Business of politics

Auto-parts store owner can't resist getting involved

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John Ponikvar has always liked the idea of being a mild-mannered auto-parts dealer.

But the owner of Craig's T&H Napa Auto Parts store has learned that getting involved in a community where even the governing board of the library can get political makes it difficult to be low-key.

Although he has narrowed the number of organizations and boards on which he serves from 12 to about three, Ponikvar, 49, said he can't resist community issues."I think there's a real need," he said. "I think we all have a responsibility to help in any way we can."

By fulfilling his civic responsibility, Ponikvar has witnessed his share of controversy. His name has been in the newspapers more times than he would like to count.

Although he promised his wife, Peggy, he would keep his name out of the newspapers for at least a year, Ponikvar reluctantly agreed last week to an interview with the Craig Daily Press and to answer questions about his latest political pursuits.

Civic contributions

Since moving to Craig from Leadville in 1978, Ponikvar has served as a school board member, deputy coroner and a reserve police officer. He has served Moffat County United Way and various other philanthropic organizations.

His most recent civic contributions include his role on the board of the 14th Judicial District Commission on Judicial Performance. Ponikvar, a pilot and owner of a Cessna 175, also is on the board of the Yampa Valley Airport Commission, formed in 2003 and charged with overseeing operations of Yampa Valley Regional and Bob Adams airports.

The father of Stacy, 22 and Bryce, 16, Ponikvar has resolved to spend more time with his family. Still, his community involvement is extensive and often leads him straight to the middle of some stormy issues and makes him influential in decisions that affect everything, including the judicial systems and tourism in the region.

"He's always been very community-oriented and very concerned about the outcome of the quality of life for our residents," said Corrie Scott, executive director of Moffat County United Way. "Not only does he volunteer, but I surmise he gives generously through money resources."

Tough decision

Ponikvar's tenure on the board of the 14th Judicial District Commission on Judicial Performance has not been low-key. The Colorado General Assembly created such commissions in 1988 to provide voters with fair, responsible and constructive evaluations of trial and appellate judges and justices seeking retention in elections.

The chief justice, the governor, the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House appoint state and local commission members. Each commission is a 10-member body of four attorneys and six nonattorneys.

In November 2002, Joel Thompson, 14th Judicial District court judge, became only the fifth judge voted out of office since Colorado implemented retention votes in 1990. The commission, of which Ponikvar is a member, recommended that Thompson not be retained. The 14th Judicial District includes Moffat, Routt and Grand counties.

Making the "do not retain" recommendation wasn't easy, Ponikvar said. Thompson received consistently high marks for his intellectual and legal abilities and accuracy of rulings and his knowledge of evidence and procedure rules, according to documents.

But Thompson also received consistently low ratings on the issue of courtesy to parties, witnesses and attorneys. Most problematic were issues of Thompson's private life and how it related to public confidence, Ponikvar said. In August 2001, Thompson's then live-in girlfriend was arrested on federal drug charges.

Ponikvar also found himself in the middle of a controversy in his former position as a member of the Moffat County Library Board of Trustees.

Last year, Moffat County commissioners and members of the library board were in conflict about evaluating the library director and about high employee turnover. Ponikvar was adamantly in favor of a director evaluation, which caused a public stir and resistance from some board members.

"I hope you will stop playing games and join me in working within the board to make the Moffat County Libraries the envy of all rural communities in Colorado," Ponikvar wrote in a letter to a board member, which became public.

Ponikvar resigned from the board, but he won the fight to have the director evaluated.

"I accomplished my goal," Ponikvar said.

Business is pleasure

In his rare spare time, Ponikvar enjoys flying and hockey, which he took up a few years ago. A few years ago, when Colorado Northwestern Community College in Craig offered a course on flying, Ponikvar was one of the first to enroll and the second to get a license. When he got a chance to buy an airplane in a joint venture with another area resident, he took it.

He and family also are avid travelers.

But when he wants to relax, Ponikvar heads to work, where he's most in his element.

As a child, Ponikvar admired business owners and always aspired to be one, he said. He bought T&H Napa Auto Parts in 1996.

His auto-parts store, with more than 600 accounts, is known for meeting even the most unusual customer requests. Once, a local mine company executive decided he needed a pair of longhorns to mount on his Cadillac, Texas style. Ponikvar tracked down the longhorns. Ponikvar has vending agreements with companies as far as Australia to supply energy company clients.

Ponikvar's willingness to get involved in community issues, no matter how controversial, is unusual for a business owner.

"Most people in business are afraid to get involved because it might hurt business," he said. "I do get concerned, because I'm not just responsible for my own families but for my 12 employees and their families."

But Ponikvar said he doesn't think his auto-parts business has suffered from his community involvement.

When Ponikvar served as a reserve police officer, he went on a domestic violence call.

Ponikvar knew the man who was involved in the domestic dispute.

"He came into the store later and said, 'I was really embarrassed, but at the same time, I was glad it was you there,'" Ponikvar recalls.

Political aspirations?

Walk into his office T&H Napa Auto Parts, and there's no denying Ponikvar's interest in politics. On display is a comprehensive collection of campaign buttons from elections of William Howard Taft, the 27th president, up to the 2004 George Bush and John Kerry campaigns. His collection includes memorabilia of President Richard Nixon and a poster from Republican candidate Herbert Hoover's unsuccessful 1932 campaign for re-election with the slogan: "Keep him on the job."

Ponikvar also owns a President Abraham Lincoln campaign button from 1864, worth about $3,000.

So what about Ponikvar's plans for public office?

A few years ago, there was a push for Ponikvar to run for county commissioner. He concedes the idea was tempting. He had planned to volunteer and work on various organizations for about 10 years to lay the groundwork.

"I wanted to do it right," he said.

County Commissioner Saed Tayyara said Ponikvar would make a good commissioner.

"I don't know if we could ever talk him into trying," Tayyara said. "He's very fiscally responsible and has an ability to look at both sides and weigh out the issues and make good sound decisions."

But again, Ponikvar, who is active in the Republican Party, said his duty to his family came first. He said he doesn't have plans to run for political office -- at least for now.

Besides, Ponikvar knows what a career in politics can mean.

"People like you good enough to get you elected, but then you can alienate them with your decisions," he said.

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