Three terms as Pitkin County commissioner followed his initial ideas: preserve, conserve, collaborate
George Newman’s 12-year tenure as a Pitkin County commissioner started and ended in crisis.
“It’s interesting,” the 69-year-old said in a phone interview Thursday, his second official day out of office. “I was talking to a friend of mine recently and I hadn’t thought about that. I started at the time of the Great Recession and then COVID (struck).”
But the crises between January 2009 and Tuesday, when he stepped down, have bookended a political career that Newman said he thinks lived up to the slogan on the yard sign from his first campaign he still keeps in his garage: “Preserve, Conserve, Collaborate.”
“I’m definitely bittersweet about leaving,” he said. “I will miss the interaction with the other commissioners, the staff and the public at large, as well as being at the table making decisions that improve the quality of life for our citizens and keeping Pitkin County the special place it is.
“But I think it’s time to sit back and smell the roses.”
His colleagues on the board and at the county said their goodbyes at a work session Tuesday.
“While George and I may not always agree, regardless of who won or lost the argument, we never held a grudge,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “We got over it and we moved on.”
Clapper said she will miss Newman’s humor, body language and facial expressions that never failed to wordlessly give away his true feelings.
“In closing, I have one bit of advice for George,” she said. “… If you need to supplement your retirement income, you should not do this by playing poker.”
Commissioner Greg Poschman praised Newman’s candor.
“George has always said what he thought,” said Commissioner Greg Poschman, “and I really appreciate that, even it might not have been the popular sentiment. I’ve certainly learned a lot from him to speak your peace and be OK with it.”
Newman grew up in New York state, went to college in New Hampshire and upon arriving in Aspen in 1974 promptly went to work as a ski patroller at Aspen Highlands. After that he worked at Colorado Outward Bound as an instructor and course director, then helped found and run Leadership Aspen before being elected to the county board.
“I think I changed careers every 10 years,” he said. “The main focus has been the outdoors … and somehow tied to skiing, which is one of my loves and passions.”
That love of the outdoors informed Newman’s campaign slogan 12 years ago and, looking back, he said he feels he held true to those ideals.
Pitkin County’s rural character has been preserved through the Open Space and Trails program, numerous conservation easements the county has negotiated and purchased, a program that leases county open space to agriculture and protection of water resources, he said.
Conservation also has been addressed during Newman’s tenure through an overhaul of the energy codes, investment in renewable energy and approval of a solar farm near Woody Creek, he said.
“The greatest threat not only locally but globally is climate change,” he said. “We’re doing a lot to mitigate climate change locally. We had to collaborate to accomplish our goals.”
Newman said he is proud of collaboration efforts that have come through his service on the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority Board, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency Board and regional transportation planning efforts, while also citing the county’s multi-year effort to extinguish oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide as a major accomplishment.
However, none of those things rank as the most important accomplishment of his three terms on the board, he said.
“If you ask me, the best decision I ever made was hiring (county Manager) Jon Peacock,” Newman said. “He’s been able to do such tremendous things for this community.”
Peacock – hired almost exactly 10 years ago – has helped start the Valley Health Alliance, ably steered the county through the COVID-19 pandemic and reorganized the county in ways that benefit residents, among other accomplishments, Newman said.
“As elected leaders, we can put forth goals, but it requires leadership and staff to put them into place,” he said. “And I think that under Jon Peacock’s leadership, staff has been able to do all this.”
Newman said he will miss serving on the county commission but harbors no other political ambitions, for the time being at least because “you never know what life will bring.” He declined to say exactly what he might do next but said he will “stay engaged and volunteer in areas that interest me.”
And while Newman may slow down a bit now that he’s no longer a member of the county board, don’t expect him to abandon the passions of skiing and the outdoors that brought him to the Roaring Fork Valley 46 years ago in the first place.
“I’ve got a pretty large quiver (of skis) here,” he said. “From alpine to Nordic to A-T, I enjoy all aspects of being on the snow.”
Not surprisingly, on his first full day as a regular citizen in 12 years, Newman skinned up Tiehack on Wednesday and didn’t care one bit about the bimonthly regular commissioner meeting going on down below.
But there’s also biking and hiking in the summer, a 6-month-old grandson with his daughter in California, and his wife of 41 years, who also recently retired, and their home in “historic Emma” to take up his time. He said he was always a bit worried about retiring and spending so much time around the house, but the pandemic has provided a nice adjustment period and he’s ready for it.
“You know, we live in such a beautiful place,” he said. “I’m still healthy and, at a young 69, I’m still able to enjoy the outdoors.”