SHERIDAN — The atmosphere during the run-up to November’s special election in this northern Wyoming community was about what you’d expect: yard signs, impassioned pleas on social media and even more impassioned debates in local bars.
But this election was anything but typical. It was a special election, invoked by 10% of the electorate through a petition.
At first glance, the simple yes or no choice on a new charter ordinance seemed procedural. A deeper look into the civic debate, however, unveils a more complicated story of power, personality and politics, and poses fundamental questions about the role of small-town governments.
At issue on the ballot was Sheridan’s form of government. While the new charter ordinance was technically an update to a measure adopted in 2015, the vote was widely perceived as a referendum on whether the city should retain its administrator, or do away with the position and return authority to an elected mayor.
The question of whether or not Sheridan wants a city administrator was originally put to voters in 2008. The answer was no. Then in 2015, the city council created the position anyway.
Mayor Roger Miller, elected in 2016, believes the city does not need an administrator, partly because he claims the ordinance which established the role failed to clearly delineate how authority is to be shared between administrator and mayor. The new ordinance on November’s ballot included clarifying language meant to address the mayor’s concerns.
“Both sides ended up bringing it as a symbolic vote on the position itself,” said Sheridan City Councilor Jacob Martin. “The ‘vote no’ group said, ‘Vote this down and that’ll send a message and we’ll just repeal the whole thing and go to doing things the way the mayor wants.’” A yes vote, in contrast, would indicate support for an unelected professional continuing to help run the city.
In the end, voters upheld the ordinance with a yes vote. And, along the way, the issue prompted Sheridan residents to reevaluate the ways of divvying up municipal power.
And they’re not alone. Communities across the state continue to chew on the same question.
‘That’s part of the problem’
Wyoming’s Constitution empowers each municipality to determine its own form of government. “All cities and towns are empowered to determine their local affairs and government as established by ordinance passed by the governing body,” the home-rule provision reads.
The Constitution also provides three options for county and municipal incorporations: mayor/council, manager/council and commission.
The mayor/council form, often referred to as a “strong mayor” form, gives a mayor authority over the daily administration of the city. In the manager/council form, the manager takes on that role and the mayor is largely ceremonial. The commission form, used by all 23 counties, has not been adopted by any city or town.
A fourth form of municipal government has evolved in varying forms around the state over the last 40 years — the administrator form. An administrator functions much like a manager, but shares some authority with the mayor. The administrative form of municipal government is often referred to as a “hybrid” because it merges elements of the mayor and manager forms.
Of Wyoming’s 99 incorporated municipalities, 16 employ some form of manager or administrator. According to the Wyoming Association of Municipalities, all of those municipalities have a population of more than 1,500, and the majority are first-class cities, meaning they have a population of 4,000 or more.
During the energy boom of the 1970s and ‘80s, Mike Enzi — now Wyoming’s senior U.S. Senator — was the mayor of Gillette. Finding it difficult to keep up with the demands of running the day-to-day operations of the city while setting policies and working with the state, he led the formation of the first Wyoming charter to include an administrator position. During the following decades many other municipalities, most recently Sheridan, followed suit.
“All of the administrator forms across the state, they’re all different,” Sheridan Mayor Miller said, “and that’s part of the problem with it.”
In Miller’s opinion, home rule was really designed to address minutia like jaywalking and leash laws, and the use of home rule is a sneaky way to effectively adopt a manager form of government without putting it to a public vote.
Miller, an Air Force veteran and local business owner, ran for office largely on a promise to repeal the charter ordinance that created the Sheridan administrator position. His race planted the seeds for the special election.
“It devalues your mayor,” Miller said of the administrator form, “who then doesn’t have the authorities that a mayor needs to do the job as defined by the state. You redefine that, well, now you don’t have a mayor, you have a quasi-mayor.”
Miller welcomes more direction on the issue from the state.
“Actually the best way of handling it would be for the state to say, ‘Look, there are three forms of government,’” he said. “‘You can’t use your home rule to go into the state constitution.’”
Without that state direction, Miller said, the result is a confusing balance of power and a lack of accountability for elected officials, who can point a finger at an administrator when the going gets tough. He also believes having an administrator brings unnecessary additional expense.
Sheridan City Councilor Martin disagrees. The administrator does not translate to an additional position, he said. Instead, the administrator replaces the chief of staff position, with a similar salary.
The chief of staff position lends itself to corruption, Martin said, pointing out that it typically goes to a campaign donor or friend of the mayor. A city administrator is different, he said.
“It’s basically the common chief of staff position, but it serves all of the council instead of just one person,” Martin said. “So, it’s just the chief of staff that the whole council agrees on. We’ve always had that position.”
Martin agrees with Miller that altering Sheridan’s city government by charter ordinance was not absolutely necessary. Despite that, he believes his community benefits from having an administrator.
“Every form of government will function. It’s how well do you want it to function, right? … I think that Sheridan is a thriving, growing city and they deserve the best management you can possibly find. That goes with hiring a person as a professional in city administration.”
In Martin’s view, “the mayor is the most powerful council person. He has all those authorities the council doesn’t. That’s something we wanted to keep intact. To me it’s just a perfect level of checks and balances. He gets to be powerful, the mayor. He just doesn’t get to be as powerful as he wants to be.”
