Trying to Make Sense of Our Through-The-Looking-Glass World

Sep 4, 2020

Locally, regionally, nationally, and globally, 2020’s manifold uncertainties and pressures are producing ever-increasing amounts of tension, vitriol, and anger. This rich and too-frequently toxic blend is manifesting itself in a variety of ways, few pleasant.

In this and coming newsletters, I’ll explore these stresses and their consequences for the community I serve. They leave me deeply concerned about the future, and not just Jackson Hole’s.

Locally, these pressures have clearly influenced the issue d’jour, a series of three separate incidents involving the Jackson Police Department (JPD). All three arose in the second half of August, and in this newsletter I’ll look at how they have been conjoined and amplified by the larger forces roiling our world.

This newsletter has two basic parts: “Framework” and “My Take.”

First, I’ll provide the framework I’ve developed for trying – keyword trying – to understand all that’s occurred and is occurring in our politically polarized and COVID-plagued world. The JPD issue is a subset of the larger situation, and I think it’s impossible to understand anything going on – JPD or otherwise – without framing it in the broader context.

Second, I’ll offer some observations about the JPD situation, as well as the longer-term implications of what the town and community are going through.

  • Framework
  • 2020: The best-laid plans…
  • 2020: Reality
  • Two metaphors
  • My take
  • 1) Sexual predation is not funny
  • 2) 21st century community; 20th century operating system
  • 3) Looking ahead
  • 4) Politics v. governance
  • 5) Cutting off our nose to spite our face

For those wanting background information on the three JPD incidents, you can follow these links:

  • The false rumor that the town council is trying to defund the JPD (for more information, click HERE)
  • The JPD wrote a profoundly tone deaf Facebook post about a potential sexual assault. One consequence of the resulting turmoil was that the officer who wrote the post resigned. (click HERE)
  • A 2019 lawsuit alleging misogyny in the JPD became a headline story in late August 2020 (click HERE)

Three other thoughts.

First, the occurrences of the last several months have me wondering whether local government can do all the community is asking it to do.

The metaphor that comes to mind is asking a dog to climb a tree. No matter how much it may want to, and no matter how much we may want it to, a dog’s fundamental structure makes tree-climbing impossible.

I wonder if the same is true of local government. We ask it to provide core services, which it does very well. We also ask it to address the increasing number of increasingly-complex issues facing our community and region, if only because neither the private nor non-profit sectors can handle them. As I discuss below, this suggests we need to take a closer look at what we ask government to do and whether it has the proper skills and resources – both human and financial – to do all we’re asking of it.

Second, this newsletter is very long – not exactly the format for maximizing readership. But the issues I’m writing about are complex and important, and I’d rather err on the side of giving them their due. For those put off by the length, please accept my apologies.

Finally, this newsletter reaches not just my constituents (i.e., residents of the Town of Jackson), but also folks living around the region, nation, and globe. While it is naturally Jackson-focused, I believe many of the larger issues and concerns apply broadly. I’ll be interested to know your thoughts.

Thanks so much, stay healthy, and all the best,

P.S.One casualty of this summer’s craziness has been my outreach efforts. No newsletters. Woefully behind on my e-mails. My apologies, and thanks for your understanding.


2020: The best-laid plans…

In January, 2020, the Jackson Town Council held its annual strategic planning retreat. All five council members agreed the town’s highest priority was continuing to provide core services – water, sewer, roads, building permits, and the like – at a very high level.

That noted, core services aren’t sexy. As a result, about the only time people pay attention to them are those rare instances when there’s a problem. Because of this, the things that makes headlines and consume much of the council’s time are the things beyond core services – affordable housing, mass transit, stream protection, and the like.

My “Iceberg Model of Town Government” illustrates this idea.

Iceberg Model Town Government

Each non-core problem and opportunity the town is asked to address is supported by passionate advocates who feel their cause is a community need. And the political reality is that it’s hard to say “no” when someone asks us to do something, especially when the request has merit. The simple truth, though, is that the town government lacks the money, staffing, and expertise to successfully address all the issues before us. It’s also an open question of whether we have enough money, staffing, and expertise to successfully address all the stuff we’ve already agreed to take on.

