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Democrat challenging Republican incumbent in Teton County Commission District 2 race

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DRIGGS — Democrat Mike Whitfield is challenging Republican incumbent Harley Wilcox for the Teton County Commission District 2 seat.

To learn more about the candidate’s platform, EastIdahoNews.com asked the candidates to answer the same eight questions to each candidate. Wilcox did not return EastIdahoNews.com’s multiple requests to answer these questions.

Whitfield’s responses are listed below.

Tell us about yourself — include information about your family, career, education, volunteer work and any prior experience in public office.

Whitfield: I am married with three grown children and six amazing grandchildren. Teton Valley has always been my home, a valley and a people that I love very dearly. When I was around 12, I recall taking a jon boat out from my paternal grandfather’s fishing lodge on the Teton River, Alma Kunz’s Teton Valley Lodge, to check out the nesting geese and sandhill cranes. My love for the nature and people of this valley led me to devote my career to public service through nonprofits, science, and education. I am a conservation biologist by calling and training.

I have published scientific research on sensitive wildlife and taught field ecology regionally and in Far East Russia. Some of my local volunteer roles have been with the local Sportsman’s Club, 4-H, ski patrol, first aid, hospice, Teton Valley Trails and Pathways and other non-profits, the Hospital Board, forming the Community Foundation, and service on county land use planning committees. As a nonprofit leader I learned how to start, grow, and manage businesses.

For 17 years I led the founding and development of the Teton Regional Land Trust, where we delivered voluntary conservation of thousands of acres of working lands and wildlife habitat. Later I served a decade as Executive Director of the Heart of the Rockies Initiative, an international land trust partnership, where I was able to bring people with diverse interests together to find common ground and successfully accomplish shared goals. I have not served in elected office.

What are your proudest accomplishments in your personal life or career?

Whitfield: Among the most memorable events of my life was meeting my first newborn daughter Michelle, and later my son Aaron and younger 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 a big deal 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. I have had many great experiences in a volunteer capacity, including three years of helping our local hospital recover from difficult financial straits through a great deal of hard work as a Hospital Board Chair.

At the culmination of my 30 years of work in land conservation in 2018, I was honored and humbled by being awarded 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 later 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 when delivering conservation campaigns.

Why are you a member of the Republican/Democrat/ Independent/Other party? Briefly explain your political platform.

Whitfield: In 1960 my grandad, an FDR Democrat, encouraged me to watch the national Democratic Convention. I was a kid, but I was enthralled as a young Senator from Idaho, Frank Church, delivered a stirring keynote address and the Party nominated John Kennedy for President. Since then I have followed the Party that I believe best serves working people while protecting our national interests abroad and at home.

Locally, I believe that all of Teton Valley’s working families deserve equitable access to a high quality of life. I will work with community leaders to ensure opportunities for all our people to access good education, well-paying jobs, affordable housing, healthy food, clean water, and time outside in nature. I will work diligently to ensure that no one is left behind. In this time of social and economic difficulty, 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 have spent my lifetime working to conserve Teton Valley’s natural treasures. Now I see conservation of agriculture, wildlife, and recreation access as critical needs for much more of our collective attention. I see lasting conservation as a product of 1) education and outreach, 2) of thoughtful land use planning, and 3) of protection programs built on both well considered development policies and public/private incentives.

What are the greatest challenges facing your county?

Whitfield: Teton County has a rapidly growing population and limited financial resources to serve that population’s diverse interests and needs. Our essential County road and bridge infrastructure faces a severe backlog of improvement need. We have a housing crisis, a growing lack of affordable housing, that challenges a large percentage of our working people, people who are essential to all aspects of our local community.

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: integration 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 division.

How is your party’s ideology better suited to dealing with these unique challenges than those of your competitor?

