THE BUZZ: UnFair Board

By on August 18, 2015

It’s getting ‘Western’ at the rodeo grounds

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Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Grumblings about a restructuring of the Teton County fair board reached a boiling point last week when governmental revisions were announced. The statement resulted in multiple resignations from the board, at least one fulltime groundskeeper quitting and a fair manager removed.

Some years ago, the fair board was told reorganization was being put in place that would result in the volunteer board falling under Parks & Recreation purview in order to establish more accountability to county commissioners. That change took place as a “soft opening” of sorts with then-fair manager Kelli Fennessey working closely with then-county administrator Steve Foster. The shift was mainly a paperwork issue and day-to-day operations at the fairgrounds remained relatively unaffected.

With Foster gone, replaced by Alyssa Watkins, and a temporary fair manager, Tracy Ross, and her staff just wrapping up the 2015 county fair, word has come down now that the fair board’s role is being significantly reduced. Ross was relieved of her duties and two groundskeepers were told they would be collecting their paychecks from Parks & Rec if they wanted to stay on. Fair board members were instructed that they no longer had the power to hire and fire or make any decisions at the grounds other than put on a fair two weeks out of the year.

The result was pushback from the cowboy boots on the ground. At the least, they fear county commissioners and department heads do not fully understand or care about how the grounds operate. Their worst nightmare is this may signal the first step toward phasing out “horsey” stuff in Jackson, replacing it with multi-use soccer fields, baseball diamonds and a skate park. In the end, some worry Parks & Rec may be making a land grab that results first in their takeover of the property south of Snow King that includes the exhibition hall, and, secondly, an eventual move of the rodeo grounds to an unidentified parcel further out in the county.

Al Parker left the board shortly before the shift hit the fan. Todd Wagner surrendered his seat before his term was due to end. Chance Abel walked out and Kevin Lee also resigned. The board is left with three members – Steve Harrington, Emily Beardlsey and Sue McKnight. Beardlsey and McKnight are new to the board. They both have reservations but are willing to stick things out to see what happens. Harrington has one foot out the door unless he’s convinced government officials won’t run the grounds into the ground with the new arrangement.

“It was a small bump with Foster and Parks & Rec,” Harrington said. “Now the wheels are coming off. The grounds are going to hell.”

Harrington pointed to Parks & Rec already being short-staffed and lacking the expertise in agricultural and Western events occurring at the facility. “Do I think Parks & Rec can handle it? Absolutely not,” he said.

Fellow board member McKnight likewise wonders how Parks & Rec is going to handle a significant addition to their current property maintenance inventory of 17 parks.

“I think the county commissioners need to step up and put proper seriousness into their efforts to allocate the resources necessary to keep up these facilities, and take immediate action,” McKnight said. “I just can’t figure how Parks & Rec [would be given] any influence over the rodeo grounds and agricultural facilities when they don’t seem to have enough staff to care for their pools and playgrounds.”

Parks & Rec director Steve Ashworth believes his department is up for the challenge. He admitted Parks & Rec is perpetually understaffed but thinks cross training and additional hiring can ensure the fair grounds run smoothly. He called the departmental reorganization a move toward reducing duplication of services and reducing administrative costs by drawing from a larger pool of labor and equipment his department can provide.

“We do a lot of things that people don’t realize,” Ashworth said. “We are a maintenance facility. We do snow removal. We are a jack-of-all-trades. It’s not necessarily problematic to be asked to do things for the fairgrounds. Do I or most of my people know how to drag the arena for different events there? No. But when it comes to that, it’s like anything else, you hire expertise. You hire the right people.”

The “right” people, however, feel disenfranchised with the latest developments and are reluctant to get on board. Jason Wheldon, for one, refused a position with Parks & Rec and the loss of the grounds maintenance tech is already being felt.

“If Parks & Rec thinks that dragging the arena, for instance, just involves driving around in circles, and that any one of their lawn mowers can come in and do it to the satisfaction of all the different user groups we have, they are in for an awakening,” Wagner said. “Some of these horses are worth more than a year’s salary for most people. A lot more. And if Steve Ashworth thinks an email chain we had going was offensive to him then wait ‘til he gets an earful from the TBRA [Teton Barrel Racing Association].”

Ashworth called the electronic exchange Wagner is referencing “inappropriate and out of line.”

Wagner, Harrington and Abel pointed out one particular event – a major national roping in the Heritage Arena – as an example of how they think Parks & Rec can’t get the simple stuff done.

