Hard-fought and closely decided election could put La Plata County on new course

While the results still have to be formally approved Tuesday, the final vote count shows Julie Westendorff and Gwen Lachelt have won their races to become La Plata County commissioners. Congratulations to them both. Their victories were hard-fought and well-earned.

With that, it is safe to say county government will take a new direction. The county’s two soon-to-be new commissioners represent a marked change from the people they will replace.

The two races were close, perhaps the closest commissioner contests in a generation. In the District 3 contest, Westendorff, a Democrat, beat Republican Harry Baxstrom with 50.6 percent of the vote to his 49.4 percent – a difference of 320 votes. Even tighter was the race for the District 2 seat held by Republican Kellie Hotter. Democrat Lachelt got 50.3 percent to Hotter’s 49.7 percent. That translates to a lead of only 174 votes, still enough to avoid triggering a recount.

The closeness of those races may reflect a profoundly divided county. But it may also be a function of the fact that in this election La Plata County voters were presented with clear choices. The candidates offered distinctly different visions for county government and unique personal styles. Lachelt and Westendorff are no more identical than Hotter and Baxstrom, but, in both races, the two parties’ candidates put forward contrasting points of view that reflected honestly held differences about the role of county government. It was a good campaign, one that stuck largely to the issues.

In District 2, the voters replaced one smart, strong-willed woman with another. But that change also represented a marked shift in thinking about the county’s role and direction. Lachelt’s views on county planning alone have got to register a clear departure from Hotter’s.

Replacing the term-limited Wally White with Julie Westendorff is also a change, but one of a different order and one that occurs in different circumstances. Both Democrats, White and Westendorff probably are not too far apart on the fundamentals of many issues. But they are different people nonetheless. With her background in real estate and the law, Westendorff has a wholly different reservoir of experience to draw on than her predecessor. That has to bear on her thinking and her approach.

She can also take advantage of the fact that, unlike White in his last years as commissioner, she will not be on the short end of a 2-to-1 political divide.

These changes and differences can be expected to play out in countless ways, many of them stylistic or minor. But nowhere should they be as evident as in core questions about the county’s role. And nothing touches on that in quite the same way as planning.

Westendorff has said there are other issues she plans to address first, which makes sense, but the issue of the county’s comprehensive plan was central to this election – as it is to the county’s future. Indeed, it is likely Westendorff and Lachelt were elected precisely in response to the commissioners’ failures with the comp plan and the climate plan.

And while our new commissioners can be expected to aim for collaboration and cooperative efforts, do not look to either for tolerance of UN conspiracy theories. Neither seem likely to ditch a good plan over fear of Agenda 21.

In races decided by such tight margins it is hard to speak of mandates, but elections have consequences nonetheless. As they said they would, Julie Westendorff and Gwen Lachelt can be expected to lead La Plata County in new directions. That would appear to be what the voters asked for, even if narrowly.