THE BUZZ: Estranged Bedfellows

By on February 23, 2016

Does a growing divide between town and county leaders have electeds ‘out of joint?’

Recent joint information meetings have led some to ask the question, is the relationship between  the town and county strained?

Recent joint information meetings have led some to ask the question, is the relationship between  the town and county strained?

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Recent meetings between town and county officials have brought to light a palpable tension between the two government bodies. A few singular issues that require joint cooperation have been decisively divisive, none more so than the responsibility the 10 electeds share in resurrecting an impugned Housing Authority. Neither side wants to shoulder blame for the past. Both want control moving forward.

The kettle was at a slow simmer until a former mayor began making it a habit to stir the pot with forceful appearances at public meetings. Deadlocked votes, internal feuding, and more than one mano-a-mano showdown between government leaders has brought to the forefront the image of a powder keg in need only of a spark.

Hem and haw over housing

It’s the Housing Authority that has played the easy mark and supplied the match. While local retired builder Tim Rieser lent his expertise as a stakeholder to the two-day housing summit in May 2015, he was also busy waging an all-out smear campaign in the media against the Authority’s latest project: The Grove. “The town is now becoming aware that the Housing Authority is a giant bag of shit,” Rieser said.

Some of the mudslinging found purchase with politicians, and the pilot light was lit.

The resulting guiding document from the housing summit, the Housing Action Plan (HAP), called for dedicated sustainable funding for a reorganized Housing Authority—one that county commissioners wanted much more control over. When town leaders got their first chance to kick the tires on a new housing agency, they spent a lot of time checking under the hood.

Town officials have moved slowly and cautiously forward at times as electeds gathered for their Joint Information Meetings (JIM). Major decisions were kicked down the road with numerous tablings and continuances. Unwillingness to act turned to indecision. Votes deadlocked and stalled over issues big and small. What tax would fund affordable housing? What would the organizational structure be? Who would report to whom?

On the road to resolution county commissioners are looking for an exit ramp while town councilors are still warming up the car in the driveway. Bob Lenz, for one, hasn’t been ready to put anything in gear.

“I think it’s prudent to put this off a month,” he said during a recent joint vote for resolution. At another meeting he was hesitant to talk about a new lease for the Authority’s future office space. “There are a lot of moving parts going on between county and city. Maybe down the line in a few months we can look at this, but for now let’s leave sleeping tigers lie.”

At the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) it’s full steam ahead.

“What’s being reflected on the resolution today is something we’ve spent a long time working through,” said commissioner Paul Vogelheim of the vote to adopt a resolution to begin structuring a new Housing Authority framework. “It moves us forward and allows us to hire a housing director. Let’s get it going and go.”

Mayor Sara Flitner called action toward designing a new housing authority “a bit of the tail wagging the dog,” and has often referred to the process as “building the car as we drive it down the road. Which is not optimal,” she added.

Flitner blamed any hesitancy on the part of the town to get in step with their county counterparts as a case of differing experiential timelines.

“I would say the distinction is because the Authority has been under the county for all this time. They have had hours and hours of discussion that we have not had,” she pointed out.

When town councilors dragged their feet at the latest JIM, BCC chair Barbara Allen questioned Flitner’s right to continue agenda items her peers were ready to push through.

“I’m eager to see us move forward with the Housing Action Plan that represented the vote of 10 elected officials. I would like to see us make some progress to make us more efficient and effective in delivering housing, which the community is asking for,” Allen insisted. “I would be in favor of making [the resolution] effectively immediately. I would very strongly like us to move on this.”

“My impression from the last JIM was we were giving direction to staff to get specific information about particular projects about housing, more meat on the bones, before we move forward. I wasn’t aware that [Allen] heard the discussion differently,” Flitner responded.

Despite a vote at that JIM to hold off, Allen was ready to act solely to record her commission was moving forward with or without reticent town leaders.

“I’m not sure what that would accomplish,” Keith Gingery puzzled at the meeting when Allen called for a vote to adopt a resolution forming a housing department. “You need both boards to move forward.”

Allen countered, “I want to show the county is now waiting on the town.”

“Our joint Housing Authority is not off to an auspicious start,” groaned commissioner Mark Newcomb in refusing to join Allen on the 3-2 vote to implement policy immediately.

Power and authority

When State House Representative Ruth Ann Petroff’s bill to tweak state statute regarding a regional housing authority failed to pass last week, town electeds became further mired in the weeds. Councilman Jim Stanford was among a few already looking for an out clause.

“How does that affect where [the resolution] stands?” posed Stanford. “Some of our colleagues have insisted on a restructuring for greater accountability. My chief goal was to get a dedicated source of renewable funding. If somehow we don’t get the funding—whether it doesn’t get on the November ballot or fails at the polls—can we get out of this partnership?”

Flitner agreed. “If everything goes to hell in a hand basket and the county says, ‘we don’t ever want to work with them again,’ then it should be spelled out that, if this was a great experiment that just didn’t work, how do we undo it?” she asked.

