Is Pinedale's Mayor The Donald Trump Of Wyoming?
People in Pinedale have a lot to say about their mayor, Bob Jones—and not much of it is nice.
Longtime councilman Tim Lingle says his day-to-day has become much more hostile since the new mayor took over.
“Do I hate him? I think that’s a bit strong,” Lingle says. “Do I wish we kept our old Mayor? Absolutely.”
Mayor Jones has also made enemies with some of the small town’s business leaders—like Tamra Watts, who runs Pinedale’s popular Wind River Brewery and restaurant.
“Who the hell is he?” asks the Brewpub co-owner. “How do you become the mayor of a tiny little western town when nobody has ever heard your name?”
“He chased off a city council person by attacking him and his wife in a public forum,” says local rancher John Harber, who tangled with the mayor when he attempted to donate a parcel of land to the town. “He asked me a question [during a business meeting] and I didn’t have the answer he wanted. So he told me to go F- myself.”
“I think he is a little more than brash.”
That’s just a taste of the political firestorm that has erupted in Pinedale since Mayor Bob Jones took office in June of 2014. Pinedale’s town council meetings, once fairly sleepy affairs, now have as much yelling and hurled accusations as an ugly divorce hearing.
The head of the local Chamber of Commerce says Mayor Jones is giving the town a reputation for being bad for business. A Facebook group has been to organize against him called “I Miss Steve [Smith, the former mayor] a Call for a Return to Good Governance in Pinedale.” It has over 200 members.
You’d think the mayor of a town so small it doesn’t have a stoplight might be worried about having so much bad blood with his neighbors.
Not Bob Jones.
“I have no intention to change,” he says. “Everybody is a bunch of wimps, and I’m not.”
On a warm summer night, the Wind River Brewpub is packed. It nearly always is during the tourist season, collecting travelers on their way through town to or from Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Park. Sean Watt’s is co-owner of the business, along with his wife Tamra. He says its craft brews are popular in town, and beyond its borders.
“We have people calling us weekly from New York, Texas, Louisiana, wanting our product. We just simply can’t provide it right now.”
For the last two years, the Watts have been working to build a new brewery facility and tasting room in town. They claim the expansion would create 30 to 50 new jobs--substantial growth in a town of 2,000 which relies heavily on a rapidly shrinking energy industry.
The Watts wanted to build in an area zoned for commercial use. “Brewery” is not one of the permitted uses for a commercial zone in Pinedale’s municipal code, but the town’s planning and zoning commission were planning to change zoning rules to make that happen. But upon taking office Mayor Jones shut that down, arguing the facility belonged in a light industrial area.
I have no intention to change. Everybody is a bunch of wimps, and I'm not.
As of late August Jones had signaled that he would accept the brewery in a commercial zone if there were some parking considerations, but by then the debate had dragged out for months. The animosity between the two groups is clear, and while Mayor Jones has maintained he’s just done what’s best for the town, the Watts’ and their supporters claim the Mayor has made excuses to stop their growth.
Now Shawn and Tamra Watts say they will be taking their entire brewing operation elsewhere. “We’re leaving this county,” Tamra says. “We were born and raised here, and he is pushing us out of this county.”
Mayor Jones has also been accused of making some decisions without consulting the public, or following the law--a departure from previous administrations. He didn’t make the required public announcement when he held a special council meeting to buy a half a million dollar piece of property. He also put himself on the town’s healthcare policy, which is normally reserved for employees, not elected officials. Mayor Jones argues that he works enough hours as the mayor to qualify as an employee. But he’s the first mayor of Pinedale to get insurance--which is worth about two-thirds of his $24,000 a year salary.
That’s led people like Pinedale Council Member Tim Lingle to accuse the mayor of breaking the law.
“The twelve hundred bucks a month he is getting for health insurance I think he is stealing,” Lingle said in an interview. “He’s flat out stealing.”
But when I raised Lingle’s claim to Mayor Jones, he wasn’t having it.
“There’s a small minority in town, Tim Lingle is one of them [that] hate me,” Jones says. “He doesn’t just dislike me--he hates me. And so they are going out of their way to get me.”
Bob Jones is a big, man in his mid 50's, with a white goatee and sharp blue eyes. He spent his career as a home builder in the Washington D.C. suburbs, and he speaks with an east coast directness uncommon in rural Wyoming. He says what’s really behind these complaint’s is the fact, unlike previous mayors, he won’t play nice.
“I don’t need the job. I don’t need the money. And I don’t need my ego stroked. I came here for one reason: to do this job the very best I can. I don’t care if someone doesn’t like what I do, because I don’t give one iota about getting reelected,” he says.
Bob Jones was relatively unknown in Pinedale before he won the Mayor’s race. He ran against Steve Smith, a two-term incumbent, and many townspeople say they voted for Jones simply because they felt it was time for Smith to exit the office. Jones says he identifier as a partier outsider who tells it like it is, like a certain presidential candidate. “I’m fascinated by Trump,” he tells me. “He has turned the whole system upside down. I’m watching him very closely.”
Jones says not caring about the establishment means he can do things that are unpopular but necessary, like clean up the town’s books. And in that he seems to have succeeded: under the Jones administration the town has accounted for millions of dollars that had been lost in the ledgers by previous administrations. And Mayor Jones has made a point of presenting audits of the town’s finances to the town council, and to the public. Those audit reports had not been easily available under Mayor Smith.
Mayor Bob Jones says he’s confident he is making the right decisions as mayor, even if they have earned him some enemies along the way.
“I make every decision I can possibly make based on what’s best for the town. And what’s best for the town, in my opinion, is that we have a good, clean, safe place to live.”
Whether Mayor Jones leadership will be ultimately good for Pinedale’s infrastructure or its economy is still unclear; what is clear is that the political environment of the town has changed. Recently town council meetings have been packed. They’ve also been loud, angry, and filled with accusations--a far cry from the quiet, boring civility of government in many of Wyoming’s other small towns. And there is no sign the noise will be letting up in Pinedale anytime soon. Mayor Bob Jones first term ends in 2018.
At the last council meeting, one voice argued for a return to civility: eighty-year-old town council member Nyla Kunard.
“This is getting us absolutely nowhere,” she said. “I don’t like any of this. We have got to start getting along if we are going to get anything done. This is ridiculous!”