Petticoat Rule: Jackson Mayor Sara Flitner talks today’s pressing issues

By on March 18, 2015
Photo credit: Josh Myers / Trekkingphotography.com

Photo: Josh Myers / Trekkingphotography.com

Jackson, Wyoming – With less than three months under her belt as Jackson’s head politico, Mayor Sara Flitner faces several daunting issues.

As the valley’s new leader, Flitner will delve into the exorbitantly priced aftermath of the Budge Drive landslide, Comp Plan revision and land development regulation (LDR) rewrites, and a historically bleak housing shortage.

Last Thursday, fuel was thrown into the fires of the housing crisis discussion during a Jackson Town Council meeting. A zoning proposal found in the latest iteration of the Comp Plan, which would add more than 2 million square feet of commercial build-out to downtown Jackson, garnered a lengthy public comment period with members of the community queued outside town chambers waiting to weigh in. While Flitner maintains that no one actually wants a 2 million square foot build-out, the conversation has ushered commercial growth and workforce housing further into the spotlight.

The Planet had a chance to sit down with the Shell, Wyoming native (population 83 in the 2010 census) to discuss Jackson’s issues du jour.

The Planet: So you’ve been in office two and a half months. What mayoral duties have you felt best prepared for?

Mayor Sara Flitner: Most of my background is one form or another of collaborative problem solving – so all of the management of different issues, public concerns and different personalities and agendas feels very achievable. There are some real skills that are important in leadership – active listening, really valuing different perspectives and not just making a show of that but also actually listening with the intent to learn and create a solution that works for a broad variety of constituents. I’m thinking of [Thursday’s Jackson Town Council meeting to discuss commercial zoning] … Part of the reason it went so well is because people understand we really want their expertise, we really have some different interests to balance. We have to put together a solution that addresses workforce housing, with transportation, with a vital downtown. So I think [community members] are seeing themselves as fellow problem solvers and I am glad about that; we need them.

The Planet: What about the job has been the most overwhelming?

Flitner: There are so many critical issues. A year ago it was much smoother sailing. Now we have the Budge slide, we have a housing crisis, though we have always struggled mightily with that, land values are higher than they have ever been. None of us have ever seen this. And the LDRs [land development regulations] – we’re all working really hard to get something passed because people are asking us for that. People want something done. So the overwhelming part is, each of those special agendas are important and that’s above and beyond the usual tasks at hand. So it’s balancing time, frankly, to figure out how to fit it all in.

The Planet: How have you adapted your work life, heading your communications consulting firm, Flitner Strategies, to fit in with your role as mayor?

Flitner: I’m still figuring that out, honestly. I have a core group that really focuses on the leadership development side of my business so that’s easy. Most of them are not local so there is no impact … I’m still balancing the calendar, to tell you the truth. It’s way more weighted towards public service right now and I expected that. At the six-month mark, ask me again. I think it’s important to have the balance so that a lot of people [who are] interested in public service can do it. That’s important to me – that it’s service, not a job.

The Planet: What about family life? How are you juggling it with your new responsibilities?

Flitner: I am so fortunate, I swear. I have two sons [Pete, 15, and Silas, 13] and my husband [Bill Wotkyns], they’re just great people. I’m really lucky. Of course teenagers will be teenagers, but they are curious about the process and are engaged with what’s going on. They are also a huge source of inspiration – that’s who I’m working for; I want to make those guys proud.

The Planet: Do you think your role as mayor has sparked your sons’ interest in politics or government?

Flitner: I’m not sure they’re interested in politics; I don’t know if anyone is really interested in politics. They are interested in quality leadership – and these would not be their words – they are interested, like the rest of us, in being heard. They’re interested in who can do that, so the very first meeting when I was sworn in, they all came. The very first item that came up was public comment and it was someone weighing in on where the dog park should or should not be. When I got home that night … my younger son said, “That’s so cool that anybody can get up and tell you how to run the government.”

