On Wednesday, October 3, the Society of Petroleum Engineers hosted a political forum at the Best Western Outlaw Inn where audience members submitted questions to several candidates running for Sweetwater County Assessor, Sweetwater County Sheriff, Rock Springs Mayor, and Sweetwater County Commissioner.
SPE Members Andria Whisler and Bryan Brown conducted the forum.
Sweetwater County Assessor
The forum started with the County Assessor position. Peri Rubeck (R), candidate for Sweetwater County Assessor, could not attend due to being at an Assessor training in Casper that is only scheduled once per year, but provided a statement that was read by his father. In his statement he apologized for not being able to attend and asked that the public review his bio page on SweetwaterNOW’s 2018 Election page to learn more about him.
Dave Divis (D), current Sweetwater County Assessor and candidate running for re-election, spoke about how he worked in key positions within the County, most recently the Chief Deputy to the Assessor for 6 years, before fulfilling Pat Drinkle’s term upon her retirement.
Divis has worked for the County for over 20 years and highlighted that experience as he explained the role of Assessor and how it affects the residents of the County. He mentioned that his office is doing “more with less” by using available technology and asked that everyone make an informed decision when it comes to the County Assessor by evaluating who is the best person for the job.
Divis was asked “what part does party politics play” in the Assessor office. He explained that the office only follows policy, so party politics play no role. Divis also mentioned legislation has been proposed to make the office non-partisan since their job is to “serve the public in the confines of the statute.”
In reference to Rubeck being away at an Assessor training, an audience member asked “Is it possible to learn everything you need to know for the position in a one week class, please explain.” Divis answered, “No. I can be really clear. No.”
Divis explained that it was a very basic training Rubeck was attending for the fundamentals and that he (Divis) has over 400 hours of continuing education in his field, but that experience is what is critical for his role.
Sweetwater County Sheriff
Sheriff Mike Lowell, running for re-election, began by highlighting his qualifications and the duties of the office. Lowell was elected Sheriff after serving 12 years as the Chief of Police for RSPD. In his introduction he went over the goals of his past term and how he has met those goals by stating “Check the record.”
Grossnickle introduced himself by highlighting his education and credentials in law enforcement. He has been employed by the Sheriff’s department for over 20 years, where he has been promoted multiple times. He explained that he has been instrumental in many current training programs that are used in the department, as well as developing policy for his peers. Grossnickle stressed that his stance centers on good communication between the public and the Sheriff’s office and an “extension of the people” that he believes has never been created in that role.
A WYDOT employee from Farson asked both candidates why they were giving a “free pass” to meth users in Farson. He stood and explained that he knew of one drug user in particular who had stolen from a local store and then the WYDOT shop and he was told by the local store owner that it wasn’t worth calling the Sheriff because nothing would happen. Lowell responded first by saying he nor Grossnickle could comment on current investigations, but they do know of the issue. Lowell then went on to say he “does not give free passes to anyone” and that what the WYDOT employee said was wrong and had received wrong information.
Grossnickle agreed that the office does not give a “free pass”, but explained that he understands what the situation might “feel like” and that is part of his goal to bridge the misconception and perception of the Sheriff’s office.
Another question was presented to the Sheriff candidates about the major challenge to fighting crime in Sweetwater County. Lowell said substance abuse in any form, interstate transportation of juveniles for prostitution along I-80, and classification of inmates to keep demographics separated that may have issues between each other. Grossnickle stated that he wants to stress the importance of having the citizens be more involved in the process of law enforcement since what has always been done is not working. He also discussed looking at each region and problem individually since the needs are going to be different in say, Wamsutter or North Rock Springs or Farson, etc.
Grossnickle ended by once again stating that “law enforcement is an extension of the people” and his hope is to improve the division between citizens and law enforcement that is happening locally and nationally. Lowell finished by highlighting a few of the improvements his office has made, like broadening social media and using text alerts.
