I hope you had a wonderful holiday season, and that your 2020 is off to a terrific start.
I’m writing this on January 7, 2020, the one-year anniversary of being sworn in as a member of Jackson’s Town Council. To mark the occasion, I want to explore three topics:
Four Major First-year Take-aways
3. An extraordinarily complex job
4. An extraordinary staff
Three Themes for 2020
3. Community ROI
Going into my second year on the council, I remain thrilled, honored, and humbled by the opportunity to serve this community I love so dearly.
As always, thank you for your interest and support.
|Four Major First-year Take-aways|
During my first year in office, I’ve thought many times about a Longfellow poem my mother taught us as children:
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.
Being a town council member has been a lot like that. Call it 80 percent very, very good, and 20 percent horrid. A pretty good ratio I’d say, and all in all I couldn’t be happier to serve Jackson as a town councilor.
My first year in office has been filled with surprises.
For example, I’ve been surprised how much time the job has required. Well, maybe not “required,” but to do the job to my standards, I’ve felt obliged to put in a lot of time.
When I decided to run, I was told being on the town council was a quarter-time job. I knew I was being conned, but until being in office I didn’t realize how big a con that was: This first year I’ve averaged well over 20 hours/week, and some weeks it’s been north of 50. And the simple truth is that, as an elected official, when I’m in Jackson Hole I’m never really off the clock – the passion residents have for our community leads to fascinating conversations in the most unlikely of places and circumstances…
That noted, because I enjoy the job so much, only rarely do the hours feel burdensome.
Speaking of time, I’ve also been surprised by how quickly this first year has gone. We’ve done so much, yet I still have so much to learn.
Which leads into another surprise: the gaps.
One gap is between the issues I ran on and the actual day-to-day workings of the job. Elections are about the big stuff, but much of the actual work of local government revolves around providing basic services plus addressing the “known unknowns” that pop up in any bustling, thriving community. Add them together, and there’s surprisingly little bandwidth left for tackling the issues so hotly debated during campaigns.
Another gap lies between what I thought the job entailed and what it actually consists of. I assumed my eight years on the St. John’s Medical Center board would give me a better sense of what I was in for on the Town Council. I was wrong.
In particular, long-time employees have noted that the town is currently dealing with more issues than they can ever remember. And it’s not just the quantity of the issues, but their breadth and complexity. Add it all together, and it’s a far richer palette than I ever encountered as a hospital trustee.
3. An extraordinarily complex job
Building on this theme of a complex palette, the town council job is exceptionally well-designed to feed my insecurities. I say this because I am a deliberative sort, someone who likes to feel well-versed in a subject before acting. Yet the council must deal with such a large range and volume of issues that even the most conscientious councilor can become truly knowledgeable about only a handful of them. At best.
For example, in no particular order, here are 25 among the hundreds of items that came before the council in 2019:
• Running ski areas • Selling and consuming liquor
• The health hazards of cell phone radiation • Parking
• Growth (both population and construction-related)
• Land development financing • Energy conservation policies
• The costs and logistics of charging electric vehicles
• Banning plastic shopping bags
• Federal laws related to helicopter flights and airports
• Marketing to tourists • Federal laws related to cable television
• Healthcare financing • Regional transit economics and ridership
• Building and landscape design • Water and wastewater treatment
• Wetlands habitats • Landslide prevention and mitigation
• Childcare needs and standards • Historic preservation standards
• Sidewalk and bikepath design • Global warming
• Human services needs • Fire at the wildland urban interface
• Businesses, job creation, and housing needs
4. An extraordinary staff
Any success I’ve enjoyed as a town councilor is in large part due to the Town of Jackson’s extraordinary staff.
One reason I ran for town council was that I knew the town ran a first-rate operation. Experiencing it first-hand, it’s even better than I expected.
Complementing the town’s extremely talented staff is a culture which allows staff to thrive. The pride town employees have in their jobs is palpable, which makes for a wonderful work environment.
