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Three competing for seat on Teton County Commission

John Smaellie, left, is competing with Mike Whitfield, right, and Penny Vasquez for Teton County Commissioner. Vasquez opted not to include a photo. | Courtesy photos
DRIGGS — Mike Whitfield, the Democratic incumbent on the Teton County Commission, is being challenged by two opponents in the upcoming election.
Republican John Smaellie and Independent Penny Vasquez are also vying for seat 2 on the commission. sent the same eight questions to each candidate. Their responses, listed below, were required to be 250 words or less. Minor edits were made to meet the word count.
The general election is on Nov. 8.
Tell us about yourself — include information about your family, career, education, volunteer work and any prior experience in public office.
Whitfield: My bright and beautiful wife Liz’s industrious nature keeps me on my toes. We enjoy three grown children and six amazing grandchildren.
Teton Valley has been my family’s home base since my great-grandparents on both sides settled here in 1893. Those deep roots have nurtured my abiding love of the people and landscapes of this beautiful place.
In my formative years I spent many days outside on the Teton River and in the woods with my grandfathers, two renowned sportsmen who shared their deep love of nature. Over the years I was a farm laborer, trail builder, ski patrolman, EMT, public land manager, wildland firefighter, teacher, research biologist, and conservation non-profit leader.
My volunteer roles have included Sportsman’s Club leader, 4-H leader, first aid instructor, hospice volunteer, Board member for Teton Valley Trails and Pathways and other non-profits, Chair of Hospital Board, forming the Community Foundation, and service on county committees.
For 17 years, I led development of Teton Regional Land Trust, where we worked with landowners to conserve thousands of acres of farmland and wildlife habitat. Later I served a decade as Executive Director of the Heart of the Rockies Initiative, an international partnership that brought people with diverse interests together to meet community and conservation goals at landscape scale.
I have been a Teton County Commissioner since January 2020, a position that presents many opportunities to serve our people. In that role, I serve on regional boards and work with many entities to benefit Teton Valley.
Smaellie: I grew up in Tetonia, where my parents instilled a strong work ethic in me. Whether it was fixing fences and shoveling grain through the summertime, or pushing myself in school and achieving goals as an athlete, success was based on the work I was willing to put in. As a young man I spent much time working for local Farmers, planting and harvesting grain and potatoes in Teton Valley.
I later went on to further my education and became a Firefighter and served Teton County for eight years with the most incredible and dedicated individuals. I eventually stepped away and started to learn the ropes of construction. I worked building bridges, roads, installing pipe, and even maintaining small water districts. With this, I have been able to really immerse myself and learn how to maintain the infrastructure needed to serve communities.
Nine years ago I met my wife, later marrying her in the Rexburg Temple. Together we have two young daughters (6 and 3 years old).
Over the past three years I have gained much knowledge and experience working with our county while serving as Board Chair for the Teton County Fair Board. Through this I have worked closely with the Teton County Commissioners, and as such have been given an in-depth look at how their budgeting and fund allocation process works. I have found a great passion and respect for how the many moving pieces within the county government works.
The past few months have been tumultuous for my family. In August, we found ourselves working with our local Search and Rescue to locate my Father. Though the loss that followed has been devastating, standing alongside my brothers and watching our community rally and come together for my family, only fueled the fire of passion and love that I have for my community.
Vasquez: My name is Penny Vasquez and I am a write-in candidate for District 2, in Teton County, Idaho. I am a person of few words, so of course, I hope to keep my answers short and sweet.
When it comes right down to it, I will try to do the best job possible. When I first came to Driggs 26 years ago, jobs were scarce. I have worked as a baker, a coffee roaster and I worked at MD nursery before starting my own gardening business. This began the commute to Jackson, Wyoming for 21 years.
I started to farm part-time in 2012. I retired from gardening four years ago and now work full-time on my small-scale farm. My landscaping job offered me the opportunity to volunteer during my off time, work on my degree (organic agriculture), and begin to attend county meetings starting in 2018.
My children are grown. I am working class and came to Teton Valley to have a better life, not to try and change it to where I came from. I am fiscally conservative, a personal property rights person, believe in protecting the wildlife but not at the cost of denying those that need housing. We can work towards a better balance.
As a former Californian, I saw how over-regulation ruined a once wonderful state.
What are your proudest accomplishments in your personal life or career?