Rock Springs Mayor
Ryan Greene was the first RS Mayoral candidate to speak, introducing himself as a local businessman who states part of his strategy is to get Rock Springs “out of the boom and bust cycle.” Greene went on to say his plan is to implement a LEAN process of waste reduction at the City to create savings by analyzing data and streamlining processes. He also plans to hire a grant writer on the City staff. Greene also plans to implement a non-emergency 311 call line as one of his initiatives.
Tim Kaumo, a former RS Mayor and local business owner, started by saying he brings over 30 years of successful business leadership to the office as well as 2 productive terms as Mayor. He believes the City is once again in need of a proven leader with the management skills he brings to the table. His goals remain similar to his first terms as Mayor; transparency, saving City dollars by removing redundant positions and duties while moving some of those duties under the Mayor, using those dollars to improve services to the public and to create a good atmosphere and culture within the City, business recruitment and retention, and fostering a good relationship with the City of Green River, among other things.
The first question to the Mayoral candidates started with questions about the golf course, specifically why providing lunch is not consistent. Greene mentioned that it came down to budget and membership and he’d need to analyze the finances and resources first. Kaumo joked that he didn’t golf much before going into the specifics of how much the department had been cut in funding and positions. He discussed the history of some golf course changes and decisions during his last term and agreed with Greene, that it may just come down to budget and a lack of funding. An audience member then stated that they were under the impression that the food service was leased and contracted out at the golf course. Kaumo stated the lease was well stated that they are to cater to the golfers and he has been told many golfers have spoken to him saying they have felt they “weren’t wanted out there” when it came to getting served food and this is a concern.
Some more discussion continued with the audience and the candidates about the golf course concerns before moving on to the next audience question that asked each candidate to discuss how they or their family’s personal business relates to contracts or relationships with the City.
Kaumo started by saying he has been asked a lot how he can keep his personal business separate from City business and in his last term had someone analyze the City business that was related to his engineering firm. He stated that in most cases his firm was hired by a client who was then working through the City process, not work directly for the City. Projects with the actual City were all on a bid process where any local engineering firm would have access. Kaumo stated that he does not personally get involved in that bidding process and there is a team that reviews and handles the bids. “It will be a non-issue, just as it has been in the past,” he finished.
Greene also answered by saying he gets asked the same question and it’s a fair question. He said he’d be willing to sign a pledge, as he believes that public office should not be used to funnel funds back to a personal business, but that his and Kaumo’s businesses should be allowed into the bid process along with all other like businesses to keep things fair.
The next question was directed to Greene, asking for specifics on where he will save money that included examples pertinent to Rock Springs and “not other States.” Greene stated that there is no better program than LEAN to do this, a waste reduction program introduced by Toyota. Greene provided a few examples of where LEAN was used in the Toyota organization as well as in some other governmental situations. He discussed that this program is used in healthcare, education and government and encouraged Kaumo to look into it if he isn’t successful and Kaumo is. “It’s an incredible program.”
Kaumo stated again that he plans to save money by removing redundancy, specifically removing two “highly-paid” positions that are not needed. One position that could, and has been done, by the Mayor’s office and another position that could be removed and those duties shared by another department head. A move that he says will save the City around $250,000 on day one. He said that along with unnecessary spending and being accountable for how the City funds were used, that is his strategy.
An audience member then asked about combining the Civic Center and the Rec Center. Kaumo said that many view the Civic Center as critical and that a lot of work has been put into keeping it up. The discussions have been had before and as of now, he doesn’t feel that is an option. He’d rather use dollars in the right area to make sure both facilities remain open. Greene stated that governing is about prioritizing and choosing where to put resources and that wouldn’t be an option unless the City absolutely had to do it, before shifting to say that he did not agree with Kaumo on cutting department heads on day one and stated that, “certainly if I did, I’d tell you who they are.” He feels there are better ways to cost saving and he plans to grow and build the City by putting the systems in place and analyzing the data and statistics.
