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Commissioners go bold

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Alexis Barker, NLJ News Editor

3-2 vote reflects doubts about challenging the Legislature

The Board of Weston County Commissioners approved a resolution declaring a vacancy for both senator and representative for Weston County in a 3-2 vote on April 2. Commissioners Vera Huber and Garrett Borton both voted for the resolution, while Commissioners Nathan Todd and Ed Wagoner voted against the motion. Chairman Don Taylor broke the tie with his aye vote.

William Curley, a county resident and former county attorney, first discussed the resolution with the board on Feb. 6. The resolution is in response to the 2022 redistricting approved by the Wyoming Legislature that continued to split Weston County into two districts in both the Wyoming House and Senate. As drawn, the legislative map roughly divides the county, with the north half lying in one district and the south lying in the other district in both the Senate and the House.

Outlined in a document of support presented by Curley to the
commissioners is the preferred approach to declaring the legislative vacancies, the history of redistricting and how the declaration complies with both the Wyoming and U.S. Constitutions.

The two main assertions made in the proposed resolution argue that the state constitution allocated to the voters of each Wyoming county at least one representative and one senator from each county and that those constitutionally created positions are, for Weston County, currently vacant.

Therefore, Curley explained, Weston County could rightfully declare vacancies and appoint individuals to fill those positions until the next election.

He noted that Article 3, Section 3 of the state constitution states the county’s right to its own senator and representative, and it suggests this is simply remedied by adding more seats to the Legislature.

On Feb. 20, Dan Fouch, a county resident who has been working on the issue for over 10 years, formally presented the resolution to the board, noting that 10 years ago, a supporting resolution (14-03) was approved by a previous board.

That supporting resolution, dated April 1, 2014, and signed by former Commission Chairman Lenard Seeley, states that, “the Weston County Board of County Commissioners supports the adoption of Constitutional Legislative Districting, including all aspects of Art. 3, Sec. 3, such as giving full effect to the Constitutional requirement that each county ‘shall constitute a senatorial
and representative district’” and that each “‘county shall have at least one senator and one representative.’”

According to Fouch, the new resolution presented last month is the second step to the previously approved resolution 14-03.

“This is a constitutional issue. This is our county, and we have to take it back,” Fouch said, reporting that there is support for the resolution from the Wyoming Republican Party, Secretary of State Chuck Gray and Reps. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, and Allen Slagle, R-Newcastle. He also stated that he believes there is broader support for the plan across Wyoming, and that the rest of the state is waiting for Weston County to take the step.

He indicated that if the county commissioners were to approve the resolution, they would have Weston County standing in the breach.

During the previous discussions, several commissioners had concerns with the resolution, particularly Wagoner and Todd. Those concerns led to the tabling of the discussion on Feb. 20, with the board intending to visit with potentially affected parties and other stakeholders.

On April 2, both Neiman and Slagle attended the meeting and offered support for the resolution, although Neiman did read a statement from the Legislative Service Office that outlined issues with the proposal and warned of the stark increase in Wyoming legislators that the proposal could lead to.

Despite this information, Neiman supported what Weston County residents are trying to accomplish.

“Honestly, I do support what these folks are trying to do. It is clearly in the constitution; there is no doubt about that,” Neiman said, although he acknowledged that he believes the resolution will mean that Weston County is fighting the one person, one vote principle.

Curley quickly asserted that the resolution is specifically avoiding the argument on a federal level of one man, one vote and is sticking to what is stated in the Wyoming Constitution.

Jerimiah Rieman, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, cautioned that while the representative and senator for each county may be specified in the constitution, there is a footnote from the court case Gorin v. Karpan.

The footnote states that “this section is inconsistent with the application of the ‘one person, one vote’ principle under circumstances as they presently exist in Wyoming. Consequently, the Wyoming legislature may disregard this provision when reapportioning either the senate or the house of representatives.”

He did note that Wyoming could satisfy the Wyoming Constitution and one man, one vote, although this would require growing the Wyoming Legislature.

Slagle also offered support for what the Weston County residents were trying to accomplish. He said that the United States was formed as a representative republic and that Weston County deserves its representation.

“My thought is, we need to move forward with this whole idea,” Slagle said. “I think this might be a first step. In any process, you have to have the person that takes the first step, that is bold enough to do it.”

Both Slagle and Neiman cited the loss of rural votes in Wyoming as a reason for supporting the proposal.

“It takes nine Wyoming counties to compensate for what Gillette, Wyoming, can do. What they are trying to do does need to be pursued,” Neiman said. “… It intrigues me to no end, and I appreciate what they are trying to do.”

He noted that Weston County would be making a bold move and drawing a line in the sand, asking the rest of Wyoming, “What are you going to do with it.”

Despite the support from the current local representatives, both Todd and Wagoner continued to question the proposed resolution.

Wagoner said he appreciates where the residents are coming from, but felt that the proposal would create a huge state government and said he believes Wyoming traditionally supports smaller government. He also questioned why the concerned citizens are not suing over redistricting.

“Go ahead and sue,” Curley countered, quickly clarifying that is not what they are asking the commissioners to do.

Wagoner asked who would foot the bill for a lawsuit, noting that Weston County does not have the funds to pay for a lawsuit, and Curley responded that who would be responsible for paying for the lawsuit depends on who the parties would be.

“I see a no-win,” Wagoner acknowledged.

Todd asked if the resolution would have the same teeth if the vacancies were struck from the resolution.

“It would not have the same effect,” Curley said.

He noted that the vacancies exist, people in Weston County are not satisfied, and that is why the language should remain.

“As a commissioner and voter, having the county split just doesn’t seem right. You don’t have to be a politician to understand that,” Huber said.

County Attorney Michael Stulken also said he was not opposed to the idea but that he largely agrees with Reiman, citing the above-mentioned court case. He also noted that he questions the commissioners’ ability to declare these vacancies per Wyoming statute.

Despite the concerns, the motion to approve the resolution passed on the 3-2 vote.

“Honestly, I think the constitution should be followed,” Taylor said, before casting his tie-breaking vote.

He noted possible “speed bumps” along the way, but said he sees no harm in Weston County approving the resolution, although he sees potential issues with recognition of the individual representative and senator on the state level.

As for appointing individuals to this vacancy, Kari Drost, chair of the Weston County Republican Party, told the News Letter Journal that she is waiting for direction on how to proceed from Taylor and Frank Eathorne, chair of the Wyoming Republican Party.

Commission clips

Notes from the April 2, 2024, meeting of the Weston County Commissioners

• Commissioner Nathan Todd reported that the Black Hills National Forest has made a 30-page change to its final assessment for plan revisions for the forest. It was noted that the public will have the ability to comment on plan revisions in the future.

• Roger Connett, with Rare Element Resources, announced that the company has hired Ken Mushinski as its new CEO. He also reported that the construction process for the demonstration plant at the Upton Logistics Center is moving forward.

• The board voted to absorb the 15% cost increase for health insurance through Blue Cross Blue Shield for county employees. The increase, according to Clerk Becky Hadlock, will raise insurance costs for Weston County from $819,000 a year to $894,000 at the current employment and enrollment levels. Not all county employees use the county insurance, but there are open positions that could affect the increase.

• The board discussed the future of Old Highway 85 with concerned residents, although the board made no decision on whether the road will be paved or graveled.

• Commissioner Vera Huber requested that the various departments throughout Weston County be invited to visit with the board considering the upcoming budget. Todd suggested that the invitation be more casual and that an email addressing budget concerns regarding shortfalls and potential cuts be sent, in addition to the invitation.

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