Five elected officials walk into a conference room.
They cast no votes. They allocate no funding. They don’t even belong to the same state, let alone the same governing body. So they just sit down and ponder the most basic challenges they all face: growth, housing, transportation, et cetera. And they decide that such challenges call for cross-border cooperation.
“These are regional problems,” said Hyrum Johnson, mayor of Driggs, Idaho. “If we are going to solve these problems, we have to be thinking outside of our communities, our own little worlds, and working together in a regional capacity.”
Beside him was the mayor of Victor, Idaho, as well as representatives of the Jackson Town Council, the Teton Conservation District and the Teton County commissions of both Idaho and Wyoming. It’s unusual for all those groups to meet, but they agreed it shouldn’t be.
The occasion was a panel discussion Wednesday during “22 in 21,” a conference organized by Jonathan Schechter, director of the Charture Institute and a town councilor. The annual event gathers community leaders, state legislators and federal land managers to chart the future of the “region,” and that word was the thread that tied together many of their ideas.
“I think it does begin with our two counties,” County Commissioner Mark Barron said. “It’s about getting together and identifying our common issues, obstacles to successful communities, and then working together.”
Jeff Potter, the Victor mayor, cited the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency as a model. The bistate agency, formed in 1969 between California and Nevada, was established to protect the water clarity of Lake Tahoe.
“I view our greater regional system as Lake Tahoe,” he said, “and the clarity is being affected right now.”
In the case of that agency, the objective — water clarity — was clear. Less so for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Commissioner Cindy Riegel, of Teton County, Idaho, suggested the “gem” to be protected in this case is simply the ecosystem. But, she asked, “What does that even mean?”
One of the more obvious areas for joint problem-solving is transit. With so many residents from Idaho and Star Valley commuting each day to Jackson, they agreed a “regional transportation plan” is essential to alleviating congestion and the housing shortage.
Andy Schwartz, a Wyoming state representative for Teton County who moderated the panel, noted that such collaboration is a lofty goal. The former county commissioner, perhaps recalling the frustrations of his years in local government, questioned how the officials would encourage that kind of teamwork.
“Even though we only have one municipality in Teton County, Wyoming,” he said, “the town and county can’t even manage to always work well together.”
Jackson Town Councilor Arne Jorgensen said both communities will have to be more strategic in their basic “pothole” functions to leave time and energy for broader partnerships across jurisdictional boundaries.
Johnson suggested the most important step is simply for leaders in the two counties to get to know each other better. And that could expand even farther within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which reaches into other communities in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
In a second panel discussion, Wyoming lawmakers argued that the same strategy could bear fruit at the state level, particularly in securing local control. After a legislative session that many took as proof that the rest of Wyoming is hostile toward Teton County, they advocated better communication around the state.
“It’s all about relationships,” state Sen. Mike Gierau said. “I think that any issue … can be greatly enhanced and solved in large measure by helping with those relationships.”