That is a great takeaway … you have to show up and you have to speak into that microphone, but if you do and things are going the way they are supposed to go, you will be heard, you will make a difference and I want them to know that.

And my husband is just a really cool guy. He’s a true partner – he always has been since we met – and I couldn’t do this if he weren’t. He’s in with the kids, he’s in with my work, and he is in with what’s important to me as much as he’s down with what’s important to him. I just lucked out.

The Planet: Did you have a face-to-face sit down with outgoing Mayor Mark Barron?

Flitner: He’s been amazing the whole way. I loved Mark Barron before; I love him more now. We don’t agree on everything, and you would not expect that. His entire approach with me since I was elected is, “How can I help?” or “Why don’t we go through an agenda?” … Really generous things that have nothing to do with issues or politics, just mentoring. That speaks to his character. He has served already so he doesn’t need to be holding my hand or offering to help me like that, yet he does. I just think that is the community we live in, that’s who we are. It’s pretty inspiring.

The Planet: What do you and Barron disagree on?

Flitner: You would have to ask him because I am truly the most boring person on the planet when it comes to taking a stand for issues black or white. I just don’t see the world that way. I would take a stand for quality of the process, for integrity in communication, for how we set things up to be solved; I would take a stand for that, for how we treat people. This is just the world I’ve been living and working in for so long. It’s just never simple … are people really for or against four stories? I think they think that they are, but mostly when you talk to people, what’s behind that is, what am I getting? Is that really going to be a solution to keeping the community a community? And if they believe that behind those four stories are working people then they are likely to be OK with it. If they believe that it’s just going to be more development for no community benefit then they are not OK with it.

The Planet: Diving right into a Comp Plan revision and LDR rewrite has to be one of the most laborious aspects of public office right now. How’s that going?

Flitner: It’s honestly a privilege in many ways to hear people talk about their community. We think we’re really educated, you and me, but there is not a replacement for sitting there and listening to people from all walks of life describe how Jackson is for them. I’ve been involved with nonprofits, I’ve known lots of different people in the community but I find it really interesting. So the hardest thing is how much time is required to give each issue justice. People want to go fast but you can’t hurry it; people want to have meetings at different times of the day. That’s the most challenging thing – figuring out how to get the data and the input in the most efficient way and then get a decision.

The Planet: Let’s talk Budge slide mitigation. Are town taxpayers on the hook for this?

Flitner: A good part of the solution is going to come down to our community. Thanks to the County, we are able to apply for state funds through the State Land and Investment Board … [Teton County] applied for $2 million. The entire pool for the whole state is $6 million. We’re asking for a fraction of what we need and I believe the State does have responsibilities with us to keep that corridor open and safe. Some of our most vibrant sales tax dollars are a result of people being able to pass through Broadway safely. But, hey, I grew up in a small, rural community in Wyoming and they all have really significant needs, too. We’re not going to get half the money, and it wouldn’t be fair if we did. It doesn’t change the fact that we have a really expensive natural disaster scenario to fix. We’re going to roll up our sleeves and figure it out, but it’s a bummer. I’d much rather build $10 million worth of multi-family, quality rental housing than put some dirt back, but we don’t have a choice. The highest service we can do is to solve the problem as quickly as possible and get on to what the community really prioritizes. We could fight, and I’m sure people down the road will fight. I’m not interested in that because if we have limited time and resources, I’d rather spend it trying to get a solution than battling.

The Planet: Have Walgreen reps disappeared? What are their plans for the store?

Flitner: They’re at the table and we’re talking to them. I’m optimistic. I can’t speak for them and I don’t know what their plan is but they have not walked and they show no signs of walking. The CEO isn’t calling me to say goodnight every night … but all signs point to us being in decent shape.

The Planet: Speaking of Walgreens – why are the lights still on in there every night? What’s it going to take to get them turned off?

