidates. Lachelt said natural gas is not a clean fuel, citing negative social, environmental and economic impacts of natural-gas development in the county.
Hotter said natural gas plays a valuable role in the county and cited her efforts to promote natural gas to fuel cars.
Both candidates recognized the continued need for job creation, though they presented different approaches to the task.