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‘Captain Commissioner’ signs off

January 4, 2019

Presenting Paul Vogelheim with a bright red cape, Mark Newcomb declared the outgoing county commissioner a new class of superhero, dubbing him “Captain Commissioner.”

“I have never seen a commissioner seem to be everywhere at once in the community listening to everyone,” commission Chairman Newcomb said at Vogelheim’s last regular county meeting.

Newcomb declared Vogelheim “the most engaged commissioner in the history of this county.”

In 2019 Vogelheim ends 10 years as a Teton County commissioner after opting not to seek re-election. When he looks back upon his decade of service, what he’s proudest of are the relationships he’s built across various agencies: from the Wyoming Department of Transportation to federal partners like the Bridger-Teton National Forest and Grand Teton National Park.

“It’s working together,” Vogelheim said, “whether it’s backcountry rescue efforts with our search and rescue in coordination with the national park, or it’s chronic wasting disease.”

For example, he remembers when the county collaborated with WYDOT to deliver a quicker solution to the washed-out Cattleman’s Bridge after the structure collapsed from spring runoff.

“The county reached out to us and said, ‘We need help right away,’” WYDOT Director Bill Panos said, “and we were able to respond. Paul led that effort, making sure we understood the urgency of that project for the county.”

Broad “vision documents” developed during the course of Vogelheim’s tenure include the 2012 comprehensive plan, the 2015 overhaul of the rural regulations that zoned 1,800 units out of the county, the 2015 Integrated Transportation Plan and the Housing Supply Plans. The pathways master plan and the wildlife crossings master plan also won approval.

More than 400 county officials from throughout the western United States flooded Jackson Hole in 2016 for the National Association of Counties conference, which Vogelheim was instrumental in bringing to Teton County.

He said it showcased to the world the “great work” in our community, from recycling to pathways to cooperation with federal agencies rather than considering the feds “the bad guys.”

David Vela, former Grand Teton National Park superintendent and now the director of the National Park Service, said Vogelheim has stood out for his commitment to the national park and conservation. Vela remembers speaking with him at the national conference.

“I was deeply humbled to have that opportunity and frankly to showcase what is possible and the value of building relationships at every level of government,” Vela said. “Paul was front and center in helping to build and promote those relationships.”

That work helped Vogelheim win the recognition of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, which in 2016 named him the first Commissioner of the Year from Teton County.

Vogelheim counts the 2016 restructuring of the Housing Department among the highlights of his time in office. He said the overhaul brought the town and county together in a “coordinated effort” for affordable housing, along with increased town and county oversight.

And under the new housing department model, “we rely on other people to do the development,” he said.

“That’s the big shift,” Vogelheim said. “Now the model is, we’ll own the land for perpetuity, but we’ll lease it out to a developer to come and build it and to manage it and to look for affordable rentals.”

The department now has 697 affordable units in the pipeline, many of which come from the private sector, he said.

Vogelheim knows he has a tendency to “really dig into it” when it comes to complex issues. That tendency carried over to review of “the little things” at the county, he said.

When he came on board, he said county departments weren’t conducting background checks, or performance reviews. That soon changed.

“It’s a big deal in terms of morale, it’s a big deal in terms of moving organizations forward, and it creates a little bit of attrition, and that’s not a bad thing,” he said.

He said he’s proud that the county has no debt, has a slightly lowered mill levy tax rate and has built up almost $5 million in reserve funds.

“I think I’m leaving government a little better than I found it,” Vogelheim said.

Under his watch the county reduced its employee count by more than 10 percent, while “delivering a higher level of services,” he said. “We have amazing Teton County employees.”

Vogelheim said he hopes the next commission continues to take to heart the Comprehensive Plan’s vision for prioritizing wildlife and habitat. He also said transportation is certain to be a big challenge, such as finding funding to meet transit goals to double START ridership and expand service, or improving roads with projects like Tribal Trail and paving Spring Gulch Road.

His advice to incoming commissioners? You’re there to be the gatekeeper in protecting the public interest, even when sometimes that means alienating 50 percent of the room with a decision.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned in this is people just want to be heard,” Vogelheim said. “While you may not agree with what they’ve said, they need to be heard and acknowledged and take that in, but don’t be scared to make a decision and to make a decision based on doing your homework, looking long term and listening to the public.”

Vogelheim said he plans to spend time with family, serve on the incoming governor’s transition task force and the WYDOT advisory group, rejoin the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole board and put his season ski pass to good use.

And he expects we haven’t seen the last of him on town and county issues.

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