You may have wondered why we are making so little progress on the major issues facing this community. Those issues include affordable housing, traffic, overcrowding, Snake River crowding and health, nutrient pollution in our waterways, funding for critical capital projects, pushing back against state overreach, among many others.
It is not because we don’t have dedicated, hardworking elected officials on the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners. Those 10 people all are trying their best to help move the important issues forward. They spend countless hours in meetings and dealing with the bureaucratic demands of the roles. Most also have full-time occupations or family duties.
The problem is that the governing structure these 10 citizens are forced to work within makes it nearly impossible to solve the big, communitywide issues. Why is this? See Paul Hansen‘s recent excellent pieces on this topic in his News&Guide column “Common Ground.”
First of all, for a community of only 23,000 people we have two separate governments. One is responsible for the county and the other for the town of Jackson and there is only a horribly inefficient and informal process for these two organizations to cooperate on those big joint issues. Putting aside the issue of Alta, Jackson Hole is one beast. The town is the heart, and the remainder of the county makes up the rest of the body. Driving Jackson Hole forward needs to be done from one brain. Suboptimal solutions will always be reached if decisions are being made separately for the town and the county.
Second, when those two organizations do attempt to cooperate there is no leader, elected by all of us, who can try to steer the resolution of these issues in the best interest of the broader community, establish priorities and get the community engaged and motivated behind the optimal solutions. Our big issues are all communitywide issues that need to be solved from a united communitywide perspective.
Third, there are 11 other elected bodies (such as the Conservation District, country clerk and treasurer) that work completely independently and do not report up to any one organization or leader. They have no statutory obligation to cooperate with each other. Anyone with any knowledge of organizational effectiveness would quickly see that as a recipe for chaos.
We will never make any progress on our large issues until we resolve this governance situation. Our 10 electeds will work hard and attend many meetings, but nothing of much significance will get done under this current structure. Paul lays out some suggestions for how to fix this: Consolidate town and county into one organization with a leader who we all elect, and then a number of other commissioners/councilors who we also all elect. Due to a quirk in Wyoming law this will likely have to be the town absorbing the county, but it does not really matter how it is done as long as the end result is one governing body. That has been accomplished successfully in many other communities throughout the country. Then restructure the governance of the other departments so that they report up into this new governing body.
I personally witnessed this problem. I recently stepped down from my role leading an organization, now called Protect Our Water JH, that is focused on solving a growing nutrient pollution problem in our ground and surface waters. That problem has been steadily growing worse for 25 years. We are now experiencing drinking water problems in Hoback and Kelly, with problems in other areas suspected as well. Many of the tributaries and spring creeks on both sides of the Snake River are seeing high algae and excessive plant growth levels that may already be impacting spawning for Snake River fish. Many ponds and residential water features become choked with algae as summer progresses.
Solving this problem requires communitywide regulations and coordination between town and county. Despite providing a detailed road map on how to solve this problem, conducting extensive conversations with individual electeds and several attempts to set up meetings with the entire group we have made little progress because this falls into the type of complex communitywide problem that the current governance structure can not address.
Over the past 50 years there have been several attempts to address this governance problem. One of those efforts apparently, came pretty close but ultimately did not succeed.
We are forming a committee of concerned citizens to try to move this forward one more time. If you are interested in joining this discussion please let us know at the email address below.