Town attorney Audrey Cohen Davis advised councilors that a hybrid housing authority was still a possibility even in light of Petroff’s failed legislation.

“I do think it’s an interesting question,” Cohen Davis admitted. “Wyoming is an at-will employment state, so you would be committing with the county to have this internal department, and hiring several staff [members], along with this housing czar or manager.”

Town administrator Bob McLaurin assured the council a termination clause could be written into a resolution should town leaders not care for the shape and scope of a new housing department.

“This is a huge undertaking and we shouldn’t be afraid to make improvements or respond to changes and react to new data,” Flitner cautioned. “I want to draw that line in the sand.”

Other town leaders questioned the proposed chain of command that would have the new housing department report directly to the county.

“The way the Housing Authority is proposed to be set up, with the two key employees reporting to the county even though it’s a joint authority and funded jointly, I’m a little curious about the logic behind that,” said Don Frank. “As time goes on, most of this housing stock is going to be built in town. You would think the Town of Jackson should have a greater role in not only hiring and firing, but in setting the agenda and goals in what the new Housing Authority will do. There’s no mention of town having a role in overseeing the director.”

Frank further worried about the county’s ability to handle a larger, dual housing agency.

“Teton County is understaffed. They haven’t replaced their planning director since we loaned them Tyler [Sinclair],” Frank stated. “In this iteration we are asking county administrators to take on an even bigger, more complex department. I’m asking myself does the county have the bandwidth to do this well?”

Other councilmembers joined Frank in wrestling for control of the department.

“How exactly was it decided that this would be a county department, since a lot of affordable housing going forward will be built in town?” Stanford wondered. “And will the town be involved in examining the budget of the Housing Authority?”

Flitner, too, was wary of resolution wording that appeared to leave the town out on the wings. “I’m comfortable with the hybrid [organization] even though clarity wasn’t made with the Petroff bill,” she said. “Our colleagues across the parking lot have more legal expertise and experience in this, and that’s great, we can take advantage of that, but I would like to have more of a comfort level 20 years from now. The town needs to have oversight.”

And Lenz still isn’t ready to take a first step in any direction.

“Either you have a housing authority or a housing department. But as the Housing Authority exists now, the county has approved every project the Authority has ever had, and I don’t know if that is kosher or not,” Lenz said. “You have everybody saying how horribly they’ve done—that’s all I’ve heard about [the Housing Authority] for the last year and a half, anyway—and I don’t know where we’re going and what to expect as a joint department when we get there. It’s a big question mark. How does it all fit together?”

Wildcard wrench in the works

If town leaders were gun-shy about moving forward, messages from former mayor Mark Barron have left them paralyzed to act.

“I’m a little confused as to why you are going forward with this at this time,” Barron said at a town meeting last week. “I’m a little confused why there’s never been mentioned that 100 percent of the housing the county is talking about is all located in the Town of Jackson. If I was on the town council I would ask myself why that was happening. I would ask myself why I wouldn’t be in the lead position, and why this department wouldn’t be housed within the Town of Jackson when all of the impacts of this housing is proposed to go there.

“If you think for a minute you will have control over a Teton County department, think about Parks and Rec. How much control do you have over them? That is just a small potatoes version of what’s coming with a joint county-led, county-housed department for housing. And maybe there will be one day when the county commissioners come up with a workforce housing plan outside of the limits of the Town of Jackson, but I haven’t heard that plan yet, have you?”

Flitner said she has full confidence the county will fill in their complete neighborhoods with workforce housing development. Allen added that the lack of scheduled affordable housing projects in the county was due to the town being ahead of the county in LDR revisions. “There’s not an attempt to put all the affordable housing in Jackson,” she assured.

Harmonious or hostile?

Electeds and managers from the town and county say they do not recognize any strained relationship. Differences arise and are handled with professional courtesy and respect, according to Flitner.

“I think there is a great working relationship there. I certainly value and like all these guys,” Flitner said. “We’ve got very complex issues to work through. We are going to have to do that and we won’t always agree. I’m comfortable with a little conflict or lack of clarity. It doesn’t bother me a bit. It’s just important to keep things civil.”

Allen said, “I think there have been some very weighty subjects between the town and county. Both bodies are trying to do the best they can to represent their constituencies. The most important thing is we can continue to stall and not move forward, or we can trust that we have really good joint departments with skills and work well for the public.”

McLaurin, who has seen intergovernmental cooperation and strife play out while running the towns of Jackson and Vail, Colorado, said the relationship between town and county here has always been dynamic.

“I think we still have a good relationship. There have been some personality clashes. Some clashes on policy,” he said. “There are always issues of turf but that can be worked out. Things are probably better here than in most city-counties.”

County administrator Alyssa Watkins, who assumed her role at the beginning of last year, said she is still too new to the job to compare the current regime to those past.

“You’ve seen it longer than I have,” she said. “It’s probably natural for town and county to have some disagreements. But I’ve heard we typically don’t. My relationship with Bob [McLaurin] has been positive and is a great example of that.” PJH


About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

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