Vasquez: Trying to live a good and decent life. Of course, I have my faults, but in various stages of my life I was proud of what I was doing. I have always tried to do a good job and admitted when I may have been wrong. I won’t make promises I can’t keep.
Whitfield: I have crystal clear memories of meeting my first newborn daughter Michelle, and later my son Aaron and daughter Anna. I am extremely proud of who they have become, caring people who walk the talk.
Later in life completion of my master’s thesis on bighorn sheep was huge for me because I was working full-time all through the writing — a year of hard but rewarding work to sum up years of research. I have also completed many years of research on bald eagles, owls, and other species. That work has been recognized by honors, including the Craighead Wildlife Conservation Award. I have had many great experiences in a volunteer capacity, including three years helping Teton Valley Hospital recover from difficult financial straits through hard work as board chair.
At the culmination of my 30 years in land conservation in 2018, I was honored and humbled with the Kingsbury Browne Conservation Leadership Award and Fellowship. This national recognition is given annually by the Land Trust Alliance and Lincoln Institute of Land Policy to honor “people who have enriched the conservation community with their outstanding leadership, innovation, and creativity in land conservation.” As a KB fellow I was able to research and write a paper and deliver presentations to national audiences to express my views on the importance of simultaneous attention to the social needs of all our people and conservation of nature. My first term as County Commissioner gave me opportunities to act on that concept for people and nature.
Smaellie: My proudest accomplishment in my life is being a father. In my personal life it is genuinely the opportunity that I have to raise my family in Teton County. I am proud of my western heritage and the opportunity I have to share it with my children and teach them what this place meant to my family that came before me. I am proud of strong family values, including a strong work ethic, making time to volunteer to help our community, and treating those around us with respect and dignity.
Why are you a member of the Republican / Democrat / Independent / Other party? Briefly explain your political platform.
Smaellie: I am a member of the Republican party because their values best represent protections of property rights, freedom, and the God-given right to pursue the American Dream. My political platform is to use the office of County Commissioner to represent the voice of my constituents through open communication, transparency and by using the morals that were instilled in me by the very community that I wish to serve.
Vasquez: I used to be a conservative Democrat. But when both parties became “party above all,” it is the people who get lost in the discussions. I became an Independent to have a choice. While some say I have no chance in “bleep” of winning, especially as a write-in, voting is still about choice. Clearly, our two-party system is not working now. It is only creating a division in our society. I find that younger people want change, and my hope is that I provide that alternative. We need young people to begin to participate in the community and realize how important their voices are. They are the future. I believe we all have the right to run.
Whitfield: Whereas I believe that it is more about the person than party in local elections, I am proudly a Democrat. In 1960 my grandad, an FDR Democrat, encouraged me to watch the national Democratic Convention. I was enthralled as young Frank Church of Idaho delivered a stirring keynote and the party nominated John Kennedy for president.
I have since followed the party that I believe best serves working people while protecting our interests abroad and at home.
All of Teton Valley’s working families deserve equitable access to a high quality of life. I will work collaboratively to ensure opportunities for all our people to access good education, well-paying jobs, affordable housing, clean water, and time outside in nature.
I will work diligently to ensure that no one is left behind; we must protect the health, safety, and economic security of all our people. I also recognize that Teton Valley is more than just a pretty place. Our wildlife,
fisheries, mountain views, clean air and water, recreational access, and public lands are irreplaceable treasures that we cannot take for granted.
I believe that the future Teton Valley will be the one that we plan for today. If we work proactively to conserve our valley’s natural assets while meeting the social and economic needs of our people, we can have the best of both. If we simply let chance set our path forward, we will lose what makes this place special and ultimately destroy the drivers of our future community success.
What are the greatest challenges facing residents in your county?
Whitfield: Teton County’s rapidly growing development pressures and population coupled with limited financial resources are stressing our capacity to meet community needs. A primary result is a housing crisis, a critical lack of workforce housing. A recent study noted that 60% of the people who need housing in Teton Valley cannot afford market rates. Our housing crisis is impacting our local economy and way of life in many ways.
We have a severe lack of child care services for our working people, a gap created as facilities used by child care providers have been sold for use as short-term rentals. Our economy suffers from difficulty in finding staff for businesses and service providers, including the county, because of high housing costs.
In a time of rapid growth, our essential road and bridge infrastructure faces a backlog of improvement need. Our rich heritage of fish and wildlife habitats, productive agriculture, recreation access, clean air and water, and scenic views is threatened by insufficient land use planning.
