Last week this column focused on the disturbing results of the Teton County Organizational Survey, conducted in November 2019. Much of the survey documented “Serious Problem Areas” in the operation of our county government. The Teton County Board of County Commissioners has had the study for over a year without addressing the issues. This column takes a look at some of the examples of how the lack of strategic alignment, transparency and engagement in Teton County government impacts us all.
For example, this past fall the county started meetings between law enforcement, Act Now JH and human services groups to discuss how to improve policing. A decision was made to close the meeting to the public. Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr said publicly that he would not attend the dialogue unless the meetings were open. A decision by the group members themselves, by a 12-1 margin, overruled the edict that the meetings be closed.
The Northern South Park steering committee, set up with $400,000 of taxpayer money to recommend development options, met behind doors closed to the public and press and without notice of the meeting, an agenda or minutes. Under public pressure, county commissioners have now opened the meetings.
The Teton County Health Board is considering an ingenious proposal by two conservation groups for an early warning system to let residents know when their drinking water is becoming contaminated by sewage. Again, there was a closed meeting — no public meeting notice, agenda or minutes.
A Teton County Library board member was removed by a 4-1 vote of county commissioners after a closed executive session. The board member in question was not notified of the meeting. This is now in court at taxpayer expense.
In December commissioners adopted a human services plan over the objections of the Human Services Council. For months the groups had asked in vain for a dialogue on priorities before a plan was enacted. These are the 10 human service groups that do a great job serving the community and coordinating with each other. County commissioners and their staff need to be working cooperatively with these groups, especially during the pandemic.
Separate from county staff supervised by the Board of County Commissioners, Teton County has seven independently elected full-time officials: sheriff, assessor, clerk, attorney, court clerk, coroner and treasurer.
They report being, as one official put it, “completely frustrated with county staff leadership and the commissioners’ unwillingness to deal with it.”
County employees, library staff and nonprofit partners describe problems with county staff leaders that have existed for years and not been addressed by the Board of County Commissioners and Chair Natalia Macker. They use words like overstep, meddle and overreach. At a time when we hear so much about how overworked the county staff is, no one can explain why the county leadership is inserting itself into so many other areas, like Teton County Library.
The library has had seven directors in five years — three full-time and four interims. Because libraries are about the sharing of information, free expression and free access to ideas, it is logical that the impacts of a secretive county government would show up here. Libraries are by law and practice supposed to operate independently and free of politics.
Dawn Jenkins, the well-regarded library director who left in 2019 after only nine months, wrote of “the outdated, authoritarian and toxic culture of Teton County,” an opinion echoed by other current and former library employees I interviewed. This past fall, library Director Oscar Gittemeier left after only three months. This is our public library, but we still do not know why he left.
Leadership can be difficult. There are legitimate needs for consistency across functional areas. I understand the need to limit public comment at some stages of a process, but government works best in the sunlight. Teton County government needs to acknowledge the issues identified in the organizational survey and provide a new commitment to openness, trust and working collaboratively with its own staff and partners.