Whitfield: I believe that Party ideology should play a lesser role in local governance than it might nationally. First and foremost, County government needs leaders who will prepare and work hard for all the County’s residents regardless of party affiliation. That said, Teton County’s rural western version of the Democratic Party believes in proactive resolution of our issues through engagement of all our people in thoughtful planning and plan implementation.

By contrast, my competitor believes that our problems will best be solved by passively letting market forces chart our future. Our recent history clearly suggests that passive governance will not deliver beneficial outcomes for our people or our environment. Today’s big local challenges are not new to Teton Valley. We have struggled with a lack of affordable housing for decades. Similarly, decades of inadequate land use planning have left us with nearly 5,000 vacant development lots in often poorly conceived developments, with a consequent loss of productive farm ground and wildlife habitat. The local Democratic Party advocates for active planning through collaborative processes that engage our people. It is decision time. Do we want a Teton Valley with a healthy diverse community where working people have access to a good quality of life right here at home? Do we wish to retain our County’s rural character, productive agriculture, and rich fish and wildlife resources? We will not sustain those assets through wishful thinking. We will get the future Teton Valley that we plan for today.

How will you best represent the views of your constituents – even those with differing political views?

Whitfield: I have repeatedly said that my first action will be to listen first to all constituents. Passive listening is not enough. I intend to practice active outreach to recruit and engage representatives of all Teton Valley constituent groups in resolution of our challenges. I see much more active public engagement as the only route to lasting solutions. I have decades of experience in bringing people of diverse political views together to develop and achieve shared goals. I have witnessed substantive and durable successes when community members from many backgrounds come together from day one to shape a future vision grounded in respect for diversity of perspective.

Such success starts by building a foundation of mutual trust, trust that each participant’s values will be heard and respected. Such trust is the foundation for creating an open-source arena for dialogue and information exchange–a place where we work together in true collaboration to find common ground, a safe place where participants can change their perspectives, a platform that purposefully fosters a continual re-earning of mutual trust.

I certainly recognize that many community members will not choose to participate in a working dialogue 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.

What trait, attribute, or experience do you possess that best qualifies you to manage public employees and handle public funding

Whitfield: I value integrity and honesty as vital traits in my dealings with all people, and particularly with employees and management of public funds. I attempt to lead by example. In my working career I have had many experiences that have taught me how to best demonstrate integrity in my leadership and to ensure ethical, professional performance by employees that I have managed.

In the past 30 years, I have led large non-profit programs that included management of diverse professional staff and large funding programs that included millions in public funding from federal, state, and local sources. Earlier in my career I worked for 17 years in a federal agency where I supervised staff and managed public budgets. During my non-profit career I also served for 7 years as a Founding Commissioner for the national Land Trust Accreditation Commission. In that role we developed measures of performance to ensure Land Trust compliance with rigorous guidelines for professional and ethical standards and practices for the nation’s 1400 land trusts, and we reviewed Land Trust applications for accreditation under these measures for organizations from large, international groups to small, community based groups.

Through this experience I learned about management of non-profit organizations, including management of staff and public funds, from some of the country’s best expertise. I also served for 3 years as the Board Chair for our local county hospital with responsibility for ensuring professional and transparent performance by our hospital staff and board and responsible management of public funds.

What are your views regarding the role of the media in covering your county? How can you best work with local reporters to ensure coverage of the issues?

Whitfield: I strongly believe in the free press, and in the vital importance of media free of political bias to inform our community life. If elected to public office I will 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.
Further, I will encourage deeper media coverage of the major issues that engage local government. I

n Teton Valley a high proportion of our local population is new to our region and are largely unaware of the social and environmental conditions that shape our local culture and our responses to issues. I am hopeful that local media will reach beyond superficial coverage of ‘front burner’ crises to advance greater public awareness of all perspectives on local issues of importance to our community. Some of the best recent news reporting I have read has resulted from reporters who dug more deeply to tell the stories of all those involved.

I will rely on the media to inform and educate our citizenry in a time of many conflicting voices.

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