Steve Westbay

Steve Westbay

Teton County has been without a planning and building director since Oct. 1, when Tyler Sinclair, joint town and county director, departed to focus solely on planning for the town of Jackson.

On Monday the county signed on to “lease” its second temporary hire for the role for a brief two-month term.

“Given the need for operational continuity despite the challenges the county has experienced in filling the director’s role, an interim director was identified as the best path forward while the search for a permanent director continues,” County Administrator Alyssa Watkins said in a statement.

The planning director is at the helm of the planning and building department, which oversees applications for everything from zoning and development to long-term implementation of the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan. The fourth and most recent round of advertising for a permanent planning director began April 29, said Julianne Fries, the county’s human resources director, and it’s being advertised at a salary that’s 10 percent over market.

Through a government temp agency the county hired Steve Westbay as interim planning director from Jan. 10 to April 12, then extended his contract to May 10.

“Hiring an interim gives us flexibility to take the time required to ensure we get the best candidate for the county and our community,” Fries said. “The interim fills a leadership void by supporting the department’s workload and staff, allowing the department to stay afloat until a permanent director is found.”

As Westbay departs for a job in Colorado, the county hired Jo Ellen Charlton to serve as interim planning director from May 15 to July 12, with a possible extension of two extra months. Charlton comes from DeKalb County, Illinois, west of Chicago, where she served as the community development director.

“She has a long history of planning and development,” Watkins told commissioners.

Employers, the public sector especially, are facing tough hiring conditions nationally, Fries said.

“The economy is so strong right now and the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s ever been in 50 years,” Fries said. “That means there’s not a lot of bodies to fill vacancies.”

Coupled with Teton County’s high cost of living and housing, it makes recruiting extra challenging, she said, and planner positions are especially hard to fill.

The department also continues to advertise for positions for a transportation planner (vacant for more than a year) and a principal long-range planner and a senior planner (both vacant since around the start of 2019).

Limited staff is stressing the planning department’s bandwidth.

After more than a year and a half of work and countless hours of public and stakeholder group meetings to overhaul the county’s natural resource regulations, county commissioners officially stalled that work in March because of a lack of staff capacity to complete it.

Westbay told commissioners last week that beyond a development of a growth management plan with the town, in the coming year, current planning staff can only handle drafting regulations for small cell towers and reexamining maximum development potential in county zones (a project taken up in the wake of the Jackson Hole Classical Academy’s plan to build a new campus in a rural area).

Westbay suggested that if the county wants to take on more planning priorities than that, such as zoning areas like Hog Island or the Aspens for more workforce housing, commissioners should hire outside consultants to perform the work.

Contact Allie Gross at 732-7063 or county@jhnewsandguide.com.

Allie Gross covers Teton County government. Originally from the Chicago area, she joined the News&Guide in 2017 after studying politics and Spanish at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

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