Teton County commissioners have adopted “fluid” guidelines for themselves for writing letters to avoid personal correspondence being mistaken for county policy.
The policy asks members of the Teton County Board of County Commissioners not to affix their “commissioner” title to letters that don’t represent the board. And, if commissioners can’t do that, the rules ask the elected officials to notify the rest of the commission in advance to get feedback.
The board dedicated time at two recent voucher meetings to discuss the issue, tangling with avoiding “surprises” when one commissioner signs a letter that the rest of the board doesn’t and balancing that with allowing commissioners to express their own opinions.
Commission Chair Natalia D. Macker told the rest of the board Monday that the point of considering the guidelines, which also spell out other letter-writing rules, was twofold. One goal was to establish a process for writing letters when commissioners are asked to by community members. The board has done so a few times in the past two years, writing letters to the Wyoming Department of Transportation to ask for speed limit studies on highways where wildlife collisions or safety issues are prevalent.
The other goal centered around clarifying individual commissioners’ positions versus those of the board as a whole.
“The intent was to have a mutual agreement amongst the board about how we would like to handle that,” Macker said, “I think predominantly so there’s no surprises for other board members, and so that there’s clarity about when something is an individual position versus a board position.”
Commissioners frequently sign letters individually. Some are communications as innocuous as letters of recommendation for teens applying to college. But others are larger, more policy-focused communications like one Commissioner Luther Propst said he’s set to sign after a state-led review of the first migration corridor recognized and protected by the state of Wyoming. The habitat linkage, the Sublette Mule Deer Corridor, offers the longest-documented mule deer migration in the world.
Propst pointed to the letter of recommendations set to come out of the mule deer working group as an example of how exceptions would come up in the future. Propst said Gov. Mark Gordon’s office would likely use his commissioner title on the list of recommendations that the working group is putting together, and that he had intended to sign it as such. But he said commissioners wouldn’t be able to review or pass suggestions along to the working group.
“I think it’s a good rule,” Propst said of the discussion Monday. “I also think there’s probably more exceptions to the rule than not.”
Commissioner Mark Newcomb said he didn’t want to see the new rules become a point of attack, say, if one commissioner was trying to “go after” another, claiming they’d sent letters outside of the process.
“I feel like it shouldn’t be used that way,” he said. “It really should be used as something we check in on and remind ourselves.”
Commissioner Greg Epstein said that he saw the policy as a sideboard against not having one elected “misrepresent the board.” And, while he didn’t ask for any specific changes to the policy, he said he thought the goal could be accomplished by just having a commissioner put a sentence in a letter that says “this represents my views as a commissioner, not the board’s.”
Newcomb admitted he thought the process could have averted a snafu from January, when he and Propst drafted a letter for commissioners’ review asking for Wyoming wildlife managers to scale back on feeding at the National Elk Refuge due to the potential to spread chronic wasting disease.
Other commissioners didn’t fully support the letter, and at the board’s following meeting, some said they felt they were “out over their skis.” The commission opted to scale back and delay recommendations of the nature that Newcomb and Propst had written into the draft.
Ultimately, the commission did not take a vote on the letter-writing guidelines. But it agreed to them informally, and Macker said she’d keep the policy as a “working document” for the board, stating it would be “fluid.” In response to questions from Commissioner Mark Barron, Macker asked staff to include a sentence exempting letters of recommendation from the guidelines.