We also struggle with a significant and long-standing social challenge: engagement of our large local Latinx population into our broader society. These and additional big challenges will require focused attention and durable action if we are to achieve meaningful progress.
Finally, we deal with a basic challenge that mirrors a weighty national barrier to progress, a lack of civil discourse in a time of cultural and political divisiveness.
Smaellie: The biggest challenges we are currently facing in Teton County are affordable housing, the lost sense of community, an underfunded and understaffed Sheriff’s Office, and navigating growth while still protecting our personal property rights and local heritage.
Vasquez: The division that has happened amongst community members. Misinformation presented during meetings, growth, the cost of trying to live and work in our valley, work-force housing and of course the transparency concerning the passing of the land use code.
We are becoming a “Classism County.” For all our words, “that we want to protect our rural agriculture” we are doing quite the opposite. Why are my downtowns becoming a Jackson Hole, Wyomming, Sun Valley, or Bozeman, Montana? We have never helped the farming community. The current land use code that was passed on July 6, 2022, biggest issue to me is how it stops new farmers by its restrictive zoning codes. Small scale farming is one of the fastest growing segments in the country. One reason is the cost of land, you can be viable on smaller acreage. We need to look at the current and correct information on hand.
How will you best represent the views of your constituents – even those with differing political views?
Vasquez: When you are elected to the job of county commissioner your duty is to represent everyone, not just those who talk the loudest or special interest groups. I feel that is the hardest thing to do in this position. You must put all agendas you may have on a personal level aside and keep in mind what is best
for the community. This has not been the case in Teton Valley.
I will listen to those who voted for me and to those who did not vote for me. I will look at the facts and information provided to me. I hope to have an open and respectful communication with the public. Elected officials need to realize that they work for the public and listen to what is being said.
Whitfield: I will attentively and respectfully listen to the views of all constituents who choose to share their perspectives and needs in a civil manner. Over the past two years I have practiced active outreach to engage representatives of Teton Valley constituent groups to find solutions to community challenges. I will broaden this effort to bring more people power to solve additional challenges in the future.
I see much more active public engagement as the route to lasting results. I have decades of experience in bringing people of diverse political views together to develop and achieve shared goals. I fully believe that most County residents share common ground — that is a starting point for people of diverse interests to build respect and trust for one another. I have witnessed substantive and durable successes when community members from many backgrounds come together to shape a future vision grounded in respect for diversity of opinion. Success starts by building a foundation of trust that each participant’s values will be heard and respected. Such trust creates an open-source arena for dialogue and information exchange – a safe place where participants can learn from one another and change their perspectives. I recognize that some community members will not participate with people of a different political persuasion. However, I believe that most people who choose to live in our community have more in common than they might initially recognize. I hope to engage residents in finding that commonality and using it to actively shape our valley’s future.
Smaellie: Even though I am a working man with a young family, I will remain active within my community and carry an open line of communication. I have and will always lend an open ear to the concerns of all of my constituents. This isn’t just my home, it’s our home.
What are your goals while in office? Are there any specific projects or issues that are important to you?
Smaellie: It is my goal to work towards a better and stronger future for Teton County by rebuilding trust within our community. We need to work with the Road and Bridge Department to maintain, repair and improve existing roadways. Work closely with Planning and Zoning to streamline the permitting process. I plan to work with the Sheriff’s office to aid in finding grants and other ways to improve funding and grow their budget and resolve understaffing. I will promote and protect small local businesses. Work together with local Farmers and Ranchers to better understand their needs, and promote and protect our rich local heritage. And I plan to promote safe and responsible recreation within the Teton Valley.
Whitfield: I have learned that fulfillment of my duties as a County Commissioner requires that I respond to immediate critical issues while proactively planning to avoid future crises. Commissioners have numerous public assignments to serve on local and regional boards and serve as liaison between the County and other entities. Our success requires that we continually hear from the community, that we are broadly collaborative in our approaches, that we learn from the experiences of others.
Here is my immediate priority list.
We must right now improve access to quality workforce housing and all the related needs like access to childcare. I work with ITD to improve Idaho Highway 33 to reduce congestion that makes this road unsafe. I am working on a regional solution to our emergency dispatch service needs.