Flitner: We are so desperate to have them turn those dang lights off. Believe me, we have spent months … they’re in the middle of a huge merger/acquisition and there has been a shuffling of chairs, personal tragedies — you name it. But I keep saying, the first thing we will say after we say, “Are you committed to fixing this? Sign here,” is “Turn the lights off.” It’s like salt in the wound every time you drive by.

The Planet: Let’s talk short-term rentals. The County says it will step up enforcement. What is the Town prepared to do? Is this a major problem? Will the town lodging overlay shift?

Flitner: I think the town lodging overlay will be tweaked. We heard a lot of that discussion last night [at the March 12 Jackson Town Council meeting about commercial zoning]. There’s a balance – my favorite word. It’s really clear right now that our community’s priority is housing for people who live and work here and that short-term rentals are a direct competition. If we have a limited supply [of housing] and some of it is being used for short-term housing than sure, those two interests don’t align. I’m OK with some short-term rentals … where we want visitors, because we still have to keep the town amazing. That’s why we even have the ability to think about paying for potholes and Budge slide and social services and lots of things that are tax base provides us. So I think we just need to be really careful to protect our neighborhoods.

The Planet: Tell me why you selected Hailey Morton Levinson as vice-mayor?

Flitner: She really wanted to serve and she’s a great thinker and a hard worker. I felt like we could both enhance each other’s service. I think Bob Lenz is such a treat and he knows how to do it; he’s already done it. So I wanted to build a deep bench. I want a lot of people to have as high of a skill level as possible because that will help Jackson.

The Planet: Regarding the LDR revision, the Comp Plan and the future of Jackson, you said:

“It is clear that we’re going to be dialing back commercial square footage from the eye-popping numbers. There’s not a person in the community that believes going down a path toward building 2 million square feet is likely or possible. It is clearly not what we want. We know that housing our workforce and maintaining the community as a community of people who work and live together, that seems to be the No. 1 goal right now.”

During last night’s meeting, about half of the 25 or so people who spoke during the public comment period were there to talk about workforce housing during a meeting set to discuss commercial zoning.

Flitner: Tyler [Sinclair] put together a chart of what the pace of development has been over the last 20 years and on average we are seeing about 10,000 square feet per year, commercial built. So another way to skin this cat is we pass some version of the LDRs and say, our five-year cycle can’t go beyond the average or if we look back and see that we are kind of veering off then we dial it back a little bit. I know that’s hard to do but it’s no harder than what we’re doing right now. At least it’s a way to try to balance the economic vibrancy that we want while not exacerbating the housing problem. The other point I want to make about that is when we talk about LDRs, that’s another thing that stymies housing development. When you stop development, you’re not just stopping commercial, though that’s what we all think. We haven’t done anything like Blair Place Apartments since I’ve lived here, frankly.

The Planet: Anything from the recent Brown Bag Lunch that struck a chord with you? The topic was well-suited – “Balancing Housing, Transportation and Community Character.” How do we grow and add workforce housing while maintaining a small town character? Can it be done?

Flitner: I think it can be done and I think smart conversations, like we had the other day [the March 12th Town Council meeting] are the way to ensure that it gets done. What often happens is people create a false enemy — so it’s the advocate, or it’s the developer, or it’s the politician or it’s somebody else’s fault. And where we’re really getting traction is reminding people … there’s no enemy, there’s no bad guy here. We’re all connected by our deep commitment to this community and how much we love it and want to be here. We just have different ideas about how to protect it. We need all of those ideas so the worst thing I can do is say, “you’re my enemy. I’m not listening to you.” [During the March 12th Town Council meeting] it was either a planner or a developer who had a great idea … a new way of looking at the lodging overlay. Fantastic. What if I had thought to myself, “I hate that category, I won’t listen to that category?” I would have missed out on that possible thread of a solution. I think what we’re seeing is people are hungry for collaborating, they really are. Because we know fighting feels good for a minute but it doesn’t work for long-term solutions. It’s win or lose and the only way to get to win-win is to really sit down and say, “OK, well, I see it a little bit differently, what do you think about this?”

