michael whitfield.jpg

When I was growing up in Teton Valley, a County Commissioner could serve by committing a few days a month to the County while he or she attended to their farm or business. I tip my hat to those local people who stepped up to serve our County. But those simpler times are long gone. Today’s rapidly growing resident population of around 12,000 people, with many more part-time homeowners and visitors, requires a much more complex array of County services.

The County’s budget of ~$15 million is stretched thin by competing demands for community services. Today the job of Teton County Commissioner requires that one not only show up to scheduled meetings, but also show up fully prepared to strategically implement programs and conservatively spend the county’s limited resources while always paying thoughtful attention to emerging challenges.

As I have heard local people describe County needs, I have been asked what a County Commissioner does. Satisfactory performance in this role is a big job. In county government, the elected commissioners serve both executive and legislative duties, meaning they enact local ordinances and administer them. They approve budgets, oversee spending, and hire and supervise program directors. Commissioners are responsible to the voters, and their duties are defined and controlled by the state constitution and statutes. By statute, the Board of County Commissioners are responsible for elections and must canvass election returns. They supervise road and bridge management, trash collection and disposal, and weed management. They acquire and manage county property for recreational and other purposes, levy and collect taxes, pay claims against the county, fix salaries for county officers and employees, and notify the public of meetings and proceedings. In addition, county commissions have roles in consumer protection, economic development, land use planning, assurance of environmental quality, emergency preparedness, and social welfare programs. The commission ensures maintenance of fair grounds and cooperates with agricultural extension as well. The commission is authorized to enter contracts with local non-profits that provide public services in addition to contracts for fire protection, establishment of public transportation, and water and sewer services. They serve a role in medical indigency claims. These days our Commissioners are also expected to serve on a variety of regional and state-wide committees to represent Teton County interests. The list is long, and in all these duties, those who accept this public office also accept an ethical duty to serve honestly and in the public interest.

I will spend the time, energy, and midnight oil needed to fulfill these responsibilities. I will work diligently to protect the health, safety, and economic security of all our people. I will listen first to all constituents. The only route to lasting solutions that will benefit all our people is more active public involvement; I hope to engage representatives from all Teton Valley sectors to find common ground and use it to actively shape our valley’s future.

I believe that every working family deserves equitable access to a good education, well-paying jobs, affordable housing, healthy food, clean water, and time outside in nature. I also recognize that Teton Valley is more than just a pretty place. Our

wildlife, fisheries, mountain views, clean air and water, recreational access, and public lands are irreplaceable treasures that we cannot take for granted. I have spent my lifetime working to conserve Teton Valley’s natural treasures. Now I see conservation of agriculture, wildlife, and recreation access as critical needs that require more of our collective attention.

Our recent history shows that passive governance does not deliver positive outcomes for our people or our environment. The big local challenges we are facing are not new to Teton Valley. We have struggled with a lack of affordable housing for decades and we continue to struggle with a significant and long-standing social challenge: integration of our large Latinx population into our broader society. Our essential County road and bridge infrastructure faces a severe improvement backlog. Decades of inadequate land use planning have left us with nearly 5000 vacant lots in often poorly conceived developments. We have lost productive farm ground and wildlife habitat. This moment begs for greater civil discourse in a period of cultural and political division. It is time to make the decision: Do we want a healthy, diverse Teton Valley community where working people have access to a good quality of life? Do we wish to retain our County’s rural character, productive agriculture, and rich fish and wildlife legacy? If we do, it is going to take more than wishful thinking to sustain those assets, it is going to take thoughtful, collaborative, and dedicated efforts. The Teton Valley of tomorrow will be the Teton Valley that we plan and work for today.