Jackson Hole News & Guide Column – 19 Oct 16
Note: This piece contains the unabridged replies submitted by Mayoral candidates Sara Flitner and Pete Muldoon to questions posed in October, 2016.
The Industrial Revolution began in England in the 1760s. Since then, I know of no place that has developed an industrial or post-industrial economy while also maintaining the basic health and integrity of its surrounding environment.
There is perhaps one exception: Jackson Hole, which enjoys both a highly-advanced economy and a relatively healthy ecosystem. This exceptionalism is captured in the Vision Statement of the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.”
Parsing the Vision Statement, it has two components. The first is the vision itself: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem…” The second is the rationale for preserving and protecting the ecosystem: “…in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.”
The past 250 years of history suggest it will be difficult for Jackson Hole to achieve the Comp Plan’s Vision, for do so will require us to blaze a new approach toward how a community interacts with the ecosystem in which it lies. This challenge, and my sense that the environment has received little attention in this year’s campaigns for local office, underlies a series of questions I posed to all of the candidates for Mayor, Town, Council, and County Commission. Today’s column features replies from the candidates for Mayor.
Do you believe that preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem is the foundation of having “…a healthy environment, community, and economy for current and future generations?” Why do you feel this way?
Many of us came here from somewhere else, and I can tell you that living in the magnificence of the Grand Tetons calls us to be inspired and to be responsible. A friend reminded me of the bumper sticker some local folks sport: “My life is better than your vacation.” Most of us believe that. We are fortunate to be here, so we have to ask ourselves, daily, how to provide the stewardship and protection that honors our resources, our economy, our quality of life, and most of all, the land, wildlife and viewsheds that feed us all. We are most effective when we work for “both, and” solutions, and stop the incessant and simplistic “either, or” mentality.
I believe it’s necessary, but not sufficient.
Our ecosystem is obviously important to the health of our environment, as it’s a component of it.
Our community is united by an appreciation of and respect for our natural resources, and stewarding them is therefore important to the community.
Our ecosystem is also extremely important to our local economy, which depends to a large degree on exploiting its presence for locals and tourists alike. I use the word “exploit” with intent, as the impacts of our dependence are undeniable and often negative.
But while we rightfully celebrate our role as a national leader in conservation, we sometimes ignore the bigger environmental picture when it comes to climate change. Our community is full of often empty large second homes, the construction and maintenance of which have an outsized impact on CO2 emissions. We have an airport which caters to large numbers of extremely inefficient private jets, which contribute as well. Our economy is based on transporting tourists to a remote part of the globe, and that tourism has a huge carbon footprint. We have the highest wealth inequality in the country in Teton County, and as a December 2015 Oxfam report states, “climate change is inextricably linked to economic inequality.”
If we are going to continue to view ourselves as a global leader on the environment, we must acknowledge and address these issues as well.
2a) Is there a limit to Jackson Hole’s growth? If so, what is it? If not, what can local government do to ensure that additional development does not compromise the Comp Plan’s vision of preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem?
I haven’t met or spoken with a single person who doesn’t agree that there is a limit to what we can accommodate in terms of development, cars, people. Some people are focused on “end of days” numbers, but I will continue to focus on what I can do, right now, to balance the very weighty interests, to meet the needs we have as a community in the mid and longer term. And right now, I can continue to work for solutions, like rental apartments and housing critical workers locally. I can focus on ensuring that the people who are here right now are safe, schooled, drive on maintained roads, and have responses to their 911 calls. I can work to bring neighbors together in effective ways, to participate in solving problems, and dispel the notions of false enemies, superheroes, and other white noise that might be good for egos, but is not good for the people who live and work and serve in this community. I will continue to show up, bring people together, deal with the pressures of our time so that the Tetons are as inspiring 50 years from now as they are today. I will continue to support and lead people charged with helping steward this legacy, and ensure they know their individual roles are a critical part of any sustainable solutions.
There are physical and legal limits to our growth. We’ve not yet reached those limits. But we are nearing the limits of growth envisioned in the Comp plan. Many people think those limits are too high, but they were a result of compromise that acknowledged the political realities of the time.
The most important things our local government can do is to consider the external costs of all development when creating new land use regulations, and to ensure that those costs are born and mitigated by the developer. The public is currently subsidizing much of our new development by not requiring proper mitigation and ignoring external costs that aren’t easily calculated.