All this is a testimony to all those who’ve served the town: past and present, staff and electeds. And in that spirit, I would be remiss if I didn’t note how much I enjoy working with my colleagues on the Town Council: Mayor Pete Muldoon, Vice-Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson, and councilors Arne Jorgensen and Jim Stanford. Each is smart, dedicated to the community, and truly delightful to work with. I couldn’t be luckier. Nor could the town.
|Three Themes for 2020|
Although the basic functions of government take up a lot of council and staff time, during 2019 the town made an active effort to address big-picture issues. This momentum will carry over into 2020, and during this coming year I believe many of the council’s policy-related efforts will focus on three themes:CarbonFunding, andCommunity ROI
Earth is rapidly warming, and all life on the planet is already suffering the consequences.
Locally, the implications are not good. Because deep cold is the wellspring of Jackson Hole’s ecosystem, character, and economy, we are especially vulnerable to global warming. As a result, I believe a growing concern about our carbon footprint will become a theme running through the community’s discussions and actions in 2020, and beyond.
I say this because I’ve been hearing about global warming from a growing and increasingly varied number of people. No longer is global warming of concern just to environmentalists, but also to our recreationalists, government officlals and, critically, business people, especially those in tourism. If we haven’t yet reached critical mass regarding awareness and the need for action, we soon will.2. FundingTo put it bluntly, Jackson Hole is a community with Champagne tastes and a beer budget. And the gap between the two is quickly reaching a point where something will have to give.
There are three ways this might happen:The town will have to do less/address fewer issues;The town will continue to all it currently does, but at a lower standard of service; and/orThe town will have to identify new, recurring sources of revenue.The shorthand explanation for this dilemma is that Jackson Hole is a 21st century community relying on a 20th century funding model.
Wyoming’s local government funding model was established in the mid-20th century, and reflects the state’s economy of that era. Yet especially here in Jackson Hole, the opportunities and challenges facing Wyoming’s towns and counties are firmly rooted in the 21st century.
Specifically, when Wyoming established its government funding model 50-plus years ago, Jackson Hole did not have affordable housing issues, did not need a transit system, and was not plagued by the nation’s greatest income inequality. As a result, like other Wyoming towns, residents expected little more of the town than providing basic services (e.g., cops, water, sewer, plowing, and the like). And that’s what the funding model was designed to finance.
Things are very different today, though. Residents not only want the town to provide core services at a very high level, but also address a range of additional issues.
The good news is that the Town of Jackson is not only continuing to provide core services at a very high level, but spending around $8 million/year on housing, transit, and social services. But the simple reality is that after spending $48 million/year on core services, there isn’t enough money left over to meaningfully address all the other challenges the town faces.
Hence the growing tension between what local government is being asked to do and what we have the resources to address. So far, we’ve been able to do a great deal because the town staff is not only very good, but willing to work itself ragged in service to the community. But this “21st century town; 20th century finances; bridge the gap on the backs of the town staff ” model is nearing its breaking point, and I suspect 2020 will be the year we begin to seriously address it.
3. Community ROI
2019 marked the 15th consecutive year Teton County had the highest per-capita income of any county in America. It was also at least the 8th consecutive year we had the nation’s greatest income inequality.
Wealth attracts wealth, and the increasing amounts of money pouring into Teton County are threatening many of the intangibles that create our community character – not just obvious qualities like economic diversity, but less tangible ones such as the valley’s long-held ethic that “we’re all in this together.”
Unfortunately, we lack both the language for discussing these intangible qualities and the tools for measuring them. We desperately need both, though, because the nation is replete with examples of how growing wealth can corrode once-vibrant communities.
In this spirit, defining our community character and then measuring it is the essential idea behind a notion I’ve developed: Community ROI (Return on Investment). Financial ROI has long been an incredibly powerful tool for shaping business decisions, and if we are going to maintain our community character, we need an analogous and an equally powerful tool for shaping decisions about the many non-financial aspects of our community.
After more than four years of on-and-off deliberation, on January 6 the Jackson Town Council approved the basic framework Snow King Mountain Resort will use to guide its development over the next many years.
