County commission race fills out, heats up
Democrats Gosar and Halbsgut will face Republicans Richardson and Jones in the general. The four candidates are competing for two available seats, seeking party control of the county’s highest board.
The 2022 general election will shape the next four years of county leadership, determining how the county approaches everything from aquifer protection to renewable energy development to law enforcement oversight.
On the ballot, voters will have the choice of four official candidates. The top two voter-earners will join Democratic Commissioner Sue Ibarra on the county commission.
Incumbent Commissioner Heber Richardson and former Commissioner Terri Jones won the Republican primary in August — each of them besting a third Republican candidate who lost despite hearty fundraising efforts.
Meanwhile, incumbent Commission Chair Pete Gosar was the only candidate to file in his party’s primary. As the only name printed on the ballot, he took nearly 90 percent of all votes cast by Democrats.
But an independent candidate, Klaus Halbsgut, received enough write-in votes to take second place and ensure that his name is printed on the general ballot. Halbsgut will appear alongside Gosar as a Democratic candidate.
A number of outcomes are possible:
The incumbents, Gosar and Richardson, could win the election, resulting in no change to the make-up of the commission, and locking in a Democratic majority for at least the next two years.
The Republicans, Richardson and Jones, could sweep the election and ensure a Republican majority on the commission for the next four years.
The Democrats, Gosar and Halbsgut, could sweep the election and lock in a Democratic majority on the commission for the next four years.
If Gosar and Jones both win, or if Richardson and Halbsgut both win, the current partisan make-up of the commission (two Democrats, one Republican) will remain unchanged, but county leadership will have at least one new face.
The Laramie Reporter asked Klaus Halbsgut a series of questions about his candidacy and the most pressing issues facing Albany County. Gosar, Jones and Richardson answered similar questions for the Laramie Reporter in July.
Below is a breakdown of what each candidate has said about a significant issues facing the community.
Write-in candidate Klaus Halbsgut secures Dem nomination
Halbsgust admits it would have been easier to just file as a Democrat in the first place.
He’s run for county commission twice before — in 2018 as a Democrat and in 2020 as an Independent. His experience in 2018 — taking sixth place in a primary field of seven — inspired Halbsgut to try running as an independent, where he wouldn’t have to compete in a crowded primary.
But Sue Ibarra ran unopposed in the 2020 Democratic primary and Pete Gosar filed to run unopposed in this year’s primary. After filing closed, the Albany County Democrats were looking at having just one Democratic option for two available seats — all but ensuring at least a partial Republican victory.
So the Democrats recruited Halbsgut during the primary, asking the erstwhile independent to take up the Democratic banner.
“As an independent, you don’t have any ground game,” Halbsgut said. “You don’t have a campaign committee, you don’t have people going door to door for you. You don’t have a big party support network. So when they made that offer, it seemed kind of foolish to continue going the direction I was.”
On all of the most pressing issues facing the county commission, Halbsgut’s policy positions align with the Democratic party’s and differ drastically from the Republicans’ policy interests. That means the election in November will present the people of Albany County with a choice between radically different visions for the future of the community.
On the issues: Aquifer protection
Halbsgut’s number one issue is aquifer protection. The cause has animated all three of his attempts at getting elected and he’s been happy to see both Ibarra and Gosar join the commission in 2018 and 2020 respectively.
“Fortunately, because of the last couple of elections, we actually have a commission that’s doing things about protecting the aquifer,” he said “That’s a direction I want to keep going.”
The Casper Aquifer rests to the east of Laramie and provides more than half of the city’s drinking water. For years, the community has been engaged in debates surrounding how much development — and what kinds of development — should be allowed on the land above the aquifer.
Those who advocate for greater “aquifer protection,” often seek to limit what can be built on the land above and seek to strengthen regulations regarding septic tank quality and other factors related to the threat of contamination.
But others don’t see the aquifer as particularly threatened, and view attempts to limit development on the land above as unnecessary government regulation.
The debate often falls along party lines, with Democrats advocating greater protections and Republicans advocating less.
“Previous commissions before this one were real pro-development — and that does bring in property taxes, brings in a lot of money for our construction companies, our real estate agents, our mortgage companies,” Halbsgut said. “And I’m not against any of those things. I want to support all of them, but we need to have development in the right places. We have plenty of land here we can develop on.”
This stance puts him in line with Gosar, who also has said that aquifer protection is paramount. But the Republicans, Jones and Richardson, both oppose further regulations. Jones said the aquifer is already “well protected,” while Richardson said it’s “overprotected.”
“Current regulations are similar to the government's COVID response in that the restrictions they impose far exceed the risks in the aquifer recharge zone,” Richardson told the Laramie Reporter in July. “This causes unnecessary burden and expense to landowners. I believe it amounts to a taking by regulation.”
The county and city governments, both currently under Democratic control, are currently working to update the Casper Aquifer Protection Plan.
On the issues: Renewable energy
Renewable energy development is a rare issue where Democratic and Republican commission candidates largely converge on the same policy stance — allowing the construction of wind farms. But they arrive at that common stance by different rationales.
Renewable energy development has inspired fierce debate in Albany County for the past several years.
The Rail Tie Wind Project is a planned 26,000-acre wind farm slotted for an area south of Laramie and nearing the construction phase; once up and running, it could produce an amount of power comparable to a coal plant.
Some nearby landowners opposed the project, arguing it could impact local wildlife or cultural sites and decrease their property values by interrupting the view to the horizon. These landowners filled commission meetings, hosted protests, hired legal counsel, took out billboards and sent mailers — sometimes spreading outright misinformation about wind energy — but ultimately failed to stop the wind farm’s county, state and federal approvals.
