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Random thoughts on a rainy October day
By Paul Bruun, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: October 24, 2012
“You don’t have a chance,” I was told repeatedly by everyone learning of my application for one of two seats available on the Jackson Town Council. “If you weren’t born or lived here for 30 years, forget about it.”
In spite of this same irritable fall weather, 36 years ago I was traipsing Jackson streets, knocking on doors and asking residents for their vote. After reporting on dozens of Town Council and Board of Teton County Commissioners meetings as the editor of the Jackson Hole Guide, I decided it was time to make a personal contribution to the community that had treated me so well. But after many visits, standing in the cold wind, being chased by dogs and ending up in alleys and before trailers and cabins I never knew existed, my Jackson education gained Ph.D. status.
Running a campaign in 1976 varied slightly from today. Lacking social media, Internet video streaming, yard signs, magnetic vehicle identifiers, delicious block parties, video-taped League of Women Voters seminars and two active political parties, things were kinda boring.
I did enter Al Allison’s Happy Hound Potato Peeling Contest (third place) and helped set up local Scout group meeting chairs at the LDS Church.
Otherwise, a meager personal investment bolstered by a pair of $50 donations from late Guide publisher Fred McCabe and budding real estate peddler (and previous Guide advertising manager) Greg Prugh (Sr.) netted me a few tiny teaser newspaper ads and some radio spots on KSGT and the brand new KMTN.
My campaign manager, Lou Centrella (later Llama Louie), who knew absolutely everybody in northwest Wyoming, refused to let me use Jimmy Buffet background music on radio ads.
“Buffet’s a doper, and you’re not,” Louie said. “You can’t have that association in this conservative town.”
Early on in the campaign, Lester Blair, my next door neighbor, called me “The Fishin’ Politician,” and it stuck ... at least for the next 12 years.
Some of the issues from that campaign are hazy, but summer visitor parking and adequate employee housing were involved. A major task was how and where to design and locate a new town sewer plant. Antiquated clay sewer connectors had been collapsed by tree roots and unsupervised installation, and gushing groundwater infiltration overloaded the Flat Creek-adjacent mechanical plant along Gregory Lane. The Jackson facility was in violation of its discharge permit and thus attracted an Environmental Protection Agency-threatened $10,000-a-day fine for noncompliance.
The town had been stashing sales tax revenues for a plant replacement. Landowners, developers and pro-growth types wanted an aerated lagoon plant located in South Park, with room to expand and serve future Rafter J, Porter Estate, Melody Ranch and Seherr-Thoss buildouts.
Others, along with the three Teton County commissioners and me, favored a new town mechanical plant that wouldn’t wipe out the then-current county land-use plan. Due to the high groundwater table, South Park development was pegged at one unit for 3 acres.
My argument was for the town’s responsibility to its current residents, not to county dwellers expecting a free ride with no financial involvement. Unfortunately, I still resent the likes of Wilson — and possibly the Aspens, Teton Village and even Moose — profiting from the Jackson wastewater project without substantial town reimbursement.
A post-election impasse grew until the EPA cast the deciding vote, creating the now long-forgotten Tri-Party Agreement between the town, county and federal government.
A realistic backward glance shows my chance of getting elected was absurd, especially after only four years as a Jackson resident. September and October were devoid of hunting and fishing. After my day’s work in the Stone Drug sporting goods department, there was only knocking on doors, pounding the pavement and growing discouraged, yet forcing myself to explore another street full of strangers.
The poor-boy primary campaign paid off, transferring me (barely) into the general election. The other candidates were Vera Cheney, Gerry Winn and incumbent Norman Mellor.
Gaining rapid momentum was Lower Valley Power and Light’s request that the county and especially Spring Gulch landowners facilitate a Snake River right-of-way crossing at the Gros Ventre River for a new high-voltage transmission line to upgrade electrical reliability to Jackson. Lower Valley threatened to stop new power hookups in Teton County until the issue was settled. Reaction to this threat launched the Building and Trades Associates group of construction providers, who stationed a cement mixer, tractor and truck roadblock around the county courthouse to gain commissioner attention.
After the election, in which I placed second, about 30 votes behind Norm — a thoughtful machinist as well as a veteran town councilor — the Lower Valley question plopped on the council’s desk. Building and Trades Associates demanded the town’s stand on the Snake-crossing power line versus a proposal by a young attorney named Hank Phibbs to reinsulate the existing power line corridor.
Ralph Gill was the new mayor and didn’t particularly care for what he referred to as “the Phibbs route.” During a Lower Valley board meeting in the old Center Street offices, Ralph and I called on George Perkins, the co-op’s dedicated office manager. After relaying our request for an audience, George sadly said the Lower Valley board refused to meet with any Jackson officials.
At our next council meeting, the mayor, a veteran Hereford rancher as well as a former county commissioner, related the results of recent visits with all the Spring Gulch ranchers. Ralph explained that none of them were interested in having high-energy power lines bisecting their properties.
“When the time comes, I’ll vote for the Phibbs route,” Ralph announced.
Discussion hurried around the table, with Norm Mellor, Tom Lamb and A. E. “Man” McCain agreeing with the mayor.
Then, looking at me, Man McCain chuckled. “So, Mr. Environmentalist, what do you have to say?”
“I say, let’s vote,” I replied, recognizing an early lesson in how a community full of old-timers had been handling their own problems for quite a while.
With that vote, the town and county strongly encouraged Lower Valley to rethink its power upgrade engineering plan. And long before he dreamed about a county commission seat, Hank Phibbs helped minimize intrusion on our treasured Jackson skyline.
A recent candidates forum jogged more highlights of past town business. Included in the residue were installing water meters, a bus system, conditional-use permits, standard-width streets, snowplowing regulations, open-container ordinances, human service organization contracts, strict building-height ordinances, hillside construction, water-system upgrades, drainage improvements, restaurant liquor licenses, successful lobbying of the Legislature for the optional specific purpose excise tax, leasing and purchasing downtown parking, visitor restrooms, a new town hall, bringing order to business signs, and town and county shared funding for volunteer fire and parks and recreation departments.
During the era of town government in which I participated, we collected the money before embarking on capital projects. Obviously such conservative behavior isn’t even considered in this hurry-up era of immediate gratification.
Involvement in municipal government isn’t politics. It is more of a donation — public service one performs the same way that graduates serve on a college board or volunteer for service organizations.
Before my Wyoming time with town, county and state decision-making, I considered myself pretty conservative. Did I have that wrong! A plan to budget the town’s revenues from liquor-license holders to invest in fledgling human-service organizations exposed me as one step removed from a flaming liberal undesirable.
I’m proud of all the enthusiastic 2012 candidates. I hope they realize in small part what they’re facing when elected. It’s always more than you expect. But it is a fine reward.