Until I took office, I did not pay much attention to Snow King’s slowly-evolving proposal. As a result, I spent a good deal of time in 2019 developing a framework that allowed me to understand the intricacies of the proposal and rationale behind it.
Ultimately, my framework had six constituent parts.
First, the community’s fundamental goal is to keep the Snow King ski area open in perpetuity. Whatever our differences on how to make it happen, everyone agrees it should happen.
Second, I wanted to ensure that, whatever the outcome, future town councils never faced a situation with Snow King as messy and convoluted and contentious as the one our council faced.
Third, like it or not, several years ago the community made the decision we would seek a private sector approach to making Snow King work. Incumbent in that decision was the need for Snow King’s owners to make a profit.
There was and is fierce disagreement over some potential revenue sources, most prominently a zip line. But if Snow King is to remain viable as a privately owned ski area – which history suggests is far from guaranteed – it will have to generate revenue from a variety of sources, especially during Jackson’s far-busier summer season.
That the owners were willing to compromise on other revenue streams but not on the zip line led me to believe that running a zip line in the summer was crucial to keeping the ski area operating in the winter. In turn, this led me back to the first pillar of my framework: Keep Snow King operating.
Fourth, Snow King is a Rorschach blot for Jackson Hole.
By this I mean that, in a variety of ways – including its ruggedness, rawness, and accessibility – Snow King is a symbol of much what locals prize about Jackson Hole. As a result, the Snow King proposal became not just another land use issue, but an issue speaking to residents’ hopes, fears and, most of all, passions about our community. As I listened to testimony and considered the many proposals and counter-proposals, this reality was never far from my mind.
Fifth, for all the hubbub generated by Snow King’s proposal, there is much about it the Town of Jackson doesn’t control.
The Snow King proposal covers land owned by the Town of Jackson, the US Forest Service, and a host of private individuals and corporations. Each of these players has certain rights and certain motivations, not all of which align. Further, each has certain powers – great in some areas, and very little in others – but no one has ultimate say over all aspects of how the area will be developed.
The limits of the town’s control were not always clear to those concerned about Snow King’s future. They were, however, a fundamental reality shaping the council’s deliberations and actions.
The final piece of my framework was trust.
“Trust, but verify” is a Russian proverb famously used by Ronald Reagan. Much of the final negotiating with Snow King centered around creating verifiable mechanisms for keeping the Snow King ski area running in case problems arose.
Ultimately the town and Snow King reached a solid “verify” agreement, so I’m comfortable that, barring an incredibly bad series of events, Snow King’s lifts will indeed keep spinning.
As I thought about how I would vote, though, I also came to realize that verification alone was not enough. Specifically, had I not developed a deep level of trust that Snow King’s developers have the community’s best interests in mind, I would have voted against the project
I recognize Snow King is in business to make a profit, but I also I believe its owners and management sincerely want to serve the community. Put another way, after spending a lot of time with the Snow King development team, I believe that, if I could measure it, I would find a large Community ROI embedded in the Snow King proposal.
Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said about all of the proposals that come before the town council. This reality isn’t new, of course – Jackson Hole’s history is replete with charlatans and mountebanks who have tried to exploit this community for their own very narrow benefit.
But as unfashionable as it may seem in today’s me-first political climate, I believe qualities such as trust and goodwill and kindness are traits to be celebrated rather than weaknesses to be exploited. They are the qualities at the core of the Jackson Hole I love, and are ones I look to nurture in all I do, personally and professionally.
Sadly, grifters are going to grift, and sometimes they succeed in fleecing our community. But as efforts such as Old Bill’s Fun Run and saving the Café Genevieve block suggest, the quintessential Jackson Hole resident recognizes there is far more to our community than can ever be captured on a financial balance sheet. Going forward, our challenge and opportunity is to figure out how to strengthen that quality, for it is the essence of our community character.
Doing this won’t be easy, because with big money often comes a transactional mindset antithetical to the qualities that make our community what it is. Happily, though, the Snow King process has been animated by a large measure of Community ROI – here’s hoping we can build on it in 2020.