The group against the wind farm found themselves opposed by an odd coalition of pro-business Republicans and left-wing environmentalists — a coalition which ultimately won the day.
The commissioners voted unanimously to approve the project, but each gave separate reasons.
Ibarra explicitly cited young people’s demands for action on climate change, while Gosar said that after much consideration, wind development was ultimately good for the community. Richardson, the commission’s sole Republican voice, said it wasn’t the county’s place to stop a business proposal — even a large-scale project like the Rail Tie — that had dotted its i’s and crossed its t’s.
It appears as though all four candidates running for commission in the 2022 general election would have voted to approve the Rail Tie Project. (Tony Kirchhoefer, who lost the Republican primary, was the only candidate who voiced clear opposition.) Jones voiced only tepid support in an earlier Laramie Reporter questionnaire, while Richardson restated his belief that the government shouldn’t stand in the way. But both Jones and Richardson said some updates to the regulations might be required and further that Albany County has no place actively encouraging wind development.
The Democrats, Gosar and Halbsgut, demonstrate a more proactive support of renewable energy — and more support for taking action on climate change in general.
“The county should play a leading role in addressing climate change by using hard-earned tax dollars efficiently,” Gosar told the Laramie Reporter.
Both Gosar and Halbsgut said the county could seek to make its fleet of vehicles more efficient and decrease the emissions caused by its electricity use. Halbsgut said what happens in Laramie is only, obviously, a small part of a global issue.
“Each community by itself is not going to (make) that much of a dent,” he said. “But taken in totality, I think it could make a big difference.”
Halbsgut said encouraging responsibly-sited renewable energy development here is another way of making a difference, while also directly benefiting the county.
“Windmills and solar panels — that’s the direction our nation is going in,” he said. “Why not, as one of the poorest counties in the state, be able to take advantage of that? The Rail Tie, which I was strongly in favor of, will bring in some added extra revenue, which we can then hopefully use for helping the less fortunate among our residents in the county.”
Richardson, on the other hand, rejected the idea that the Albany County government should do anything about climate change.
“Albany County should only take measures that make financial and operational sense,” he told the Laramie Reporter.
On the issues: Civilian oversight
Civilian oversight of law enforcement has been a hot-button topic at the city level this year. But the most high-profile actions by — and allegations against — local police officers have come at the county level.
The shooting of an unarmed man in 2018 by a deputy with a violent past resulted in the ouster of the sheriff who hired him. And an ongoing civil rights lawsuit alleges that another former leader in the sheriff’s office engaged in a “years-long racist tirade” that forced out a Black corporal in 2017.
Following the George Floyd protests of 2020, activists made the city council agree to consider a civilian oversight board — but two years later, the push for such a board was squashed during an eventful council meeting.
No commission candidate voiced interest in advocating for a civilian oversight board, but Halbsgut gave the most vocal support for the concept.
“If you’re carrying a firearm around, I think you need to be well-trained in mental health issues, drug addiction issues, de-escalation techniques,” he said. “And if you do get out of control and cross boundaries, I think it would be good to have an oversight board that makes recommendations to an authority that would then have the ability to do something — whether that’s the council or county commission.”
But Halbsgut said lack of training and inadequate pay are the root of most of the problems the community has had with law enforcement.
“If they’re not adequately paid, you’re not going to attract the best candidates,” he said. “So, we need to have well-paid law enforcement, well-trained law enforcement. I’m not adverse to an oversight board, but at the same time, I don’t really want to tie the hands of law enforcement.”
Gosar told the Laramie Reporter local governments should “embrace the public’s feedback and ensure that their comments and concerns are addressed in a timely manner,” but stopped short of calling for an oversight or use-of-force review board.
Richardson said his position on the issue was “irrelevant” because the commission lacked the authority to take any action against or over the sheriff’s office, which is run by its own elected official.
Jones declined to share an opinion on the matter. She answered every other inquiry on the Laramie Reporter’s questionnaire, but left this topic blank. She did not respond to any further requests for comment.
During the summer of 2020, as demonstrators called for more police accountability and transparency, Jones attended and spoke at a militia-recruiting rally at the Albany County Fairgrounds.
Attendees were told that the demonstrators would start looting, maybe even killing — and therefore “patriots” ought to show up armed, ready to counter violence. By that time, armed individuals were already showing up to counter the demonstrators. One person pulled a gun during an exchange with unarmed protesters but did not point it.
On the issues: Housing shortage
Like Gosar, Halbsgut said he supports zoning and regulation changes that encourage smaller houses, denser housing and apartments — changes the Laramie City Council has taken on with gusto.
It’s a tough time for Laramie’s poorest residents — and poor renters especially are feeling the squeeze.
Halbsgut added that the lack of affordable housing in Albany hurts the county’s economy as well, by dissuading people and businesses from moving here.
“It’s a major problem,” Halbsgut said. “Being one of the poorest counties in the state, having one of the highest rental costs and housing costs is not a dynamic that works out well for people coming to our community.”
Jones and Richardson reiterated some of their central philosophy, telling the Laramie Reporter government needs to “get out of the way.” Both alleged that city and county officials have skirted “the rule of law” in passing or applying regulations.
“Currently there are too many arbitrary regulations placed on the building and development in the City of Laramie and Albany County,” Jones said. “Both the city and county vote according to what makes them ‘feel good,’ disregarding the rule of law.”
(If the primary was any indication, it could be an expensive general election contest for the four commission candidates.)
Mr. Victor, who styles himself a "reporter," omits one of the most important questions the public wants to ask the candidates: "Do you believe that the 2020 election was conducted and decided properly, and why?"
Since the County conducts elections for all levels of government, one does not want candidates who support lies about the election, or might attempt to use their power to bias the results of future ones, to serve as Commissioners.