Given this reality, the retreat focused on prioritizing the many things council members want to accomplish. In the end, we identified a handful of priorities, two of which I felt were tremendously important:

  • Balance workload with resources
    • Because always saying “yes” is part of the town government’s culture, staff is asked to do a great deal. The concern was that they were spread too thin and burning out. In addition, always saying “yes” can make it hard to address priorities in a timely fashion.
  • In November 2020, get local voters to approve a one percent increase in sales tax
    • Much of the burden on staff comes from the town government trying to respond to the increasing complexities of our rapidly growing and changing community. More funding would greatly help ease this burden. While sales taxes are not the perfect-world way to fund local government, they are the best mechanism available to us under Wyoming state law.

2020: Reality

Life often gets in the way of plans, and that’s what happened to the priorities the council identified at our January retreat. Although we managed to place the additional penny measure on this November’s ballot, starting in March most of the town’s other plans were knocked into a 10 gallon hat.

First came COVID-19, which consumed so much staff time that, with one exception, we were able to do little else besides provide core services.

The exception was the FY 2021 budget, which had to be finished by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. Budgeting for FY21 was brutal because our goal was to not cut any staff while assuming our revenues would drop 40 percent.

  • By late May we’d gotten through the worst of that process, and it seemed we could begin addressing the many balls we’d dropped to deal with COVID-19. ‘Twas not to be, though, for in quick succession we were hit by four additional and significant occurrences:
  • The multiple issues raised by George Floyd’s death.
  • The flood of tourists visiting Jackson Hole this summer.
    • Since late June, Jackson Hole has had more visitors than in summer 2019. Yet because of COVID-19, only around 60 percent of our typical summer tourism infrastructure has been available. The result? Massive stress compounding the usual summer fatigue, short fuses, and burnout.
  • In advance of Wyoming’s August 18 primary, the future of local law enforcement became a political issue.
  • On primary day, an inappropriate post on the Jackson Police Department’s Facebook page erupted in controversy.

Adding additional richness to the mix has been the national political climate and November’s elections: national, state, and local. Sadly for Jackson Hole, I fear the last several months of local tumult plus the last four years of national polarization will produce a local election season hallmarked by ever-increasing tensions, acrimony, and anger. Ugh.

Two metaphors

Combine all this and two metaphors come to mind.

1) COVID-19 has put all of us in a vise

It’s not just the Town of Jackson that’s in a metaphorical vise, but every individual, business, and institution in the nation, if not the world.

Pre-COVID-19, things were already pretty darned fraught; over the last five-plus months, COVID-19 has made things profoundly worse. Daily, inexorably, the COVID-19 vise has tightened bit by bit, slowly increasing the pressure on each of us.

The result? The previously hidden cracks and fissures and fault lines of our community have become increasingly visible, increasingly unstable, and increasingly dangerous.

This pressure has brought out the best in some of us. In many others, though – both people and institutions – the opposite has occurred: the pressure has revealed previously latent weaknesses and shortcomings.

2) The Greater Yellowstone region in 1988

In the summer of 1988, years of drought and decades without major fires created the perfect conditions for one little spark to ignite a major conflagration. That spark hit, then another, then another, and pretty soon our entire region was ablaze in a fire that only the changing seasons finally and fully extinguished.

As a society, that’s our situation today. The pressures created by issues ranging from growing income inequality to increasing political polarization have been tremendously exacerbated by COVID-19, leaving Jackson Hole and many other communities so depleted and so lacking in reserves that even the smallest action can and has produced extraordinary consequences.

Significantly compounding these pressures is the fact we have no idea when any of this will end. Humans can endure a great deal if we know an end is in sight. Absent that, though, it’s much, much harder to keep hope alive. And absent hope, civil society can fall apart very quickly.

In such a climate, I hope we can recognize how anxious and fragile and vulnerable each one of us is. If so, then maybe we can act on that recognition by choosing our words a little more carefully, acting with little more empathy, and bringing a bit more compassion to our interactions. In the same way that all of us are vulnerable to the coronavirus, so too are all of us vulnerable to the strains it has produced in our community and institutions.

My take

Everything I describe above is such a tangled skein that it defies easy analysis. As a result, I won’t try.What I can do, however, is make five observations.

1) Sexual predation is not funny

There is nothing funny about sexual predation and those victimized by it.

While I realize the Facebook post was the author’s attempt at self-deprecating humor, there is no place for humor in any situation involving sexual assault, domestic violence, and related incidents.

2) 21st century community; 20th century operating system

I believe the Town of Jackson faces two overarching issues. One involves the entire community; the other is internal to the organization.