The last question for the mayoral candidates was “How do you think Rock Springs can work more closely with Green River, or do you think it’s necessary?” Greene began by saying that collaboration and teamwork are key when it comes to the success of Green River, Rock Springs, and all of Sweetwater County. “We do have some problems and it’s going to take a team to fix it.” Greene stressed that we work at the same companies and use the same facilities and there is some opportunity to work together and move forward.
Kaumo mentioned there were times when he and former Green River Mayor David Gomez discussed a long-term vision of how the cities could grow together. He joked that it would be Rock River or Green City, but building their populations was something they both envisioned. Kaumo then discussed that we are all in this together in Sweetwater County when going after funding from the County as well as the State.
Sweetwater County Commissioner
Reid West (D), running for re-election as a Commissioner, began by saying he’s not much for party platform or party politics and that if you follow politics, you’ve noticed that. He stated that he’s there to represent all county citizens. His family has a long history in Rock Springs, around 90 years, and he has spent his whole life there. He stressed that he understands how important “industry” is to Wyoming, not just based on taxation but on the employment aspect to local families. He said he brings a business aspect to the Commission and educates himself on the issues. He identifies himself as a fiscal conservative and highlighted that the Commission 8 years ago had reserves of $16 Million and since then it has gone up to $50 Million and now to around $38 Million, after the new Justice Center and the Health and Human Services building, without bonding or borrowing.
Roy Llloyd (R) has been a resident of Sweetwater County for 14 years, but grew up in Evanston where his father drove back and forth to FMC for around 35 years. He says Sweetwater County has always been a big part of his life. He runs a small, local non-profit and is running as a “Choice for Change.” He believes his experience in small business and his concept on “focusing on the people” are strengths that he brings to the position. He has enjoyed campaigning because he’s been able to meet so many people in the community and looks forward to meeting more.
Joe Barbuto (D) began by saying his family has been in Sweetwater County for 5 generations and is proud to be a part of the community. He and his wife try to be involved in many activities and organizations. Barbuto also represented his time as a legislator in House District 48. He spoke of having a plan to diversify the economy in Sweetwater County and touched on the importance of public lands and being at the table as a commissioner to keep “public lands in public hands.” He expressed the importance of accessibility to the Commission from the public, as not everyone can attend the meetings that are held on Tuesday morning and sometimes run throughout the day. Barbuto finished by saying that this has been the most pleasant race, gesturing to the other candidates, and that he is running to bring a fresh perspective.
Randall “Doc “Wendling (R), running for re-election, started by joking that he knew most of the audience and may have had a part in giving them their diploma. He pointed out his 42 years in the education field and his credentials in leadership. He touched on the economic diversification of the County and said he will continue to listen and work with all of the local leaders in the County. Wendling says “building bridges through positive and trusting relationships is key.” He also stated in his introduction that he will remain in his principle of “doing the right thing versus doing things right.” He stated that his belief is the County resources should serve the people instead of the people serving the resources.
Jeffrey Smith (R) was not able to attend the forum that evening.
The first question to all of the Commissioner candidates was “Why do you think you’re qualified to manage an $87 Million budget?”
Wendling stated that his experience managing large budgets for the school district is what makes him qualified. He also stated that the voters electing him 4 years ago also shows that they deemed him qualified to handle the job. Barbuto spoke of his experience in non-profits and said when working with smaller budgets you don’t have extra money to work with. He also referenced his time in the Legislature again and the management of different departments there. Barbuto stated that he feels “budgets are moral documents.” Lloyd also spoke of his non-profit management and how you have to “learn to live within the limits” of the funding. He referenced a 23% cut in funding and how he’s had to figure out how to provide the same quality of services, but with less money. West said that he’s always been a numbers guy and “being inquisitive” is where that starts by asking the people at each entity questions to learn more. He spoke about how each entity works differently and learning how each operates and is funded is helpful in understanding the budget.
