SHERIDAN — With three new council members poised to take over at the start of the new year, the composition of Sheridan’s city council will shift significantly in the coming months, not just physically but also philosophically.
The three new councilors — Clint Beaver, Aaron Linden and Jacob Martin — differ with the outgoing council members on some of the prominent issues council has taken up over the past year, while also identifying their own priorities for council. When the new council convenes for the first time next year, those fresh perspectives could steer council, and the city, in a new direction.
Mayor Roger Miller has clashed with the current council regarding whether the public should be allowed to vote on the city’s continued fluoridation of its water, as the majority of council members opposed putting the issue to a vote. The three incoming councilors, however, all support letting the public vote on the issue, which swings the council majority in the mayor’s favor.
Martin said he would support a public vote on fluoridation or a council decision that ends the practice outright.
Beaver and Linden, meanwhile, want to see the public vote on the issue. But Linden said the vote may not be as immediate as some might hope. He explained that holding a special election would cost the city somewhere between $12,000 and $15,000 and the turnout for a special election would likely be significantly lower than the turnout in a general election. Because of those factors, Linden hopes he can convince the mayor and his fellow councilors to promise the fluoridation issue will appear on the 2020 ballot.
The mayor has also been at odds with the present council over whether the city government should continue to function with the city administrator at the head or return to a strong mayor government. The city administrator position was established by Charter Ordinance 2158, which Sheridan’s city council approved in 2015, a year before Miller’s election.
Miller has called for the repeal of that ordinance, but the current council has been unwilling to consider the matter. That will change also with the incoming councilors.
Beaver is adamant that CO2158 should be either repealed or drastically amended to restore executive powers to the mayor.
“My position is that the council imposed this (ordinance) erroneously and it’s up to council to fix it,” Beaver said.
He added that revising the ordinance does not necessarily mean the city administrator will play no role in the city government, but if the position is going to be retained he said it should function more like Sheridan County’s administrative director.
“[County Administrative Director] Renee Obermueller is a very critical employee, but she’s simply an employee,” Beaver said. “Her position doesn’t take power away from the county commissioners. She helps them implement at their direction. So that would be my paradigm [for the city administrator].”
Linden took a similar stance.
“I’m not opposed to having a city administrator. It’s a $40 to $60 million per year business, the city of Sheridan,” Linden said. “Is that something that we can fully entrust to whomever gets voted in every four years? Because there is a learning curve there.”
But, Linden said, the administrator should not take executive powers away from the mayor. As such, he advocates keeping the administrator position to manage and assist with the city’s finances while returning executive powers to the mayor.
Martin is more neutral on the subject of the city administrator. He said it is difficult for him to judge the effectiveness of the position from outside the city government. Once he begins working with the administrator, Martin said he will decided whether he supports the position being retained, eliminated or revised.
The councilors-elect do agree with the current council that the city should conduct a thorough audit of its building codes, zoning regulations, permitting and building fees to eliminate any bureaucratic speed bumps that could hinder affordable housing projects.
The new council members said they are skeptical the city government will be able to do much beyond that, however.
That skepticism extends to a local housing inventory and needs study, which the current council has indicated it expects to conduct in partnership with the Sheridan Economic and Educational Development Authority. The study would cost an estimated $40,000, which the city and SEEDA would split evenly, but the city’s new council members aren’t convinced the study will yield any new insights.
Martin has pointed out that the city commissioned a study to address a housing shortage in the recent past and said the city would be better served saving its money and drawing on the conclusions from that study.
Linden, likewise, said the study seems redundant and will likely tell the city what it already knows. If council does decide to move forward with the study, however, he said he hoped it would include a projection of the city’s future needs considering the looming influx of workers from Weatherby and expanding local companies like Vacutech, Kennon and EMIT.
Beaver, however, said he wasn’t convinced the study would even be able to address that aspect of the city’s housing demand.
“I think this is one of the areas where it is difficult to reduce the issue to statistics, because you’re dealing with individuals and who gets hired at a new production facility doesn’t lend itself to averages and the kinds of things studies typically produce,” Beaver said. “There will be a number of individuals who will have individual needs — some will have families, some will be single — so I think it’s pretty challenging to come up with anything that’s going to be real telling.”
The new council members have also identified their own priorities for the city over the next four years. Martin, for instance, said he wants to focus on improving the city’s waste management and head off any possibility of the city running out of landfill space in the future.
“Landfill space isn’t renewable, and there are only so many places you can have one,” Martin said. “Even if it’s 10 years from now, it’s something we should think about.”
He proposed offering incentives to citizens who recycle consistently, which helps the city divert waste away from its landfills. According to Martin, the city’s waste diversion rate — which tracks how much waste is diverted away from the landfill and into recycling — is roughly 25 percent; he said he aims to increase that rate to 50 percent by the end of his first term.
Beaver, on the other hand, said he would like to see council address some lingering zoning issues around the city. While serving on the City Planning Commission, Beaver said he identified areas in the city where properties have outdated zoning designations. For instance, Beaver said properties along Coffeen Avenue are still zoned for industrial use even though the prevailing use for properties along Coffeen is commercial retail. Though that doesn’t pose an immediate threat, it leaves open the potential that a company could build an industrial plant along Coffeen Avenue and interfere with the surrounding commercial activities.
The new councilors will be sworn in during city council’s first meeting in 2019, which is scheduled for Jan. 8.