No cookie cutter
Sheridan’s election raised issues of bureaucratic burdens, mayoral duties, public accountability and administrative necessity. These concerns, and the value of a trained professional running town and city governments, are continually reweighed in communities across the state.
The city of Douglas has an administrator form almost identical to a manager/councilor form, the largest difference being that the mayor is elected to a four-year term. In cities that have a manager, like Casper, the mayor is simply the president of the council and is elected by the council annually.
Douglas Mayor Rene Kemper likes having an administrator, but she also thinks the flexibility of home rule is important.
“I think, in general, it’s so much up to what the community wants and needs. There’s no cookie cutter approach to government in Wyoming. It just doesn’t work.”
“On the flip side,” she added, “I think sometimes it’s almost like having two heads. I can see where there could be issues potentially, but I think that’s where communication between the administrator, the mayor, and the city council is critical.”
Barry Cook, the city administrator of Cody, said one benefit of having the position is to give a community “the professionalism of someone who has been trained in local government.”
Because there is no recall provision in Wyoming, he said, “… a mayor can get elected for four years and they’re in… I could report to work tomorrow and be summoned into the mayor’s office and be dismissed with an hour’s notice. So I’m probably more accountable than anybody.”
Cody Mayor Matt Hall says he has a good working relationship with Cook.
“I think it’s nice that people can feel like they can vote for someone that’s going to have the title and responsibility of being the mayor,” Hall said. “But I think what’s fortunate about the system that we have is that … when it comes to the administrative stuff like having to let people go, there’s a separation between that duty and myself.”
That aspect helps to prevent any possible corruption or favoritism, he said.
Mayor Marian Orr of Cheyenne — one of the few first-class cities in Wyoming with a mayor/council form of government — does not think an administrator is necessary. She said administrators aren’t representatives of the people.
Instead, she described them as, “professional bureaucrats that are hired by the council to represent varying ideals and priorities within the city.”
Orr pointed out that the voters of Cheyenne have had the option to vote on whether they want to have a city administrator several times and overwhelmingly voted not to each time.
As in Sheridan, the council and mayor are not in agreement on this aspect. Council President Rocky Case thinks an administrator could be beneficial. Like Cook, he said there is no way to terminate a sitting mayor in Wyoming, but, “with either an administrator or a city manager … when the public or the governing body sees that things may not be going the right way, there’s a recall mechanism. It’s called termination.”
The city of Cheyenne has been embroiled in controversy since it was alleged earlier this year that funds from a Bloomberg Philanthropy Grant were improperly used by the mayor’s office.
Case said he would like to see Cheyenne hire a short-term city manager who can come in without politics and “make things right.”
“Someone who has run a similar size city,” he said. “And get things level set in all departments. And then a handoff to an administrator and mayor. I don’t believe Cheyenne’s woes can be fixed without a good look at overhaul with a non-biased individual operating the city for a short period of time and making sure that misdeeds on all levels carry some consequences.”
Cheyenne City Councilor Pete Laybourn said he would prefer to have a manager and a ceremonial mayor. In Laybourn’s opinion, the mayor/council form is too dependent on personality and is, therefore, outdated. However, he doesn’t believe that the administrator hybrid would work for Cheyenne, either. He said voters in his city have suffered enough inconsistency.
The primary advantage of the manager/council form is a consistency of purpose and budget, he said. Particularly today, with the complexities of finance, regulations and development, Laybourn said Cheyenne is “limping along.”
Both Case and Laybourn pointed to Casper as an example of a successful manager/council government, citing downtown renovations and growing neighborhoods.
Does a city manager inoculate a government against corruption and personality conflicts? Casper Mayor Charles Powell said that his city’s form of government has served them well, but admitted that there is an element of trust when you have a city manager.
“What I mean by that is the council hires the city manager and places a lot of responsibility on that person to run the day-to-day affairs,” he explained. “…So I suppose if there is a risk, it would be having a manager who maybe doesn’t have the ability to develop a trusting relationship.”
Former Cheyenne city councilor Robert Johnson argued the city council should draft an ordinance including a city manager, according to The Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Johnson even told the newspaper he is considering running against Orr on a platform of being Cheyenne’s “last strong mayor.”
“We certainly have the power to change that form of government without putting it to the public,” Cheyenne council president Case said.
Case doesn’t believe that the majority of Cheyenne’s city council wants to make that decision — including councillors that want an administrator or manager.
“It needs to be a decision made by voters,” he said. “I don’t see our council taking that up even though we have the capability.”
The inclination to follow the voting public’s lead was echoed by elected officials across the state.
The people have spoken
The people of Sheridan voted in favor of the charter ordinance. Some 2,663 people cast ballots, an above-average turnout for a special election. The difference came down to a mere 79 votes.
Miller said he respects the results of the election and is ready to move forward.
“I still completely disagree with it,” he said. “Is there anything more I can do as mayor? The answer is, ‘not really.’ The public got their one shot at voting ‘no.’
According to Miller, if the council truly wanted to enact the will of the people, they would take the near 50/50 split as a reason to put the question on the ballot for next year’s regular election.
Whether Sheridan takes up the question or not, the debate is certain to continue here and elsewhere.
This story has been updated to clarify the election result at the top of the story. —ED.