Obringer says years of service give him perspective
Councilman says town needs experience as it revises comprehensive plan, housing program.
By Noah Brenner, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: October 15, 2008
Looking for the phone number to The Rancher or Gnarley’s Dancehall and Saloon or another place from Jackson’s past?
Call Mark Obringer.
Obringer, an incumbent running for re-election to the Jackson Town Council, believes in the lessons someone can learn from studying history.
On a local level, this fascination manifests itself in his phone book collection. Obringer has kept an assortment of Jackson Hole phone books stretching back to 1990 in a filing cabinet at Town Hall. He consults them because he is interested, he said, but also because it is a way to quantify changes in the community that may not be picked up in figures like total square footage and general fund balances.
“When people say things like downtown has changed, you can go back and see not just anecdotally but analytically what has changed,” he said. “Fifteen years ago there used to be five or six cafe places downtown where people used to just go hang out. In 2005, there were like 50 massage therapists here, in 1990 there were none – that says something about change in the community.”
He also believes that his historical perspective is valuable.
“History tells the story of the place you live, and I believe one of the things we need to preserve is our sense of memory,” he said. “It’s all important to who we are and why we came here and where we are going to go.”
Obringer, 55, moved to Jackson with his family in 1988. He grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind.
As a child, he camped in the valley with his family – he still has a family photo taken in front of the Jackson Hole Playhouse – and it always remained a favorite place.
While he was living in Atlanta and working as a consultant for developers building that city’s sprawling suburbs, he and his wife, Mary, thought about adopting a son. But they did not want to raise him in Atlanta. A friend said he had an apartment for them in Jackson but they needed to move immediately.
“We packed up everything in the truck and looked like the Beverly Hillbillies,” he said. “We got here, pulled into McDonald’s and it started snowing on the first of June and Mary started crying. I have loved living here ever since.”
Besides his historical perspective, the other thing that often comes up in discussions of town politics is Obringer’s family: his wife, Mary, and son, Max.
He cites his family not simply as a motivation to get involved but as a reminder of whom he is representing as a member of the Town Council.
“Mary, being my touchstone, helps me stay centered on what is happening in the community,” he said, sitting in a conference room at Town Hall. “And Max constantly reminds me it is his generation, not mine, that is the future of Jackson. I am not doing it for my kid, but when you spend as much time in this building as we do, you can lose touch.”
Three times during the interview Obringer stopped to answer a call from Max, usually answering the phone with a cheery “Hey, Buddy.” If Max calls during a council meeting and needs a hand, Obringer will tell those in the room he needs to go and that he will be back as soon as he can.
When Obringer arrived in Jackson, he became involved with the Successful Communities initiative – he still has its 1990 report – which eventually gave way to helping write the 1994 comprehensive plan as a member of the Jackson Planning Commission. He was a member of the Planning Commission from 1990 to 1994 and then won a seat on the Town Council. He sat on the council until 1998, when he challenged Barney Oldfield for the mayor’s seat. He lost but was re-elected to the council in 2000 and has been a member ever since.
Because he places such value on history and he has the most historical experience of anyone running, Obringer naturally thinks he is uniquely fit to lead the town through issues like the comprehensive plan revision and overhauling affordable housing.
“Part of the reason I am running again is that I could be one of the few people that can walk people through this stuff,” he said. “I feel like it is up to me as an elected official to find a better way to involve the community in that dialogue.”
Foremost in that dialogue needs to be revamping the affordable housing program, he said. He has advocated repeatedly for finding a way to generate housing without being dependent on new development – finding funding to build housing rather than relying solely on mitigation rates.
“We have an opportunity to create a housing plan that is acceptable to the community, that speaks to what we are going to do and how we are going to get there,” he said. “When we get into the debate about housing, it is the how, when, where, what questions that frighten people.”
Obringer discounts the idea that to bring a fresh perspective to government voters must elect different types of people: older, younger, richer, poorer.
“What change means to me is you don’t need to change the people in government, but you need to change the way government does business,” he said.
He points to the comprehensive plan process as one place that could use a change in approach for local leaders.
“My style of leadership is to inform the public what their options are, have a dialogue and have them give me a couple options, and then I’ll pick one,” he said. “We are missing that middle step. We went right to maps and had our Bull Run at South Park and then we stopped talking about housing.”
After 16 years of fighting Bull Runs over development, planning, housing and a host of other issues, it is Obringer’s family that keeps him motivated to go to another meeting on Monday night.
“I am just very passionate about what I do – I like it, but believe me, there are times I get burned out,” he said. “But that takes us back to Mary as my touchstone. I need to go back and be with her and have her be enthusiastic and say look, Mark, this is our community and you do have the answers.”