The issue involving the entire community is determining a human carrying capacity for the entire Tetons region. Absent that, it’s clear to me that development pressures will end up fundamentally compromising the health of the area’s ecosystem, just as they have fundamentally compromised the health of every ecosystem in every part of the world with an industrial or post-industrial economy. If that happens here, it will destroy the foundation of Jackson Hole’s character and economy.

More germane to the JPD situation is the second issue: addressing the fact that the Town of Jackson in particular, and Jackson Hole in general, is a 21st century community with a 20th century operating system.

By this I mean that, as changes in technology and the economy have increasingly stretched, frayed, and severed the umbilical cord connecting where we live to where we work, Jackson Hole has become increasingly attractive to those whose livelihoods and wealth allow them to live anywhere they want. This trend began decades ago, and has picked up steam with every advance in tele-commuting. One consequence is that, as Jackson Hole has become increasingly connected to the larger world, our issues have become increasingly complex. And as that has happened, an ever-increasing level of expectations has been placed upon local government.

In the face of all this, our operating system – the way local government works and is funded – is firmly rooted in the 20th century.

When Wyoming established its mechanism for funding local government in the 1970s, tourism and the sales taxes it produced were the foundation of Jackson Hole’s economy. Yet while that 50 year old funding mechanism remains in place today, taxable sales currently account for under 20 percent of the county’s overall economic activity.

Similarly little has changed about the way the town is governed. 50 years ago, the town’s mayor and four councilmembers were part-time elected officials, and most of the town’s financial and human resources went toward providing core services such as water, sewer, and streets. Today’s governance mechanism is identical, but the issues are bigger, more complex, and involve much larger amounts of money.

I say this not to complain, but to point out that there is a growing chasm between what our community wants and needs from local government and what local government has the structure to accomplish. Simply put, changes in the community have greatly outpaced changes in local government’s human and financial resources.

Unfortunately, there is little chance Wyoming’s local government funding mechanism will change any time soon, for August’s statewide primary results suggest Wyoming’s already-conservative legislature will become even more so in 2021. What the Town of Jackson can do, though, is ask whether the services we provide align with the needs of our 21st century community. We can also ask how well we perform those services, and whether they can be done better and/or more cost-effectively.

It is through this lens that I approach the “Defund the Police” discussion.

For starters, before considering whether to change any town service or department, we need to get clear and complete answers to four basic questions:

  • What does that department currently do?
  • What do we want it to do?
  • Whatever it does, how well do they do it?
  • How do we know how well they do it?

This last question is especially important, because integral to a 21st century operating system is basing policies on a clear and shared understanding of what’s actually occurring. This is especially true in the case of any “Defund the Police” discussion – while it’s a great bumpersticker slogan, the term is so amorphous it can mean just about anything to just about anybody.

Put another way, under the rules of a 21st century operating system, policy is driven not by anecdote or gut feeling or catchy slogans. Nor is it evaluated that way. Yet historically, that’s what the Town of Jackson has done – anecdote and gut feelings are an integral feature of our 20th century operating system.

Because no human institution is perfect, it’s easy to find negative anecdotes and gut feelings about any institution. That’s certainly the case with the JPD, and the Facebook post was one of many incidents demonstrating that the department can do things better. This was clear to former police chief Todd Smith, and is the goal of his replacement, Acting Chief Michelle Weber.

But both they and every other thoughtful observer of organizational behavior recognizes that changing an organization is hard, especially in fraught times. In this light, if the issue of examining the JPD comes up, I’ll support it only as part of a systematic examination of the entire town government. Otherwise, there’s little hope for meaningful, long-lasting change.

I’ll also want to make sure we are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Whether it’s the JPD or any other service the town currently offers, we need to make changes based on a clear understanding of what we do well, what we do poorly, and why. Of root causes, not symptoms. This is the 21st century operating system approach to the issue, and sadly it’s not one with which we have much familiarity.

3) Looking ahead

To sound like a broken record, if we are going to meaningfully address Jackson Hole’s core challenges, and if we are going to come close to reaching our region’s potential, it’s imperative that the Town of Jackson develop a 21st century operating system for our 21st century community.

Such an operating system will not only meet the needs of today’s Jackson Hole, but be nimble enough to stay relevant as our community continues to evolve.

In this vision, the JPD will do what the entire community needs it to do: all races, all classes, all segments of society. We will not, however, ask it to do more than that. Nor will we ask it to do things it clearly isn’t designed to do.

This latter point is key, because over the years we’ve asked our institutions – not just the cops, but our schools, hospitals, courts and the like – to do things beyond their core missions. This 20th century approach to governance is increasingly problematic because it ignores the fact that there’s a large and growing mis-alignment between society’s needs and the institutions we’ve developed for addressing those needs.

