Part 2: Craig City Council candidates address economy, recreation, marijuana at election forum
Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part story about the Craig Press/Craig Association of Realtors candidate forum held Monday in advance of the April 2 municipal election. Part one, featuring candidates for Craig mayor, was published Wednesday and is available online at CraigDailyPress.com/politics.
A slate of six city council hopefuls, some of whom only relatively became residents of Craig, were given the opportunity to introduce themselves to voters at the Craig Press/Craig Association of Realtors candidate forum, held Monday, March 18, at Moffat County High School in advance of the April 2 municipal election.
The two-part forum began with a modified debate between mayoral candidates, summarized in the Wednesday edition of the Craig Press and online.
Council candidates — Paul James, Eric Simo, Joshua Veenstra, Steven Mazzuca, Brian MacKenzie, and Stephen Tucker — are in the running for three seats opened by Joe Bird, who has reached his term limit; Derek Duran, who decided not to run for re-election; and Jarrod Ogden — who is challenging incumbent Craig Mayor John Ponikvar.
Each candidate made opening and closing remarks and responded to a series of six questions, solicited from readers and posed by Steamboat Pilot & Today Editor Lisa Schlichtman, who moderated the forum on behalf of Craig Press Editor Jim Patterson.
The forum was streamed live and can be viewed on the Craig Press Facebook page.
A summary of each candidate's responses, appearing in the order they first spoke, follows.
From Columbus, Indiana and now working at "John Deere in Craig," Eric Simo said, "I'm the newest person in the community. I've been here one year and one month. I came here and fell in love."
Simo is running on a platform of economic development, a "passion" that he believes requires "focus on the future and enticing new business to the community."
Simo said he is in favor of the following:
• Build a recreation center in Craig, expressing his willingness to "take a little increase" in taxes to see that it’s done.
• Put the question of recreational marijuana sales within Craig city limits on the ballot. Simo said: "I don't believe anyone should be denied something that is legal." He added that tax revenue from its sale could be used to pay the costs of a recreation center. He said he’d like to see the question on the ballot to "let the people have that choice once and for all."
• Provide support to Moffat County Libraries as a "fundamental right … I think the city should be taking on responsibility," he said, but qualified that grant funds — not tax dollars — should be sought to support the Museum of Northwest Colorado.
When it comes to managing a budget, Simo said experience owning a hardscape company, with a crew of eight and handling multiple, large-scale contracts would, along with the help of the city manager, help him oversee the city budget.
Most candidates described a similar level of fiscal experience, but as for a city budget, "none of us have any experience … with city’s help, we can move forward," Simo said.
When combining the words transparency and government, Simo laughed, before saying, "I agree we need it." He feels one simple solution is to record the meetings and post them online.
"I encourage everyone to come to the meetings … it is so easy to sit at home and complain. … Come to the meetings; let's work together; let's make Craig great," he said.
A member of the Committee to Grow Craig, Paul James has, "been here my entire life." He said he believes in diversifying the economy, beginning with the legalization of retail marijuana.
"I'm pretty concerned about the next five years," he said, adding Craig shouldn't oppose any business.
"Definitely pro-cannabis," James said he believes in the following:
• Learning more information before supporting a mill levy to raise money for a recreation center. He added the idea of forming a special district for that purpose "does make me feel more comfortable." He's also in favor of using revenue from cannabis sales to fund such a center, should sale of recreational marijuana become legal.
• The legalization of the sale and growth of recreational marijuana. "This has been the work of my life the last three years,” he said. “It's frustrating. … Had we allowed it in the first year, Craig would not have had a budget crisis. Now, it won't solve all of our problems, but would help.”
• Looking at the option of running the museum more like a business, with an admission fee or "selling the museum to a private owner." He said he would consider asking voters to fund the library, though he said, " I feel hesitant to get the government more involved."
• Constant taxation is "unsustainable."
James said his experience managing the Craig Apothecary "pretty much by myself the last five years …" has given him an understanding of taxes and experience with numbers.
Social media is one tool James would encourage the city to use to "engage everyone." He also agreed with Simo that, "… streaming the meetings is a good idea and necessary."
U.S. Army veteran Steven Mazzuca is originally from Gunnison. He served in 2003 and during the Iraqi invasion — operation Iraqi Freedom.
He works for Comcast in Steamboat Springs, but said, "I choose to live in Craig, because it aligns with my values. … I believe in community, small business, and small business growth."
Mazzuca said he supports the following:
• A recreation center, but "I don't want my taxes to increase," he said. He'd like to see costs paid for, in part, by tenants. "Yes I support it, but we have to pay for it … and the community has to invest in going there to continue to pay for it," he said.
