Carbondale's community connector

Bernot reflects on years as mayor, trustee

Locations: News Published

Last meeting is May 11

By John Colson

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

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Whenever outgoing Mayor Stacey Bernot talks about her reasons for leaving the job she’s held for six years (not to mention her previous decade of service, first as a member of the Carbondale Parks and Recreation Commission for four years, then six years as a trustee), her family is the most often-cited influence on her decision.

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“If now is the time for them to make a change,” she wrote of her family’s recent relocation to a house outside Carbondale, “I wholeheartedly and unequivocally choose them” over continued service on the town’s board of trustees.

Her remarks came in an April 27 letter announcing her decision to give up the mayor’s gavel as a consequence of moving (with her family) to a newly acquired home in Redstone.

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The move, she emphasized to The Sopris Sun on Monday, was not due to a family financial crisis or inability to afford living in Carbondale any more.

Rather, she said, it came about thanks to a fortuitous change in their housing options that left them little choice but to move out of town and sell their Carbondale house, on which they still owe a portion of a mortgage, and live essentially mortgage-free just outside of Redstone.

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Bernot declined to state publicly what the change in her housing options was, other than to note that it has been a somewhat bittersweet decision-making process given her family’s happy memories from the time they’ve spent in Carbondale.

She admitted this week to being somewhat nervous over leaving the town with a board of trustees on which only one member, Frosty Merriott, has served for more than two years (Merriott has been on the board since 2008, and must step down due to term limits in 2018).

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As things will stand following the Mayor’s formal departure from office on May 16, two of the trustees (Katrina Byars and A.J. Hobbs) will have served half of their first four-year terms, while new trustees Ben Bohmfalk, Dan Richardson and Marty Silverstein were elected only a few weeks ago.

Two-term trustees John Hoffmann and Pam Zentmyer stepped down this year, also due to term limits, while former trustee Allyn Harvey did not win re-election to his second term in the recent municipal election.

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Bernot’s departure means Carbondale voters will be asked to choose a new mayor, either in a special election sometime late in the summer or in the general election on Nov. 8.

But in the meantime, Richardson will serve as mayor pro-tem while Bernot is still in office, and will become acting mayor once she leaves.

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A moving story

Bernot, 38, is a fifth-generation Carbondale native who lost her father in a coal-mining explosion in 1981, when she was three years old, and her mother and sister in a car accident some five years later.

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She was raised by ranchers Celia and Paul Nieslanik, first in a house on the south side of town and later on a ranch along Catherine Store Road east of town.

A dedicated sports enthusiast throughout her school career, she for a time was a youth coach for the town recreation department in the late 1990s. Once she finished school, she got herself appointed to the town’s parks and recreation commission in 2000.

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“I felt that youth and families and affordable endeavors were not valued,” she said of her interest in public service. “I thought they were out of touch with the working families.”

On the recreation commission, she became chair of a project to build a recreation and community center that now stands next to Town Hall and, after four years on the commission, she decided to run for an open seat on the board of trustees in 2004.

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“I didn’t really think I’d get elected,” she continued, noting that as a 25-year-old wife and mother of two young children, she was “pretty young” herself for the post. She admitted that during her first candidate forum, “That was the first time I’d ever done any public speaking. I was scared to death.”

The town’s head planner at the time, Mark Chain, advised her that she may have bitten off more than she could chew and that she might have done better to serve on the town’s planning and zoning commission before trying to get elected.

“He told me, ‘Don’t get your feelings hurt when you don’t win,’” she said in an interview.

But she did win, and two years later, after serving out the two-year term, she ran for re-election and won the highest number of votes of any candidate in that contest.

In 2010, when Mayor Michael Hassig stepped down due to term limits, she ran for the mayor’s job and won, and then won re-election in 2014. It was the beginning of the end of the Great Recession, Carbondale’s revenues remained at distressing low levels and there was a lot of work to be done, she noted.

Through all this, she said, her family has been supportive of her work, although she admitted, “They didn’t want me to run for a second term.”

Controversies? Sure!

During her tenure, Carbondale has seen its share of controversies and troubles, starting with the community battle over a proposed “big-box” shopping center known as the Crystal River Marketplace, the second of two such commercial projects on 24 acres of land once owned by Colorado Rocky Mountain School.

The first proposal had been approved by the trustees, then shot down in a community-wide referendum, in 2003, the year before Bernot was elected trustee.

In fact, she noted that there were 11 candidates for five trustees spots that year, several of them representing the “Town Mothers” group that had been behind the electorate’s rejection of the Marketplace plan.