On the long-term front, I will advance long-term community planning for a resilient future. Good planning today will prevent future crises and save taxpayer resources. Community resiliency includes a diverse and stable economy; safe and well-connected transportation, water, and wastewater treatment infrastructure; quality community facilities; protected natural resources; and a healthy environment.
We have made solid progress. Teton County has added good-paying new jobs at a high rate. Our new Land Development Code provides smart growth direction with clarity for future development and natural resource protection. Discussions are underway to improve important infrastructure. A collaborative effort to manage Teton River has made good progress. Whereas our housing crisis remains severe, there have been significant advances.
Vasquez: I would like to bring back the trust of the people in their public officials. I hope to bring the division between community members to a close. We live in a beautiful county and need to find a way to cohabit with all who live here. It should not be the mentality of “my way or the highway.” Special interest group or a minority should not dictate what happens to the majority. The passing of the land use code is still an issue.
Do you have any plans to significantly reduce or expand staffing or make changes to the county budget if elected? Are there areas that need more funding or areas where cutbacks could be made?
Vasquez: I would like to stop the county from being sued because of the BOCC making bad decisions. I do appreciate the people who work for the county. To try and make these decisions without having all the information would be unfair. Are there areas that need more funding or areas where cutbacks could be made? There may be but again until I have all the information before me, I hesitate to guess. While I have been following the P&Z and BOCC for the last four years, it was concerning how the Comprehensive Plan was being cherry-picked to slow down applicants or developers. One misconception was our Comp Plan was an award-winning plan. This is not true. We received an award for our public involvement 2012.
Smaellie: I would like to expand funding with the sheriff’s office as well as with the Road and Bridge Department in Teton County. It is my understanding TCSO is currently understaffed by 40% of its optimal workforce, and that needs to be resolved. I also would like to work with the Road and Bridge department and its supervisors to have a better understanding of their staffing needs along with both equipment and material needs so that they can best serve Teton County.
Whitfield: Teton County, like many Idaho counties, faces the dilemma of a mismatch: increasing need for County services in a fast-growing state and decreasing access to the funding needed to meet those needs. This challenge is particularly acute in mountain resort areas like Teton Valley where tourism numbers add stress to our infrastructure, but county governments are not allowed to charge tourists for their impacts through lodging taxes. A key change I will lobby for in the state legislature is the ability of counties to find ways for tourism to pay its share. Another revenue opportunity comes through federal and state grants for infrastructure such as roads, wastewater treatment facilities, and broadband. The County needs to improve its long-range planning to have better access to these resources.
In county government we must continually evaluate the performance of all county departments to ensure productive response to community needs. Given our financial limitations coupled with the high cost of housing in Teton County, it is difficult to fill county jobs. We thus must very carefully balance needs and resources. Because we have to pay more to find and retain staff, we may have to cut some positions. One area where we need to consider more funding is the Sheriff’s Department to sustain deputies and dispatchers.
As an elected official how will you work with the media to disseminate important information to the public?
Whitfield: The media plays a vital role in sustaining our democracy. Unfortunately, relatively few people fully understand the many roles that government plays, particularly at the local level. We need an informed and engaged public for local government to function properly and fairly. Further, in Teton Valley a high proportion of our local population is new to our region and is largely unaware of the social and environmental conditions that shape our local culture and our response to issues. I will encourage local media to reach beyond superficial coverage of ‘front burner’ crises to advance greater public awareness of all perspectives on local issues of importance to our community. The best reporters dig more deeply to tell the stories of all those involved. I will rely on media to inform and educate our citizenry in a time of many conflicting voices. I will also work proactively to ensure that the good work of County staff is recognized for its value to our community.
I strongly believe in the free press, and in the vital importance of media free of political bias to inform our community life. If re-elected to public office I will continue my work to ensure open and honest governance in full compliance with Idaho’s Open Meeting Law. I will personally expect local media to hold me accountable for my roles as a decision maker. While I will not always agree with media accounts of the day’s issues, I will always honor the vital role of a free press.
Vasquez: I hope to have the opportunity to create and open and honest relationship with the news media. Many feel that the media has become entertainment news rather than reporting the facts. The public suffers when this happens.
Smaellie: Transparency and communication is key. I feel that the best way to address this is by establishing a partnership with the media so that together we can educate the public on the most up to date meeting schedules and keep updated information readily available to the public.
The post Three competing for seat on Teton County Commission appeared first on East Idaho News.

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