• Recreational marijuana on the ballot because "we should always have the voice of the people heard. … We didn't outlaw it in Craig. You can smoke it, grow it … what have we gained by not selling it?" He's also concerned that some people may be driving under the influence of marijuana between Dinosaur and Steamboat Springs as a result of not being able to purchase it at local shops. He added that, by restricting one type of business, Craig is also losing out on secondary businesses, such as shops selling lights and irrigation systems.
• The city to be conservative and not pay for the library or museum until such time as business growth trends upward. "In our current state I would not be willing to help," he said.
As part of a Fortune 500 company, Mazzuca said he manages "an entire cable system …" that includes a budget. About transparency, he said it is "one of the most important things, next to honesty."
Owner of Good Vibes River Gear, Josh Veenstra said he would like to see a focus on recreation in the area.
"We live in one of the most untapped areas of recreation in the area," he said.
He believes recreational amenities are "what will bring people here to allow them to bring business here …" because "it allows their employees to have a great quality of life. … Let's get outside and explore."
Veenstra's vision for Craig includes support of the following:
• A recreation center to bring a "sense of pride" to the community. He added that he believes a special recreation district that includes Hayden would be more feasible and easier for the public to accept.
• Legalization of marijuana, and a council that is more responsive to the will of the people, rather than influenced by a few.
"I do fairly well at managing time and money," Veenstra said before describing the growth he's achieved in becoming "one of the biggest names in mesh gear …" He added that he organizes 21-day Grand Canyon river trips that are "managed to the penny."
Making sure the government operates transparently is about "being honest with everyone," rather than being worried about "getting reelected," Veenstra said. "Lay it out on the table … being upfront and honest will get you a lot further with the community."
From a "homesteading family," Stephen Tucker said he "fought many years to get to Craig …" Of the city, he said, "it's where my heart is a … I want to see our kids staying here. They all leave town."
Tucker said he believes building a recreation center is important in the effort to keep families here and would seek funding from the mines and the power plant to pay for it.
He also supports the following:
• Removing sales tax from groceries.
• Having the question of legalized marijuana on the ballot.
• Rolling the library into a recreation center. He said the museum "is great …" that he loves to go there, and that his family has donated artifacts to it. "I think we need to keep it open somehow," he said.
Tucker said the 12 years he spent managing a homeowners' association saw him "budgeting, allocating, overseeing vendors, making sure every penny was well spent. I didn't want to raise rates and feel like 'why do I live here,'" he said.
Instead, Tucker said, he gave people reasons to live within the development that included such measures as opening a pool for 12 months of the year.
"Why have a swimming pool that you can't use in the winter?,” he wondered, adding that a recreation center proposal "would have that. I hate seeing the kids have to go to Meeker just for swimming."
In addition to honesty and transparency, Tucker said he believes people need to feel included.
"When I was president of the board, we didn't sit in front of you. We had a big table … when you came to our meetings you didn't feel like you were sitting in the audience, you felt part of the group. … That's what the city needs — to make people feel part of it."
Wearing a jacket "covered" in terrier fur, because his dog "loves this jacket and won't stay off it," Brian MacKenzie said he moved to Craig from New York 2 ½ years ago to work at the college. After leaving the college he chooses to stay in Craig because "I love this community."
He described being active in community initiatives, including the effort to bring broadband internet services to Craig and developing a community brand. Now, he said, "I want to be that voice for you in city council and that's why I'm running.”
MacKenzie also said he supports the following:
• The creation of a "community center." MacKenzie added he would support other citizen-led initiatives, such as the group working toward an art and cultural center. He said he’s not in favor of increasing property taxes, however, recounting the tax hikes he faced in New York, he said, "I'm not going to allow that to happen here in Craig. We deserve better. We don't deserve the taxes."
• A recreational marijuana question on the ballot. "This is America. This is a democracy. Put it on the ballot, and let the voters vote," he said.
• City help in funding the library, but not the museum. He said he believes the museum can be funded in "other ways that are not taxpayer based."
After college, MacKenzie went into retail management, then worked 15 years in the marketing field “with large companies … we managed their budgets.” He said he later worked with the budget as Colorado Northwestern Community College's director of marketing.
MacKenzie noted that, in general, people are not good communicators and said it was necessary to "get the message out there and make sure it is accurate.”
In closing, many of the candidates reminded residents, as Tucker said, to "get out and vote."
Clay Thorp and Andy Bockelman contributed to this report. Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.