PULSE ON POLITICS

By on October 21, 2014

Lenz, Frank & Stennis converse over coffee

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The race for two open seats on Town Council pits two incumbents against a sole challenger. Longtime councilman Bob Lenz continues to be a top vote-getter through his eight years in public office. This is the first campaign for Don Frank. He was appointed to fill Melissa Turley’s seat two years ago. John Stennis is attempting to make the jump to the council from the Planning Commission, where he has served for four years.

Planet Jackson Hole sat down for a cup of coffee Monday with the three candidates. All acknowledged the town’s upcoming challenges and past successes, and shared what they might do if given a four-year opportunity to serve.

Planet Jackson Hole: What does the town excel at? Where do they get it right?

Don Frank

Don Frank

Don Frank: I think the town’s greatest strength is organization and chain of command. We have the mayor and the four council people who work at a higher policy level but we’ve got a great staff that brings us good data from the field and illustrates what they believe might be challenges or opportunities. The second thing is Bob McLaurin and Audrey Cohen Davis are both masters of their departments. Town is a well-run organization.

Councilman Bob Lenz

Councilman Bob Lenz

Bob Lenz: I think the town does very well in providing basic services. – [things like] water, sewer, streets, our law enforcement, cleanliness. You can always do better but I think they do very well overall. I think we’ve done very well at trying to provide housing for our employees. We own, I think, 14 or 15 units that we rent out. We’ve certainly supported affordable workforce housing in the valley. We facilitated getting the Grove to where it is. We had to go on the hook for six-point-some-odd million and then another six hundred thousand in order to get that.

John Stennis

John Stennis

John Stennis: A couple of things got me really excited about working on the Planning Commission and just being involved with town politics. One was the Jackson Hole Energy Sustainability Project and the whole 10 by 10 initiative. We are really fortunate we have the resources here to be able to invest in those kinds of things. I think that’s something the town has done really well. I also think the concept that you, and it’s a little bit different than the county, that you treat people who come to the town like customers. You try to be helpful. You are trying to do it with respect and that kind of courteousness you bring in a business that I do in my own business as an architect. We are not a bureaucracy. We are friends and neighbors. We all live in the same community so we should all try and respect each other that way.

PJH: Where could the town improve?

DF: There are two projects of mine. One is, this town is lagging far behind on high-speed Internet technology. We have low connection speeds. I’m working with Mike Palazzolo in the technology department, along with his colleagues, some private individuals and Audrey. We are trying to get our service providers to honor and pay for their franchise fees for the use of our right-of-ways. And that has not been easy. I’m not sure why but they are non-responsive when we try to go through channels. I’d like to see high-speed Internet become a priority in this valley. The point is everybody I know who works day to day with a new machine is waiting for the machine. It means we are not productive.

Another project I am very interested in is improving our procurement practices. When we spend public money we put out formal requests for proposals or bids, and for some reason since I’ve been on the council the bid returns are few. We might only get one or two bids even on significant pieces of work. Part of being a councilman is bringing whatever your skill sets are and deploy them. I would like to work with the department heads to show them how to do long-range planning so the [RFPs] are issued early enough so we have the time to get contractor interest, so we have the time to actually vet these bids. We need to create a process where we can get higher quality proposals and greater competition.

BL: Certainly the public transportation system. We deserve more of it. We have to have a new maintenance shop. Because in the wintertime we are just maxed out as far as the number of buses we can maintain. That’s very critical. The green and white building at the fairgrounds is used by all kinds of people and organizations and it’s tired and in need of help. This community deserves a new community center.

JS: The big one is trying to get stuff done with this Comprehensive Plan. I think town is an institution that gets things done. I think town does this better than the county. And that’s what I like about it. I want to see us continue to kind of steer the ship in that direction. But we’ve been waiting on the county to get our LDRs done to be able to take our next step. Now I feel like we’re down the road so far we just need to forge ahead and do that for ourselves because it’s hurting town at this point.

PJH: From the family simply wanting to add a deck to the back of their house to a major development, the planning process is arduous, lengthy, and costly. Can anything be done to streamline it?

DF: I’ve been speaking to streamlining. I think the question you’re really asking is, “Do we need flexibility in our zoning in order to start incrementally meeting workforce housing needs?” I think the answer is yes. I think we should be looking at infill. I think we should be looking at rental units on appropriate parcels that are deed restricted. I’m wondering why we haven’t done a pilot program with micro-housing. I’m wondering why we haven’t thought about a four-months-a-year organized campground in the peak of the season. I’d like to see the private sector building dormitories. I could imagine a number of employers getting together, buying land and building a dormitory; each one kicking in for 5, 10 or 15 rooms. I see solutions. I don’t think we are incapable of meeting the need. I just think we need to be a little more creative, a little bolder in our approaches.

BL: Having not been through that situation in a number of years I don’t know how it stands today. For one thing, we do have a set of LDRs that we operate under. We are working on new ones but we do have some we operate under now. It’s a tough process. We are not a cookie cutter valley and we are not a cookie cutter town so we are not going to have cookie cutter LDRs. And custom LDRs take time. I think that Alex Norton and Tyler Sinclair have done an admirable job at it. It’s complex. There’s a lot of it.