2b) If you are elected, some decisions you face may pit preserving and protecting the area’s environment against supporting the community or economy (e.g., against developing more housing or commercial space). In such cases, how will you decide what to do? What sources of information will you rely upon?
In my 20 months in office, I have observed one powerful thing: we agree on 90% of the issues. But we spend most of our time fighting on 10% of the differences, until the conflict is blown up to the extent we feel like we disagree on most things. It’s just not true. We all want to protect the Tetons, and feed our families, and have an economy that allows us to pay for public safety and safe roads, strong schools, good healthcare.
Trust is critical in leadership and partnerships. I rely on data, and I rely heavily on trust. I recognize that you can skew data, present half-cases, work to make your side look stronger. The people and sources of information that I rely utilize are the folks who want to tell the whole story, problem solve instead of position, and are willing to accept that one person might value wildlife values over everything else, while someone else might want us to put the needs of kids at the top of every list. My job is to continue to show people that having different viewpoints and experience is what makes us strong and effective. The intelligence I admire the most is in the person who can hold two opposing ideas in their mind at the same time, and work towards a solution that gets at both sides. Because we can, working together, develop policy that is good for families and preservation, good for conservation and a vibrant economy. We can do so much better without the drama of fingerpointing.
I don’t believe that “the economy” is a monolith, and the distribution of economic growth is as important as the rate. So I’d say that in many cases, that’s a false dichotomy, and our choices will often involve far more complexity. I’ve made a commitment to putting community first, and (as discussed earlier) the environment is of great importance to the community. In a properly functioning economic system, environmental stewardship is aligned with the community interest. I’ll be looking for policies that can help with that alignment.
3a is for candidates who have not held office; 3b is for candidates currently in office. Both are based on the fact that an organization expresses its priorities through its budget.
3a) When in office, how much funding do you pledge to vote for that will directly support the Comp Plan’s vision; i.e. that will directly support preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem? What do you want that money to be used for?
I’ve committed to spending the Town’s share of the 1% local option sales tax on housing and transportation, which I believe will directly support the Comp Plan’s vision in this area. Beyond spending money directly, I’ve committed to adhering to the Comp Plan’s limits on growth, and I’d like to explore the possibility of having the Town purchase commercially-zoned land for conversion into workforce housing as a means of further reducing potential commercial growth and increasing our affordable housing stock. I support the Comp Plan, and in general I’ll be making sure that all Town expenditures align with its vision.
3b) During your time in office so far, how much funding have you voted for that directly supported the Comp Plan’s vision; i.e., that directly supported preserving and protecting the area’s ecosystem? What was that money used for? If you are returned to office, how much funding do you pledge to vote for that will directly support the Comp Plan’s vision? What do you want that money to be used for?
Every bit of our nearly $19 million budget is a vote for the values and priorities we set forth in the comp plan. It’s a vision document, and discusses wildlife values, open space, safety, vibrancy, complete neighborhoods, community character, effective transit, housing. The Town Council has been a true leader in budgeting for complete sidewalks, new bus routes, a Bike Share program, $2.1 million in new funding for specific housing projects, not to mention the money allocated to develop the housing action plan, hire a director, form a unified department and spend money planning for housing on land we own. The operations and general fund dollars invest in those same values, with thought and intention. It’s why we have innovative storm water capture systems, one of the best public art partnerships anywhere, support for our social services organizations, and so much more.
The Comp Plan’s vision clearly focuses on “…the area’s ecosystem…”, which extends well beyond local political boundaries. Within that ecosystem, Teton County and Jackson are by far the wealthiest jurisdictions. Given this, should Teton County, Wyoming and the Town of Jackson take steps outside Teton County’s borders to “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem…”? If your answer is “yes,” then what steps should our local governments be taking? If your answer is “no,” then how will the town and county be able to meet the Comp Plan’s Vision of helping “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem..”?
Yes, the Town and County should continue to work outside our community borders, for obvious reasons. Elk, deer, bears don’t read maps, for instance, and some of the most significant migration corridors in the country thread through Jackson from the North and the South. We live in an interconnected world, and to think we can isolate from each other and be effective is just nonsense.