The Planet: Are you comfortable with a public/private partnership to expand the Rec Center and new climbing gym?

Flitner: I am really focused on the needs of the community right now and those needs, I keep saying, are Budge, housing, passing the LDRs. So I’m going to be focusing resources, whatever we have to spend needs to benefit the critical needs, such as housing. Public/private partnerships in theory sound great. Sometimes they work well, sometimes they don’t. But I want to stay laser-focused on what I know we need and can do with funding and that’s in workforce housing.

The Planet: To what degree are you following up the previous regime’s dedication to environmental stewardship? Is the 10×10 initiative (to reduce electricity and fossil fuel use by 10 percent by the year 2010) now a 40×20?

Flitner: All of that is really important to me. I was on the first energy efficiency advisory board, which adopted the 10×10 goal. Mayor Barron and I worked together on the Wolfensohn Challenge, which is now Energy Conservation Works. I’ve been lockstep with those efforts; it’s who we are. It’s difficult to focus on this as a frontpage issue during times like this, but it’s a core value.

The Planet: Where do you stand on a seventh penny sales tax? What is the future of the SPET (specific purpose excise tax)?

Flitner: Balance, again. I campaigned for a unified plan and some kind of dedicated funding so I am open to either of those. I would like to see a serious amount of money amassed for housing. I don’t know, because I haven’t talked to enough people, whether the community wants to do that via an extra penny? Or are they willing to dedicate a SPET cycle or two to get $10 or $20 million in the bank to deploy? I’m open to both of those things. People will hear me say it over and over again – I’m a need versus want person. I’m very practical in my own life and that’s the perspective I’ll bring.

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine and former editor of Planet Jackson Hole. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

3 Comments

  1. anonyholic II

    March 19, 2015 at 2:07 am

    Rather than giving direct answers to any of your questions, if she has any, she’s still campaigning.

  2. Sam

    March 19, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    How long does it take to get beyond the “it’s complicated” phase?

    There’s a lot that needs to be done and someone needs to take a stand. The fact that Sarah says she doesn’t want to see black and white on some of these things makes me fear for her ability to take action and make the needed changes. The Budge slide is a serious problem, but it doesn’t affect a scintilla of the people affected by the overall housing crisis.

    We need to start policing VRBO and AirBnB for violators of rental laws to drive more properties into the long term rental market, we need to curtail commercial development until we have more low and middle income housing. Lets get the rest of the South Park Loop area zoned for high and medium density already, allow four story buildings in town, and clearly define resort/tourist lodging overlays and be done with it. The solution is OBVIOUS.

    The town leaders have been sitting on their hands merrily watching Jackson become completely unaffordable for DECADES now; The charade is up and it’s time for people to put on their big boy pants and either leave office or start doing things that will actually make our community better. I’m sick of watching a regime that says “Screw the community; We’re getting land rich!” – IT’S TIME TO END THAT GAME. Almost everyone I know under fifty is struggling and exasperated – and I mean PISSED AS HELL – and it’s time to atone for the sins of ‘leaders’ past.

    So, how long should it take to force a solution? Because FORCE is what it’s going to TAKE. It’s gotten this bad because doing NOTHING was easy and profitable. I voted for Sarah because I thought she would (1) recognize the right action to take, and (2) have the conviction to GET IT DONE.

    For every excuse I hear, all I can think is: DO IT ANYWAY. It’s complicated? DO. IT. ANYWAY.

  3. Housing

    March 24, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    The housing ‘crisis’ is the solution. Limited housing means limited growth. It will force weaker employers to fold. We have too many businesses chasing the same dollar with low wage workers. Too much duplication of services. Sort of like having 3 dispatch centers for the Park, the HP, and County law enforcement. In this case it’s landscaping companies, etc. The only problem with housing is quality not quantity.

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