City of Lander Public Forum provided passionate, civil discourse on city, county, state issues

(Lander, WY) – The City of Lander held a public forum at the Lander Community Center Thursday, February 3rd, where Lander residents were invited to join some of our community’s elected officials to discuss current issues for 2022.

County 10 photo

Speakers on the panel included Lander Mayor Monte Richardson, members of the Lander City Council (Julia Stuble, Melinda Cox, Missy White, and John Larsen), Senator Cale Case, House District 33 Representative Andi LeBeau, House District 54 Representative Lloyd Larsen, and Commissioners Mike Jones and Jennifer McCarty.

The evening was moderated by Wyofile’s Chief Executive Matt Copeland, and was split up into three sections: opening remarks from each official, a round-robin on shared issues, and an open session for questions from the audience which were either submitted in paper form or live from audience members.

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During the opening remarks, each panelist was given 5 minutes to discuss whatever topic they felt the community might want to know about.

“I’d just like to point out, not one elected official went over their five minutes,” Copeland later joked to applause and laughter after this portion of the evening concluded.

Matt Copeland. County 10 photo

Mayor Richardson updated folks on a number of Lander projects, including the finalization of the $6M Maven project, the Popo Agie River Park, and an upcoming $7M water tank project.

Mayor Monte Richardson. County 10 photo

Commissioner Jones warned of future budget issues that could come up due to the County having to pay $900,000 a year for the new ambulance services acquired in 2021, as well as the rising costs/assessments in the housing market.

Jones mentioned the national concern of election security, especially with this year’s elections coming up, but noted Fremont County was one of only two counties in the state that passed inspection.

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Jones also informed those in attendance that there will be a lot of updates coming from the Solid Waste District in the coming years, noting that the Lander dump will be at capacity by 2028, with Sand Draw looking like the preferred new location.

Commissioner Mike Jones. County 10 photo

Commissioner McCarty commented that there will be $5-7M worth of work on roads and bridges in store, and also commented that 911 communications have been a lot better since the addition of the new ambulance services.

Commissioner Jennifer McCarty. County 10 photo

Representative LeBeau spoke on the importance of the restoration of cut funds, especially in terms of mental health and education. She also iterated her goal to be a voice for Native people, and to make sure she does what she can to ensure their education about the issues and stay engaged in the conversations.

Representative Andi LeBeau. County 10 photo

Representative Larsen commented on the recent budget session, stating “It was one of the easiest sessions I’ve seen in years.” Larsen confirmed there will be $1B in ARPA funds available for the state, but noted he has already seen $4B in requests on how to distribute that money.

He also remarked that he will be looking into legislation regarding hydrogen infrastructure.

Representative Lloyd Larsen. County 10 photo

Senator Case was the final speaker given time during the opening remarks, and he started off by thanking Lander Council Member Stuble for organizing/facilitating the forum.

“There are tremendous changes ahead,” Case later commented, citing enormous population shifts and how redistricting is affecting legislation. “The world is changing, and we need to figure out how to adapt.”

Senator Cale Case.

After the opening remarks, the following round-robin format questions were presented for any panelist who wished to respond: “What are the top priorities for the use of the ARPA funds allocated to Fremont County ($7.6M) and Lander ($1.6M)?” and “What opportunities/challenges do you see being presented in 2022?”

In terms of the ARPA funds, Council Member Stuble commented that she wanted to hear what community member’s top priorities are, especially as the budget session nears.

She also noted that she wants to improve communication with the community overall, commenting “Be in touch. Our Doors are always open.”

Representative Larsen and Commissioner McCarty each stated the importance of using some of these funds to address the mental health crisis, with McCarty also commenting on the need for bridge/road upkeep.

Commissioner Jones added that no matter what projects are chosen they are trying to find ones that will be federally matched, also stating that these funds need to be allocated by 2024, and spent by 2026.

In response to the second question concerning upcoming challenges or opportunities, Senator Case once more brought up the inevitable changes Wyoming faces.

“We are up to the task of change,” Case stated, adding “We need stability in politics. Find the middle.”

Case also commented that Wyoming might need to change how it pays for things, remarking, “There isn’t a bright future in coal.”

Representative Larsen then stressed the importance of developing a sustainable energy policy, before echoing the Senator’s sentiments about change and the finite resources Wyoming currently relies upon.

Council Member White stated that revenue/budgets were an area concern due to a number of expensive projects in the pipeline, and also addressed the “culture change of Lander.”

“We have a shared civic duty among all citizens to share Lander’s community values,” White said.

For the third part of the evening, the panel was presented with questions from the audience. (Please note, not every question/answer is covered here.)

The first question was from the Lander Climate Action Network: “What are the greatest threats that climate issues pose to the economy?”

Council Member Stuble stated she was concerned about climate issues effects on water supply/quality, with both Mayor Richardson and Commissioner Jones later commenting that the Healthy Rivers Initiative is working to help with those concerns.

Council Member Cox added that Energy Efficiency Task Force was working in a number of ways to address these areas of concern as well.

The first question from an audience member directly was asked by Karen Zoller, who raised concerns about trapping safety in the area after she lost her pet dog to an unmarked trap a few years ago.

Karen Zoller asks one of the first questions of the evening. County 10 photo

Zoller ran out of time to receive a response while sharing her story/concerns, but it should be noted at least one panelist approached her after the forum to discuss the matter with her.

The next question was from Bob Oakleaf, who wanted to know where panelists stood on the proposed Via Ferrata in Sinks Canyon.

Representative LeBeau commented that she wanted to make sure the right Tribal leadership was at the table for the conversation, and while not stating whether she was for or against the Via Ferrata one way or the other, she did remark she “likes where the discussions are at.”

Commissioner Jones said the idea of a growing economic base was a good idea, but there “needs to be a balance,” in terms of negotiations, and that “the process is key.”

Council Member Larsen recognized the Via Ferrata as a potential tourist draw that might be another reason people stick around Lander while passing through, also stating that he sees the area where the proposed Via Ferrata would be located as “not pure wilderness,” due to the high volume of people already recreating in the area.

Senator Case then commented how hard tourism can be on the environment, citing a need to protect the location of the proposed Via Ferrata.

“Sinks Canyon is one of my favorite places on the planet,” the Senator stated before also expressing concerns over other changes in the Sinks Canyon Master Plan.

In relation to the Sinks Canyon, the question was then posed to the Mayor directly about what the plan was for the 13 acres of City-owned land in the Canyon.

Mayor Richardson replied that land swapping may be possible, but nothing has been officially planned or decided yet.

Senator Case then recommended the land be kept, stating that owning it keeps a seat at the table for the City in terms of future discussions.

Council Member White was then asked directly about what the Council was doing to address the housing crisis in the area.

White replied that the City’s own zoning codes are causing issues and will need to be addressed, along with misinformation that has spread since initial talks began.

(White also had previously addressed these concerns more in-depth during a presentation at a recent City Council meeting, which begins around the 48-minute mark.)

The question was then raised as to whether there was a plan to address the suicide rates and mental health issues in the area.

Council Member Cox commented that the County has a prevention partnership working to address these issues, especially due to the increase in substance abuse, but also stated that many services have been cut, and funding going to the schools has been limited.

Representative Larsen echoed the concerns of Cox, especially in terms of the adolescents with mental health issues who currently have no infrastructure in place to adequately house them for treatment.

Representative Larsen then suggested the possibility of expanding medicaid in the state to potentially handle some of these concerns, with Senator Case also stating he was in favor of looking into medicaid expansion.

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