JS: We do have a very cumbersome process and staff knows it, too. That’s one of the goals of getting the LDRs done, is clearly defining what you can and cannot build. And to just allow people more by-right development. One of the things that’s kind of baked into the new regulations is allowing staff a little more discretion, the planning director especially, to have a little flexibility when you are working with someone who wants to build that deck or that stair in the right-of-way. Or that house that was built in the ‘60s that doesn’t conform to anything. We see so many of those coming through planning commission. It’s silly that they have to get a variance for that. But that’s the way our current system is set up. So much of town is nonconforming in the residential zoning. It’s something that’s very frustrating. Streamlining the process and making it really clear about what steps they have to go through will all be very helpful.

PJH: Workforce housing. It’s always an issue. Got a solution?

DF: Let’s keep in mind that the town is doing things. I think we own 13 workforce housing units now. Since I’ve been a councilor I voted to deploy $1.65 million to the Housing Trust so they could buy down land in East Jackson for a pilot rental program. The reason I supported that is the classic deed-restricted housing model serves us well and gives security to the family that’s in it, but it’s revenue-neutral. Workforce rental housing can be revenue-positive, which means with the right base we can actually generate money to then buy down more land and build more rental housing. That just seems to make sense to me because it’s synergistic, it’s got momentum.

BL: I’m open to every idea. If we can figure out a way for the market to participate in it that would really be great. The question of a dedicated funding source has to be discussed. Certainly increased densities are a possibility. For me, everything’s on the table. I don’t have any preconceived ideas or hang-ups about it.

JS: I think the key thing is setting the long-term vision and goals. How are we going to achieve this? That’s what I want to see us do in the next four years. Housing isn’t developed overnight, and probably during my next four years we are not going to get any new housing developments completed. But it’s laying that foundation, that framework, to be able to do it is what I’m concerned about. If we just keep talking about it endlessly we’re never going to get to that point where we are getting that stuff that we want.

PJH: How does the town manage its money now? Is the budget healthy? Anywhere you might trim?

DF: I think the basic structure of our budget is fine. There’s a discipline piece that the private sector has that the public sector should always have. That is testing the bottom line for value. I think that it’s human nature when you are spending other people’s money to see it a little bit differently than you see it when it’s your own money. Since I’ve been on the council I have challenged every budgetary request. Whether I support the mission or whether I don’t support the mission I ask the question: “Is this the best value we can get?”

BL: We balanced the budget every year since I’ve been on the council. In 2009, for instance, in the middle of the budget session we trimmed $900,000 out of that budget. And then we turned around and trimmed, if I remember right, another $1.3 million out of the next year’s budget. And we survived and the town did OK. There was a time when I looked at the sales tax and I didn’t care if it was only up one penny, that’s all I cared about. Just so it wasn’t down.

JS: One of my concerns moving forward would be to continue to fund social services. We are giving way more money to social services than we were when Mark [Barron] started as mayor 12 years ago but I still want us to be committed to doing that. I think it’s important. Especially, when someone asked me what we should do about Latino outreach, for instance? It’s a very difficult community to try to reach. One of the ways we can help those people is through the social services that we help fund.

But the town does manage its money well. We are very fortunate to have a manager like Bob McLaurin. He does a great job. We’ve managed to cut during the recession and stay in budget.

PJH: What is you inspiration for running for public office?

DF: When I was a kid, two neighbors away, my best friend’s dad was a copy editor for The New York Times. We would go to the Herbert household after Catholic mass and there would be five copies of the Sunday Times. Mrs. Herbert would serve tea and pastries and the seven Herbert kids and the three Frank kids would tear the papers apart and we would argue sports, book reviews, politics, finance to the extent we were able. So I’ve been a student of public policy my entire life. I read every [local] daily and every weekly [newspaper] cover to cover, religiously. I always have. I love to read. I’m an American Literature major. I had a minor in journalism.

Our family is involved in politics. My son Billy went to the national championship for Speech and Debate two years ago and on the ride back he and I talked about whether it was appropriate at this point in our family’s life for me to throw my hat in the ring. So when Melissa [Turley] vacated her seat I sat the family down and said, “What do you guys think?” They said, “Dad, you’ve always wanted to do it. Now’s the time. Do it.”

BL: The Downtown Redevelopment District. I considered it the worst piece of zoning that’s ever been passed. That was my first impetus. And then of course I am passionate about pedestrian amenities. I’m passionate about nice sidewalks that are lit enough so people know where they are going. I think if you have that people will use them.

JS: I’ve always been very community-minded. When Save Historic Jackson Hole started years ago, they were throwing stones at affordable housing. I had written a letter to the editor, which someone had come across and posted on my Facebook. I had completely forgotten about it. It happened like six or seven years ago. It was something I was very passionate about – How do we keep Jackson a community? How do we keep it the place I grew up here knowing? You can’t put it in a bubble. This whole idea of trying to keep people living and working here in the valley is really important.

I thought being on the Planning Commission would be a place where I could use my talents to benefit the community the best. And I think I have but you are a little powerless in some respects because you can’t set that long-term vision and policy that you can as a councilman.


About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

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