By Allie Gross
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — A week after lawmakers abruptly revived a bill that threatens Jackson Hole’s affordable housing program, Teton County commissioners decided Monday to look into hiring help to navigate the Wyoming Legislature’s winter session in Cheyenne.
“With every field we engage in, we have staff support with expertise in that field,” Commissioner Luther Propst said. “We depend on them. I would like to have somebody who helps us engage effectively with the Legislature. Somebody who just helps us so when we go to Cheyenne, we know the score, we have direction, we have background and insight.”
The Teton County Board of County Commissioners allocated $30,000 in this year’s budget for “legislative liaising.” The Jackson Town Council also has $25,000 reserved for a similar purpose, according to Town Manager Larry Pardee.
Last week the Joint Interim Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee met for two days at Teton County Library. Jackson was selected for the meeting following heated debates about local control during last session, including a failed bill introduced by Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Goshen, that would have gutted Jackson’s affordable housing program. The bill would have prohibited towns and counties from requiring developers to build or pay for mitigation housing as part of a new project.
The housing bill didn’t make it onto the state committee’s agenda. But affordable housing exactions did come up at a lunch legislators held with the nonprofit advocacy group Jackson Hole Working. And as the lawmakers wrapped up their committee meeting, Duncan cited “testimony” at that lunch as her reason for bringing up the housing bill again, asking for the committee to reconsider it.
Duncan told committee members that solving housing issues should be left to the private sector with “less regulation and robust incentives-based programs.” The committee agreed to bring the bill back for consideration at a November meeting in Cheyenne, with a single “no” vote from Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Fremont.
Jackson Hole Working told the News&Guide the group hasn’t taken a formal position on any bill at this time, but did say “we support many aspects of HB277 and believe strongly in incentive-based tools that this bill actively encourages.” Although the lunch was not advertised and local elected officials were not invited, Jackson Hole Working said it was a public, casual “lunch and learn” with open doors, that aimed to provide the committee with a local perspective on Teton County’s “opportunities and challenges.”
In not advertising the lunch or the vote on the housing bill, the committee didn’t violate any open meetings laws, as the Legislature exempts itself from the rules agencies like towns and counties must follow.
But local elected officials were disappointed the bill was revived without public notice, at the last-minute during the meeting and without a broad spectrum of public testimony. Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, called the meeting “gross politicking,” saying the committee “maneuvered out of a public discussion about housing in Teton County.”
“This gives essentially no one else in the community a chance to speak on the issue, especially those that have the need for this kind of housing. The best options appear when both sides are available for open debate,” Yin wrote in a Facebook post. “Now the bill is going to be discussed in Cheyenne instead of having the discussion here, where it will be affecting the people the most. Disenfranchising our community’s voices by this kind of political gamesmanship is exactly why people don’t trust government.”
A week later, at the Teton County commission’s Monday meeting, Chairwoman Natalia Macker asked the board about directing staff to examine “costs and logistics” of spending the budget’s legislative liaising cash.
Commissioner Mark Newcomb favored exploring how the county can spend the $30,000 for legislative efforts.
“I think exploring the presence of someone who can be in Cheyenne for that incredibly fast-paced legislative session doesn’t hurt,” Newcomb said.
Commissioner Greg Epstein suggested the town and county reopen a discussion about the housing mitigation program, saying “that conversation needs to start here, and I think it needs to be a very public conversation that resonates with the rest of the state.” He said the reintroduction of the bill and handling of the meeting is a “knee-jerk reaction” to the town and county’s decision last year to hike housing mitigation requirements, especially for commercial developers.
Commissioner Mark Barron was the only commissioner opposed to hiring legislative help. He said the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and local representatives are sufficient to keep the board in the loop, and the five commissioners are the ones who should be doing the lobbying.
“I just strongly feel the only advocates for Teton County are sitting at this table,” he said. “The only appropriate ones.”