Susan Beckman is noticeably proud of the large photographic portrait of Santa Fe Drive — a gift from the City of Littleton — that hangs …
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Susan Beckman is noticeably proud of the large photographic
portrait of Santa Fe Drive — a gift from the City of Littleton —
that hangs prominently behind the desk in her county office.
Santa Fe is not the most attractive of thoroughfares traversing
the South Metro area. But it is not the line of industrial
buildings and occasional adult businesses that cause the Arapahoe
County commissioner to think fondly of the roadway.
While a member of the Littleton City Council in the late 1990s,
Beckman was instrumental in safety-minded expansions of the state
highway. The road had previously been so plagued by fatal accidents
that some had taken to calling Santa Fe the “ribbon of death.”
Beckman considers the city-county-state partnership that secured
the federal funding for the improvements to be the genesis of the
intergovernmental cooperation and regionalism that still mark
Arapahoe County’s way of doing business.
Now a Republican commissioner representing the county’s western
District 1, Beckman is the longest serving member of the full-time
governing board. She was elected to her third and final four-year
term last year after voters approved an extension in term limits
for county commissioners.
During her tenure, Beckman has been among the county’s
staunchest leaders in open-space preservation, having advocated for
the county’s voter-approved open-space sales and use tax. She also
co-founded the South Platte Working Group, an intergovernmental
effort to beautify public areas along the South Platte River.
Colorado Community Newspapers recently sat down with Beckman for
a wide-ranging interview.
CCN: Tell us the story behind the portrait of Santa Fe
Beckman: I had a tough race for city council. I was unknown. I
ran against three other candidates who were pretty tied in. I
walked Littleton and I kept hearing about this road because we’d
had a lot of fatalities on it. I was on council for about four
months when we had another fatality.
Littleton, at that time, didn’t really want to do anything about
it. It was a state road. It wasn’t on the plan for 20 years. I
called up the Littleton Independent and I just ranted on an
answering machine about this road. It had so many fatalities.
Steve Ward who was a county commissioner, called me up and said,
“You know what? Let’s do something different.”
Steve said, why doesn’t Littleton partner with the county —
which had never been done — and let’s see if we can get this higher
up on somebody’s radar screen. The media started to really pay
attention to this because of the number of fatalities.
We got it moved up on the Denver Regional Council of
Governments’ list, and in about 18 months, it was fully funded,
federally through the state.
It was pretty unusual to have a road in a city be the county’s
No. 1 priority at the Colorado Department of Transportation. That
gave it a lot more focus in the region. We do that cooperation all
the time now.
CCN: So that was precedent setting?
Beckman: I think it has led to how the county does business now.
It’s not the money necessarily. It’s the synergy a project gets
when you have more than one entity. Even then, there wasn’t a lot
of money. You have to fight for these projects.
That’s when I got involved in the county and running for this
seat [previously held by Ward].
CCN: Preserving open space, per the voter-approved open-space
tax, is another issue that you have been particularly passionate
about. Has support for open-space preservation been part and parcel
to the changing face of the county? We are no longer the outer
Beckman: Growth, especially the kind of growth we were having
back in 2000, really was a motivating factor for the voters to
support the sales tax at the level that they did. A lot of Arapahoe
County is very urbanized. It’s very densely populated.
There’s a lot of feeling amongst the board and of the community
that they want open space that’s accessible that they can use. We
don’t buy open space for the land’s sake. We buy it for people. In
Colorado, we’re so fortunate. We have 360 days of sunshine and
people are outside a lot.
CCN: The county is now grappling with many of the more urban
issues — open-space preservation, land use, mass transit, aging
infrastructure — that are faced by Democrat-leaning Denver. Is
there a connection between the increased interest in open space and
Arapahoe County’s changing political demographics?
Beckman: Open space, to me, has never been a partisan issue.
Arapahoe County was the last county to have an open-space program.
We were kind of behind the curve on that issue.
Open space has always been very important to most of the area,
at least from I-25 west, when you look at the Highline Canal and
the river corridor, we have some amazing trails and open space in
this community. Even for these nonpartisan city councils, it’s more
of a quality-of-life issue.