A question about fireworks was next and the candidates’ position on them in reference to being used in “high-density” residential areas. West spoke first and said he felt it was crazy that fireworks are allowed in the County, to applause. Lloyd spoke of his experiences in Evanston, saying he felt his house “was in a war zone” and also of a fire that he remembered. He said when it comes to private property, all he can do is “advise people not to do it.” Barbuto echoed the same sentiment of opposition and said he’d also refer to the authority of the fire chief and fire suppression personnel. Wendling mentioned that he is the liaison to the Sweetwater County Fire Department and has had conversations with the fire warden about restricting or banning fireworks in the County. Drought, coupled with the devastation that fire brings, were some examples he spoke of in his opposition.
A question was asked of all participating candidates, if they “have ever changed their party affiliation – when and why?”
Wendling started by saying that when he was younger his Dad was a Democrat so he also believed he should be. As he grew up, he realized he identified more with the Republican party. He also spoke of the last election where he ran as a Republican and then after seeing the number of votes he received in the primary, he refiled and had to run as an Independent when that happened. He is now running again as a Republican. In closing he stated that he believes the Commission appointments should be non-partisan and that very few things they do are related to party affiliation.
Barbuto said that since registering he has always been a Democrat, but it does not dictate how he votes. He states that he votes for the “person that is best for the job.” He then discussed his sponsorship of a bill when he was doing legislation that would make County offices non-partisan. He encouraged local legislators to continue working on that going forward.
Lloyd began by saying that he also grew up in a Democratic household, but life experiences changed his view and he sees himself as a moderate Republican. He said he has switched parties to vote as a Democrat in the primary and then switched back because he also believes in voting for the best person. He said that this allows an individual’s voice to be heard during certain elections and he understands some people don’t agree with that point of view. He closed by agreeing that the Commission shouldn’t be a partisan position.
West said there’s a little bit of truth to the saying that “a Wyoming Democrat is a Republican in any other State” because of our economy and way of life. He said he has been a registered Democrat since 1978 and only one time voted Republican. That was when Bill Toliver ran for Governor and he wanted to vote for him in the primary because he liked him and he was from Sweetwater County. So he voted in the primary and switched to vote in the general as a Democrat.
A final question centered on the current happenings of the airport and hinted at the personality conflict that seemed to go on at the recent Commissioner meeting. The question was stated that the “Personalities aside, the airport is vital to the community….Should the airport be funded?”
West answered by saying that it was true that it was tabled, but he felt all of the Commissioners are in favor of the idea of renovating the commercial terminal at the airport, but the concern was that they were being asked to fund the engineering work prior to having the funding that the airport is going after from WYDOT, Wyoming Business Council, and Federal funding. West stated that unless he hears something different than he already has, he plans to vote in favor of funding the project, but some “words were exchanged at the meeting that the Commission did not receive very well” and they were offended. He stated the words were a mistake and “he’s human”, but the Commission needs to do what’s best for the County and that’s why he asked to table the vote instead of letting it fail.
Lloyd said he’s been having some interaction with Devon Brubaker, the airport manager, and that he’s found the experiences to be very positive and he’s also learned so much about the airport and their goals. He said he’s not sure he has enough information to say whether or not he’d vote in favor of it hypothetically, but he’ll continue to learn more about the airport.
Wendling agreed with West’s statement and the tabling of the vote. He stated that the real question is “Will you support it?” and that his answer is “Yes”, he will support it when it comes up for a vote.
Barbuto said tabling the vote was the right thing to do and commends the Commission for doing that and not letting it fail. He has also listened to Brubaker’s presentation and was impressed. He said in his experiences he knows how important it is when going after funding if the “people who hold the purse strings” can see that the community is willing to invest dollars on their own, it shows incentive and is important. He closed by saying it’s an important project and he would support it as a Commissioner.
Following the forum, Michelle Irwin (candidate for Sweetwater County Conservation District-Rural) and Rex Rammell (candidate for Governor) asked to have a few minutes to speak to the audience. Bryan Brown in closing spoke about the Society of Petroleum Engineers – Western Wyoming Chapter and their need for funding that helps with scholarships for high school students in Southwest Wyoming.