Ordinance adopting ‘Strong Mayor’ government fails at Riverton Council meeting

(Riverton, WY) – At the July 6th, Riverton City Council regular meeting, which can be viewed in its entirety here, Ordinance No. 21-014 proposing a Strong Mayor form of government failed to pass, in a 4-3 vote.

Council members Dean Peranteaux, Kyle Larson, Karla Borders, and Mike Bailey all voted against, while Council members Lindsey Cox, Kristy Salisbury, and Mayor Richard Gard all voted in favor.

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According to City Attorney Rick Sollars, “Presently the Riverton city government is Mayor, Council, and City Administrator. The Mayor appoints the Attorney and the Judge with the consent of the Council. The City Administrator makes all appointments of department heads, and he also then carries out the request goals, whatever, from the Council and the governing body, and he generally oversees the administration of the city, preparation of budgets, those things.”

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City Attorney Rick Sollars. County 10 photo.

“The proposal is to amend that ordinance to what they call a Strong Mayor form of government, that’s kind of an unofficial term. It is addressed in state statutes where basically the Mayor would make all of the appointments with the consent of the Council, all department heads and appointed positions. It would be his charge to carry out the administration of the functions of the city and oversee the departments. The city administrator position would then have no appointment power and would generally work under the mayor.”

“What I would compare it to would be a corporation where you have a board of directors as the Council, and the Mayor in this case like a CEO, who then oversees the entire corporation. So that is the change that’s being proposed. The City Administrator position would go from an appointed position with the consent of the Council, and could only be removed by a majority vote of the Council. It would revert back to like the other department heads, where it would be appointed by the Mayor with the consent of the Council and could be removed by the Mayor.”

“If the ordinance were to pass, there are other sections of city policies and rules that are also going to be needed to be amended. They can be amended by resolution. The City personnel manual has a chain of command for grievances and disciplinary appeals for reduction-in-force selections. Those then would have to correspond to this new ordinance, whereby the Mayor basically would have to take over and fill those roles that are presently designated to the City Administrator.”

When the consideration moved to the public hearing section, the crowd was just as split as the Council in terms of being for or against the ordinance.

The first Riverton citizen to voice opposition cited the potentially for future Mayor’s agendas being pushed without checks and balances, as well as concerns the City Administrator would be stripped of all their power.

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County 10 photo.

WYDOT Public Relations Specialist, Cody Beers also opposed the ordinance, citing worries that people will leave positions if the Mayor is forced to make decisions usually reserved for people professionally trained to make them.

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Cody Beers. County 10 photo.

A third citizen also opposed, as well as former Ward 3 Council member Tim Hancock, who stated, “Power should be in the form of legislative bodies. I think this proposed ordinance is concerning. Council members will be asked for consent, but can also be removed without consent, making a difficult working experience for the Administrator and staff.”

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County 10 photo.
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Former Riverton Ward 3 Council member Tim Hancock. County 10 photo.

A few more Riverton residents shared their oppositions, ranging from concerns about future Mayors’ qualifications, the new need for the Mayor to have HR credentials/experience, and the potential overwhelming workload that would be added to the Council and Mayor.

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County 10 photo.
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County 10 photo.

There were those in attendance in favor of the ordinance, including Joel Highsmith, Mayor of Shoshoni, a town that runs under the Strong Mayor model. “It simplifies things when you have one person making the decisions,” Highsmith commented while also suggesting looking into the ordinance more before shelving it.

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Shoshoni Mayor Joel Highsmith. County 10 photo.

Riverton resident Jim Gores, also a proponent, likened the government model to the military. “Sometimes decisions need to be made quickly. This will also make me a lot more discerning as to who I vote for Mayor.”

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Jim Gores. County 10 photo.

Another Riverton resident echoed support due to the speedier decision making the ordinance could provide, commenting, “It streamlines the government, makes things go faster. I don’t support this just because I support the Mayor, I think it’s the right type of government. It gives more power to the elected official, which is who we actually voted for.”

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County 10 photo.

While not officially giving an opinion one way or the other, former Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness stated that the Mayor before him, John Vincent, ran a Strong Mayor form of government for his 8 year term, but changed it to its current form when it was time for him to leave.

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Former Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness. County 10 photo.

Warpness then went on to say that he attempted to propose changing back to the Strong Mayor government structure, “but the Council wasn’t interested in giving up that power at the time. I would be happy to spend an hour with the Council and explain what was going on at the time. There’s pros and cons on both sides of it.”

Also taking a moderate approach to the issue was 1 year Riverton resident Janet Winslow. “Fear is a bad place to make a decision from,” she suggested, before commenting that the ordinance was at least worth a second reading.

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Janet Winslow. County 10 photo.

The Council members also had their own questions and concerns about the ordinance, no matter which side they fell on.

“What are we trying to fix in changing the form of government from where we are now?” asked Council member Peranteaux. “It’s also somewhat concerning to think about the bare minimum requirements to become Mayor. What if they’re not qualified?”

Council member Mike Bailey went on to say that as much as he agrees with Mayor Gard and approves of the job he does, he thinks that the 7 Council members as a group can come up with better decisions than just one person. “This also makes the Mayor a full time job,’ he added.

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County 10 photo.

After hearing a few more opinions and thoughts from Council members, Mayor Gard responded to the questions and concerns.

“The question of why are we doing this keeps coming up. This isn’t for me. I’ve been in Council and Mayor positions for six and a half years and have never been involved with anyone getting fired. We fire very few people.”

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County 10 photo.

“I’m just not confident you’ll make the right firing is kind of an odd statement. What we really do, we need to have more input on who gets hired from the Council, and I don’t mind any modification to that. I don’t want to be the sole proprietor of that. So if we want to change that or tweak that a little bit and say that the Council selects the individual we hire I’m all in for that. But when I talk to City residents, they feel like they have been neutered, and that they don’t have the ability to vote for administration.”

Mayor Gard then referenced the fact that the past three Mayors, himself included, have each had a different City Administrator. “What we should really be talking about is how do we make the City Administrators stay put. This is not about Mayor Gard trying to get rid of the City Administrator, it’s about the people of Riverton getting the chance to vote for who’s running the city, and that’s missing right now. We don’t have that.”

Mayor Gard also cited the other County municipalities that operate under a Strong Mayor structure.

“Out of all of the towns and cities in Fremont County, we are the only one that operates with a Weak Mayor, all the rest have a Strong Mayor. That’s Lander, Pavilion, Dubois, Hudson, Shoshoni. They find it very possible to work. The Mayor’s pictures up on the walls, all of them except for the last three, have gotten an opportunity to work as a Strong Mayor.”

“It isn’t about firing people, it’s about how we get things done in a timely basis. We have a great staff. I tell Tony (Tolstedt, current City Administrator) this constantly. It’s about convincing the voter, that they need to get engaged, and that their vote counts, and they are in charge of Riverton. This is their building, the things we do here should be representative of the constituents that we represent.”

While there were more points of discussion from Council members Salisbury, Peranteaux, and Bailey, the ordinance consideration was soon put to vote, where it ultimately failed to pass.

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