A new plan, called the Village at Crystal River (VCR), was proposed in 2008 for the same site.

Again, it was approved by the trustees, Bernot included, in 2011, but with a proviso that would put the matter to another town-wide vote. In a 2012 election the VCR proposal lost by an even bigger margin than the first plan. The land currently is the approved site for a new City Market grocery store and other commercial businesses.

Other controversies and issues have taken the place of the Marketplace/VCR, and Bernot is credited with having steered the board of trustees through them all with common sense and respect for the different sides of each question.

But, she conceded, there were some rough spots in terms of inter-trustee divisions.

“We had plenty of board conflict that wasn’t always fun,” she said, such as the time during a board meeting that trustees Merriott and Ed Cortez got into a verbal fight over Cortez’ vote for stricter marijuana regulations than Merriott favored.

That was in 2011, after medical marijuana had been legal in Colorado for more than a decade. But it was not until after President Barack Obama’s administration signaled it would not interfere with states where pot was legalized by the voters that a boom in pot shops led to Carbondale being home to a dozen or so medical marijuana licenses.

Bernot recalled that the board was debating the strictness of the town’s regulatory framework for licensing and monitoring the nascent industry, and tempers had risen between two factions, when Bernot asked for a brief break in the meeting.

A short time later, she encountered Merriott and Cortez in the main entryway outside the council chambers, yelling at each other, and at one point Merriott reportedly threatened to “cut” Cortez.

“Finally, there were a variety of words exchanged, and the threat,” Bernot remembered. “So I stepped in between them and broke them up.”

Bernot, who said she understands that emotions can run high during trustee discussions, said she deliberately has tried to avoid using her gavel as a weapon to cut short such arguments.

While heated arguments can disrupt a meeting, she said, “sometimes there’s a nugget [of an idea], a kernel that we can take away” and use in a positive way.

“I gave everybody a pretty long leash, so to speak,” she said of her tenure as mayor. “But I don’t hesitate [to step in] if it does get out of hand.”

Another hot-button topic has been the town’s concerted effort to promote energy conservation and the use of alternative-energy technology such as solar panels, including installation of panels on town-owned buildings and using public funds to subsidize energy efficiency work on local homes and businesses.

Bernot, who recalled being initially “very skeptical” about these uses of taxpayer money, nevertheless became a champion of the overall idea that Carbondale should be a model of energy conservation and alternative-energy use.

But, she added, “I’ve always wanted to check in with the voters,” and she said she was not surprised when voters recently rejected an excise tax on energy bills to provide permanent funding for the energy-efficiency programming, along with a property tax to fund capital improvements.

“I think it was a worthwhile endeavor,” she said of the town’s leading-edge energy programming, though she is not sure what the town’s approach on such matters should be from here on.

As for the capital improvements question on the same ballot, she predicted that the town will need to revisit the issue soon because of a severe need for infrastructure improvements.

Bernot, along with the board as a whole, also has fought hard to prevent the energy industry from drilling for gas in the nearby Thompson Divide, which she said clearly is something the town’s citizens are against.

Glad to have served

“I’m proud of a lot of things,” Bernot said of the town’s accomplishments during her tenure as trustee and mayor — things such as building the recreation center; buying and repurposing the old Carbondale Elementary School into the Third Street Center for nonprofits; and improvements to Highway 133, including construction of the roundabout at Main Street.

“We weathered some pretty challenging times,” she said, looking back, remarking that she will not miss being a public figure.

“Sticking your neck out and serving the community, you have to have thick skin,” she said. “I have people giving me a hard time at City Market” and in other public places, all the time.

“And maintaining that thick skin is painful,” she added, expressing gratitude that “I’ve had a wonderful family and support system that have kept my ego appropriately in check.”

And, she stressed, the town’s accomplishments have been all thanks to the work of the board as a whole.

“There’re seven people,” she said simply. “It’s never really been about me.”

As for the fate of the town government once she leaves office, Bernot said, “In some respects, I think people are having to step up [and take on greater responsibility] more quickly than they anticipated.”

But she predicted that the board of trustees is well positioned to face what she views as the town’s biggest challenges — managing expectations in the face of relatively scanty resources, and figuring out how to create affordable housing for the local working population.

And while she will no longer be a bonafide citizen, she said she plans to be available to help with the transition in the wake of her departure.

“I’ll be around,” she said, adding that she has no political plans for now and will be happy “just going back to being a nobody. And I don’t mean that in a depressing way. That’s the beauty of a town like Carbondale … you’re never a nobody.”

Published in The Sopris Sun on May 5, 2016.