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New El Paso County commissioner looking forward to 'direct contact with the local community'

July 17, 2016 Updated: July 20, 2016 at 12:20 pm
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Friday night's meeting of area Republicans wasn't a new experience for Mark Waller. After all, the newly appointed District 2 El Paso County commissioner attended a similar vacancy committee gathering in 2008 when his predecessor, Amy Lathen, was chosen to serve residents of El Paso County.

"I had no idea what was going on then," Waller said with a laugh, remembering that he went to that meeting of D-2 Republicans eight years ago to forge relationships as he began a run to become a Colorado House representative.

"I had never been politically active at all," he said.

This time around the former state House minority leader entered the meeting with confidence. When asked what he expected heading into Friday's get-together, Waller said, "You'll want to be there on time," referring to a meeting that passed quickly, as predicted.

Waller will take over Lathen's now empty seat when he's sworn in at Tuesday's regular BOCC meeting. Chief 4th Judicial District Judge Gilbert Martinez is expected to administer the oath of office.

Lathen, who was term limited would have ended her tenure at the end of 2016, announced in May that she would resign her post on July 11 to become the executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Springs Forward. Her last BOCC meeting was July 5.

Waller sat in the R&R Coffee Shop in Black Forest on Wednesday talking about the quick turnaround after his June 28 primary victory over Tim Geitner, followed by a long family vacation to Europe that began June 29. He's had little more than a week to prepare for his new job.

He expects constant "curveballs" to come his way as a commissioner, much like the "complete zoo" that he first experienced as a representative in Denver. Waller was elected to the state House in November 2008 and served three terms before an unsuccessful bid to become Colorado's Attorney General in 2014.

"The only way you can prepare is to do the research and understand this is going to be like nothing you've ever experienced," he said of becoming a commissioner. "There's a lot of excitement that comes along with this."

One would assume that legislative experience and Waller's time as a deputy district attorney in Pueblo and El Paso counties would provide the most important skills needed to excel as the District 2 commissioner. Waller said that's not the case. He points to his life in the Air Force and leadership skills learned in the military as more crucial.

"You can't have just one leadership style (in politics)," Waller said, noting that his leadership training in the Air Force prepared him to "engage in the right kind of leadership" based on the person he is addressing.

After growing up in Illinois and studying political science at Southern Illinois University, Waller was on active duty in the Air Force from 1993 to 2000. He earned a master's degree in space studies at the University of North Dakota, then became a reservist in 2001, and studied law at the University of Denver.

He said skills learned as an attorney helped him shape state statutes from 2008 to 2014. The self-proclaimed "policy wonk" expects those abilities to come in handy as he is called upon to help mold county laws.

Waller lives in District 2 in northeastern El Paso County with his wife, Jennifer, and children Truman, 17, and Camille, 13.

Jennifer Waller is an Air Force colonel. Waller credits his wife for helping him stay motivated to succeed.

"I'd be lying in a gutter wearing non-matching socks if it weren't for her," he said.

Waller, who is running uncontested in the November regular election to continue as the District 2 representative, will begin his job Tuesday earning the commissioner's salary of $87,300 per year. If he's elected in November, his pay will increase to $113,400 when his new term begins in January. The General Assembly passed legislation earlier this year to give county commissioners the pay raise.

At least two other commissioners will also begin their terms in January with the higher pay rate. Commissioners Sallie Clark (District 3) and Dennis Hisey (District 4) are term limited and will end their terms at the end of December. Republican Longinos Gonzalez and Democrat Liz Rosenbaum are on the ballot in District 4. And Democrat Electra Johnson will challenge Republican Stan VanderWerf to be Clark's successor.

Peggy Littleton (District 5) and Darryl Glenn (District 1) have two years left on their terms and will continue being paid at the lower rate, Rose said. Glenn, however, could be replaced by a vacancy committee if he wins the U.S. Senate seat against Democrat Michael Bennet in November.

Waller said on Wednesday that he would spend the weekend studying Tuesday's BOCC agenda so he can hit the ground running. He has received phone calls from Hisey and Littleton in preparation for his time on the BOCC. And Waller aims to build rapport with leaders of all El Paso County departments as he enters the fall budget cycle and gets ready to welcome the new commissioners in January.

"I understand that I can't be the subject matter expert," he said. "I anticipate I'll have all sorts of meetings."

The former Colorado legislator looks forward to a more intimate relationship with the people he will serve. While working in Denver, he was about 60 miles from his constituents in Colorado Springs and craved "direct contact with the local community," he said. As the District 2 Commissioner, Waller will see the people he represents every day.

"That's the most exciting aspect of this," he said.

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