“It was more than two weeks after the roping that the arena was still not cleaned up,” Harrington said. “I don’t think Parks & Rec has many employees that signed on to shovel horse poop.”

Abel agreed. “As Parks & Rec has probably come to realize, this is not a facility that can be taken care of simply by watering the lawns and cutting the grass. I hope everyone going forward understands the importance of having a lead maintenance hire who ultimately cares about the fairgrounds and ONLY the fairgrounds; not every other park or pathway on town,” he said in an email to Ashworth.

Ashworth said he appreciates and understands the concerns of fair board members but he is just following orders. “Some members of the fair board are OK with this and some are not OK with it. I think it’s been frustrating for fair board members mainly because there probably has not been good consistency in communication,” he said. “As far as Parks & Rec is concerned, we are just an administrative element. It’s the commissioners who hand down policy.”

How did we get here? And why?

An admitted lack of communication has fair board members and staffers in a state of trepidation. They say they were mostly blindsided by the move and already the effects are showing the added layer of procedure and protocol is proving cumbersome.

“They told us money in our savings would not be touched. Now it’s all gone. They changed Tracy’s [Ross, fair manager] job description four times this year. I’m discouraged and disgusted,” Wagner said. “We had a problem with the new crow’s nest and I was told I could not talk directly with the people building it. I had to go through Parks & Rec who would then run it past to the county commissioners. Same thing with water spigots they put right in the middle of the warm-up arena. Anybody with any sense would know that’s not going to work.”

Abel added, “Bureaucracy is killing these fairgrounds.”

So why the restructure? County administrator Watkins said that ball got put into motion long before her tenure. “I can’t tell you why. It was before my time,” she said.

Ashworth denied rumors Parks & Rec initiated the organizational restructure or that it had anything to do with his department’s interest in the parcel leased by the fair board south of Snow King. That may have been the master plan intentions of the town in 2012. A document obtained by Planet Jackson Hole shows interest from both the town and Parks & Rec to expand the department’s maintenance facility into the grassy arena south of Snow King. However, at a meeting Monday afternoon, Ashworth unveiled plans for a build out of Parks & Rec to include property between the fair’s expo hall grounds and current town public works; an area partially vacated by START Bus to move to their new facility.

Commissioner Mark Newcomb, county liaison to the fair board, said he was trying to get up to speed on where and why decisions were coming down. He understood the wheels were put in motion during Foster’s regime.

Foster said change began during his administration and things were going smoothly under him. “When I was there we talked about where it might go in the future,” he said. “We didn’t make any solid plans. I didn’t know where it was headed. But I wouldn’t blame staff on this. Most of that comes from the commissioners. Steve [Ashworth] is doing what he is expected to do.”

What is expected of Ashworth is what the commissioners believed would be better oversight and additional resources available to the fair board. “At the time, the board was operating independently and their bank accounts, for example, weren’t with the county,” Foster said.

Commissioner Paul Vogelheim was there in the beginning. He said the county is in the process of changing the fair board’s role from a governance board to an advisory board. The county wants to establish a clear chain of command where “things have gotten a little messy,” he said.

Vogelheim says the Heritage Arena triggered the change in part. He stressed that county commissioners were not trying to punish the fair board for the $700,000 bail out they received from the county to repair a faulty roof on the arena, but in light of problems with the Housing Authority over The Grove and other issues with Weed and Pest, a checks-and-balances system needed to be put in place.

“The intention here for the change was all positive — to deliver a great fair for our community,” Vogelheim said. “The fair board plays a vital role. They are so passionate about the fair and the grounds. We are going to be counting on them. If they were to come to us and say, ‘Our Western heritage is not being maintained here,’ well, then it’s critical for them to voice that. We as commissioners can then go back to Parks & Rec and say, ‘Gosh dang it, let’s get this right.’”

The town and county are in the process of rewriting the fair board’s bylaws, Vogelheim said. A current grounds lease entered into by the fair board with the town, for example, will have to be tweaked and rewritten with Parks & Rec. The current lease allows the fair board to use the town property through 2026.

Former fair board member Bill Lewkowitz said he is concerned most about that lease agreement. “It scares me to think that contract will need to be torn up or rewritten,” he said. I was one of the people who signed that contract. I’ve heard the rumors about the Heritage Arena being turned into a soccer field and I just don’t want to see this community’s Western heritage lost or see the fair disappear.”

Most fair board members and staff expressed a desire to hold additional meetings to better understand their new role and voice their concerns. One is planned for August. They would like to see the public weigh in as well.

“I don’t want to see anymore mud slinging,” Abel said. “That won’t serve anybody.” PJH


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