Instead, we need to be clear about both what we ask of government and whether government is the entity best-suited to provide that service.

A clear and shared understanding of what the community needs local government to do will be the foundation of a 21st century Town of Jackson government. In this approach each department – current or future – will do only the things appropriate for them to do, only those things they can succeed at, and only the things for which they receive adequate resources. To do otherwise will set both government and the community up for failure.

That we are beginning to think about this approach is a tribute to how critics on all sides have shifted the conversation about local government. Making those changes, however, requires getting past the polarization that is increasingly gripping our community, region, and nation. It’s hard enough in tranquil times to get the 50 percent plus one vote democracies need to make change. Throw in polarization and its attendant acrimony, and governing becomes much more difficult.

4) Politics v. governance

The rumor the Town Council was going to defund the JPD reached its crescendo at our August 17 workshop.

The session was attended by dozens of people concerned that, at the meeting, the council was going to limit the size and/or scope of the JPD. This wasn’t true, but word to that effect had gone out before the meeting in a series of e-mail blasts, robo-calls, and robo-tweets. All of these messages urged recipients to attend the meeting and show their support for the JPD. Further, a large subset of these messages also disparaged two of my colleagues – Jackson Mayor Pete Muldoon and Vice-Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson – for actively leading an effort to defund the police.

The council was considering no such thing. What both Pete and Hailey did do was support a motion at our August 3 meeting expressing the council’s interest in conducting a comprehensive examination of all the services the town provides. No date was attached to that examination, and it passed unanimously. Of the five councilmembers voting for it, though, only Pete and Hailey are running for office this year.

The robo-messages suggest Jackson Hole is no longer insulated from the sorts of ugly tactics that have previously “blessed” only national, state, and big-city politics. This disappoints and angers me, for it’s just another straw on the camel’s back of Jackson Hole’s homogenization. It also, for several reasons, saddens me beyond measure.

One reason is this kind of politics does nothing to uplift our community. Instead, it drags everything down to a lower level where few win and many lose. Another reason is that, in our current volatile world, anything that amplifies tensions and polarization runs the risk of being the spark that ignites some portion of our community, pitting resident against resident.

The worst aspect, however, is this. When the election is over, we’ll still have to govern. And however successful robo-calls and other scorched earth tactics may be politically, they make governing harder at a time when good governance is supremely important.

You can’t govern if you don’t win office, but if you run a scorched earth campaign to achieve your goal, it suggests you’ve lost sight of why you’re running in the first place: to be a fiduciary for the jurisdiction and organization you represent. If your campaign weakens the bonds that connect residents to one another and their government, it makes the already-challenging fiduciary responsibility that much harder.

To me, a “scorch the political earth and damn the governance consequences” dynamic underlies a lot of the problems we see in Washington DC, particularly those that have hallmarked the last four years. To think this dynamic has arrived in Jackson Hole makes me very anxious indeed.

5) Cutting off our nose to spite our face

One of the immensely important accomplishments of efforts such as Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police is that they’ve drawn attention to how systemic issues underlie many of the nation’s most significant challenges.

Clearly Jackson Hole is not immune to these challenges. Absent a deeper understanding of their scope and causes, though, local government can do little more than help address their symptoms. It is here where the current turmoil over the JPD is laced with bitter irony.

As the earlier “Iceberg Model” illustration shows, in FY 2020 85 percent of the Town of Jackson’s budget and 77 percent of our human resources were devoted to core services such as water, sewer, and roads. This left us very little money for programs addressing the community’s social and environmental problems.

Those problems are real, though, and to meaningfully address even their symptoms requires more money than the town currently takes in. Hence the council’s prioritization of an additional penny of sales tax. If voters approve the increase, the millions of dollars it raises will support programs helping all facets of our community: social and environmental; from babies to senior citizens.

Yet when you add the recent JPD issues and scorched-earth political tactics to an already fraught community gestalt, the most likely result is an erosion of faith in local government. And if that occurs, people will be less likely to vote to authorize the additional penny.

Hence the bitter irony. Should our constituents reject the extra penny, it will become supremely difficult for the town to address the very issues they are asking us to address.

To prevent that outcome and, more broadly, counter the cynicism toward local government, I’ll be spending a lot of time between now and November 3 drumming up support for the extra penny. If it passes, Jackson Hole will have much to celebrate, both financially and for what it says about our ability to come together as a community.

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