But I know what you’re getting to. For me, I have to separate
those two. The beauty of county government is everybody crosses
over. We’re technically partisan, but most of the time you can’t
tell who’s going to vote on what. And that’s how it should be.
CCN: How do you interpret the current party registrations in the
county? For the first time, there are more Democrats than
Beckman: The independent voter now rules. They vote not on the
Republican platform and not on the Democratic platform. They’re in
the middle and they say, “I don’t like either one of them enough to
join. I’m going to vote on the person that has the same values I
have. I’m going to vote on the issues.”
I believe you need both the left and the right to fly. Quite
frankly, they’re both right on a lot of issues and they’re both way
off base on a lot of issues.
What happened this year is you had a lot of newly registered
voters and no matter how much you walked and how much you talked to
people, there were still these voters that you could not connect
to. When you have new registrations of big apartment complexes,
they are looking at a name and a party.
CCN: Barack Obama and the Democrats?
Beckman: It was quite a wave. It was quite a movement.
CCN: You represent the county in the intergovernmental effort to
reconfigure the intersection of Arapahoe Road and I-25. The project
has hit a snarl in Centennial, where there is disagreement about
where to put a new underpass that would divert traffic off
Arapahoe. Some say the Alton Way proposal would take busy traffic
into residential neighborhoods.
Beckman: I think it’s internal politics in the City of
Centennial. But it doesn’t reach as far as the coalition. I’ve been
very involved in this project. I can’t figure out why that was even
presented. Honestly, I can’t. The coalition didn’t. In the original
feasibility study, we didn’t go that far south [as Alton].
We’ve had so many meetings with businesses, citizens, community
leaders. Once in a while, you get somebody who is upset about an
issue. I think when it’s all done, we will all agree on what
structure plan we move forward with.
We’re going through an environmental process and there are all
kinds of parameters. You cannot legally say, “We’re not gonna look
at Alton Way.” All options are open. We are at the very beginning
of a $1.3 million project. So to make these assumptions, it’s just
a little too early.
We’re trying to get money from the federal government and
there’s not much money there. And to get this project done, we have
to have a unified voice. It’s not right that emergency vehicles
cannot get through that intersection.
CCN: Your district includes Littleton, Englewood and parts of
west Centennial, among other areas. Is it ever difficult to
represent such a broad range of communities?
Beckman: I am a fierce advocate for all of them and I have a
good working relationship with all of the boards. It’s a lot of
work because I do meet often with different council people on
different issues. Different cities need different things. I have a
lot of different cities and personalities to deal with. Sometimes
you go head to head on some issues, but you work them out.
CCN: How has you experience on the Littleton City Council helped
you in your role as a commissioner?
Beckman: It was a tremendous learning experience. The biggest
difference is this government is very unfiltered. You get the
information. You deal with directors from other entities in a very
different way. In council, everything is funneled through the city
manager. It’s a part-time job and it’s more policy oriented. At the
county, we’re legislative, quasi-judicial and administrative. It’s
the only elected position that is that.
CCN: Are you friends with your fellow commissioners?
Beckman: You can be cordial, but it’s not like your outside
friendships — somebody I’d go out and have a beer with, somebody
I’d go camping with. On every board I’ve ever worked on, that’s
what ends up happening. It’s a good thing.
The important thing is that the decision you make is good.
Sometimes you have to go through a lot of controversy to get a good
decision, and it’s stressful. The worst boards are where everybody
gets along and it’s all “Kum Ba Ya” because it’s group think.
CCN: This is your final term. What’s next for you?
Beckman: I’m going to get my master’s degree in public
administration. I don’t know what I want to do.
You know, higher office is an interesting phrase. I don’t
necessarily see being a [state] representative or a [state] senator
as a higher office. They do policy, and in Colorado, they don’t
have the flexibility that some state legislators have in the
budget. This is a great job because you have the opportunity to do
so much immediately.
I try to stay grounded by having my friends outside of work and
my family. There’s yourself and your role and you have to keep
those very divided. A commissioner is a role. It’s not really who
you are. I’ve seen some people take it very hard when they’re not
elected anymore, that people don’t call them back. Well, why would
CCN: You once said your favorite TV show is “The Office.” Any
similarities there to county government?
Beckman: Oh, yeah. I think anybody that works in an office has
seen those characters. It’s a pretty funny show.
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