That being said, there are practical and legitimate considerations: as mayor, the buck stops with me in terms of ensuring public safety, water faucets that provide water, sewer and water treatment infrastructure that works. We need to be accountable for the specific responsibilities that people rely on every day, so they can go to work, pick up their kids, address their own family priorities. Finally, our community is a lot bigger, thankfully, than “government.” I can name 50 nonprofits and another 50 business, education and NGO leaders who do not think in terms of town or county borders, but in terms of effectiveness in our ecosystem. These are the people I rely on to help me get things done.
I addressed this in question 1b, but I’ll expand on it a little here. As I pointed out earlier, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to CO2 emissions and climate change than we currently are. Yes, we’ve made some changes locally with energy efficiency and promoting alternative modes of transportation. But we’ve been unwilling to address the elephant in the room – wealth inequality.
Much of that local inequality is a result of factors beyond our control – the global prevalence of neoliberal economics, free movement of capital, tax sheltering, economic policies written by and for the rich and much more. Wyoming’s lack of an income tax is a huge factor. But there are things we can do here locally. We can advocate for a state income tax on the super-wealthy, or for real estate transaction fees, or higher property taxes and mitigation rates on large second homes. We have a limited number of options available to us, but we should be using the ones we have.
As is true in every election, there is a lot of grumbling about candidates. Rather than let those criticisms fester, I also asked each candidate to respond to the most significant concern I have heard about him or her.
The current town council is viewed by many people to be ineffective. You have led that body for two years. If you are returned to office, why should voters expect anything to change?
In my 20 months in office, I have worked with a tremendous town council to achieve significant and unprecedented progress: first ever unified housing action plan, $2.1 million to be spent immediately on housing, new housing director, working task forces on Latino community issues, social service issues, with special focus on substance abuse, teen suicide and housing insecurity. Adopted an integrated transportation plan, delivered new bus routes, new sidewalk construction, enhanced collaboration not just between town and county, but among the incredible pool of talent that serves our community at the Community Foundation, the hospital, the counseling center, juvenile services, law enforcement, food insecurity nonprofits…it’s a long list. The sense I get from most people whom I serve is that they understand how complicated our issues are and they support progress. Our town is full of people who understand it doesn’t happen overnight, because they live it themselves, every day, and they know that righting the ship can’t be compared to driving a race car. In the last 10 days, I have had conversations with juvenile services experts, law enforcement professionals, Latino leaders, public art adovcates and artists, a small business owner needing help with a permit snafu, fair board members, rodeo advocates, team ropers, dog park supporters, people looking for a new lease, senior citizens with ideas for better pedestrian and parking solutions for our valued senior voices…I am leaving plenty out. I hear them expressing good ideas and, sometimes with a little coaching, offering positive ideas. Across the board, I hear from and reach out to people who care, want to improve, and are grateful that quality people are willing to step up and serve. That means a lot.
You are running for office to make rapid and dramatic changes in local government and, more broadly, the community as a whole. That noted, you have no experience in local government. Further, as a self-styled gadfly, you’ve ruffled a lot of feathers in the community. Given these two qualities, how will you be able to lead and make the dramatic and rapid change you advocate?
It’s true that I haven’t held elected office before, but I’ve been a student of government for a long time. I’ve written extensively on political economy (my former blog was on the blogroll for Baseline Scenario, which was run by a former chief economist of the IMF). I’ve been an activist for years, and I’ve always been passionate about public policy. The perception that I came out of nowhere to win the primary is simply not true. Nor is the perception that I’m a gadfly, which implies that I criticize but have no intention of stepping up and doing the work. I’m ready and willing to do that hard work.
Two of the most essential qualities of leadership are the willingness to expend political capital on things you believe in, and the ability to clearly communicate what it is you’re doing and why. These are some of my best attributes. I speak the language of policy, but I also speak the language of the working class that I belong to. And I have no interest in using public office to further my career.
I’ve probably ruffled a few feathers. But the truth is that we don’t all want the same thing. The practice of politics involves conflict, and it’s the resolution of that conflict that is its goal. That conflict exists whether we acknowledge it or not. But onIy by acknowledging it can we move forward.
I don’t expect to make everyone happy, and I don’t expect everyone to like me. Our community faces tough challenges, and if our electeds wait around for everyone to agree with them we’ll never address those challenges. Disagreement and criticism are important parts of a healthy political discourse. I expect to receive that criticism from people who disagree with me, and I won’t take it personally. Civility is important, but so is honest debate. I think we can have both.