Wyoming Gov. Mead grows into job during 1st year in office

2012-01-02T19:00:00Z 2012-01-02T20:45:26Z Wyoming Gov. Mead grows into job during 1st year in officeBy JOAN BARRON Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
January 02, 2012 7:00 pm  • 

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- The number of meetings was staggering. Lots and lots of them, day after long day.

The meetings took time and then more time to follow up on what needed to be done.

The workload was one of the surprises in store for Gov. Matt Mead when he took office last January.

"This first year has been ... a lot of meetings," Mead said in an interview. "But we've worked really hard and tried to meet with as many people as we can."

The crush of requests for an audience is normal when a new governor takes office, particularly when the office changes political hands.

Mead, a Republican, succeeds two-term Democrat Dave Freudenthal.

His biggest disappointment, he said, is that despite all the work, his administration isn't moving on some issues as quickly as he would like.

"I like to address issues one by one, and sometimes the lack of speed on issues getting them resolved is a frustration." he said.

No experience

Mead is the first Wyoming governor in years to come into office with no experience in government. The last was former Democratic Gov. Mike Sullivan, who took office in January 1987 for the first of two terms.

Sullivan was succeeded by Republican Jim Geringer, a former legislator who served two terms. Geringer's successor was Democrat Dave Freudenthal, who honed his political skills and knowledge of government when he worked for Democratic Gov. Ed Herschler.

Sullivan's first year in office wasn't smooth, and neither was Mead's.

The Republican and former U.S. Attorney for Wyoming has received high marks for his work with the federal government, particularly settlement of the long-standing wolf issue.

In August Wyoming and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to delist the state's 243 wolves that live outside Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation.

This agreement would allow wolves to be killed in all but the northwest corner of the state and in a specified area south of Jackson during winter months.

The agreement still must pass the Legislature next year as well as a federal public comment period.

Mead pointed out that he met with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in February to discuss a variety of federal issues, including wolves and the slow speed of releasing coal leases. In March Salazar announced progress in the release of the leases.

In his dealings with the federal government, so far, Mead has been more successful than his predecessor, Freudenthal.

Mead fulfilled his campaign promise to cities and counties by getting more money for them and for highways, although it was not the permanent revenue source he wanted. He also got in front of potential flooding last spring when he deployed small teams of Wyoming National Guard troops to help the counties get prepared early.

More recently, he has been deeply involved in fighting the closure of dozens of rural post offices in the state. He has actively supported education, technology and is working on streamlining state government.

He has been faulted for his failure to move along juvenile justice reform.

Some people have been annoyed, including state department heads, because they can't get past his staff to see him or get answers from his office.

People who did get into his office found Mead to be hard-working, sincere and very, very busy trying to fulfill his personal commitments statewide. Some visitors and officials complained they left his office unsure of his position on an issue.

Mead said he is decisive.

"But I also think that I try to give any decision or issue the weight it needs. A lot of these decisions are big decisions. But when I'm comfortable and have the facts then I am decisive," he said.

Protocol problem

Early on, Mead had a communications and protocol problem with the Joint Appropriations committee.

Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, the co-chairman, said he became frustrated last spring because of the failure to connect with the new administration. It was his fault, he said, because he assumed everyone was on the same wavelength and that wasn't the case.

The situation made Nicholas realize more than ever that people take things for granted with relationships developed during the course of years.

"Some of the things you take for granted is who calls who and how do you get an audience with the governor," Nicholas said. "We had a series of meetings with the governor over how to communicate. Since then we have had better, smoother communications."

For the previous eight years in the Freudenthal administration, the legislators knew the governor's position.

The meetings with Mead were healthy because they forced Nicholas and other legislators to rethink and defend their positions. For example, the Legislature is strongly opposed to earmarking a permanent revenue stream for cities and counties after a major fight years ago to cap the automatic flow of money to local governments.

"We don't want to go through that again because revenue streams are important to us," Nicholas said.

Mead's proposal for local governments this year does not include earmarking the money.

The governor, Nicholas said, has tried to get new people involved in government and is bringing more people into his decision-making. This is different from Freudenthal, who was so experienced from the Herschler administration that he knew what he wanted as governor and did it.

"Everybody's got a different way of doing it," he said. "I see a lot of that as growing into the job."

Political observers have speculated that Mead is a likely prospect to run for Sen. Mike Enzi's seat in 2014 if Enzi decides to retire as expected. Such a career trajectory would mirror that of Mead's grandfather, Cliff Hansen, who served one term as governor before moving on the U.S. Senate. When asked if this is his plan, Mead deflected the question by asserting he has been elected governor for four years and his obligation is to do the job as well as possible in that position.

Good listener

House Speaker Ed Buchanan, R-Torrington, had no complaints about access to the governor. He said Mead is a quick study and a good listener who has sought the lawmakers' opinions and has stayed in contact with everyone.

"In the position I'm in now, I can tell you he has reached out consistently even since the session ended. He's tried to keep us in the loop," said Ron Micheli, former legislator and director of the Department of Agriculture in the Geringer administration.

Micheli ran in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010 that Mead won. He said Mead deserves much credit for getting some resolution of the wolf issue.

"Overall, I think he's showing the kind of leadership we hope we get in a Wyoming governor," Micheli said. "He's a wonderful person and obviously comes from great stock with huge Wyoming roots and obviously understands Wyoming.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council, a group that strongly supports land owner rights credited Mead for his plan to further investigate water contamination in Pavillion, said Wilma Tope of Hulett, the council's chair.

"This has been a long time coming. We applaud him for taking that step, and hope that he will support the citizens that elected him, as opposed to the influential oil and gas industries of Wyoming," Tope said in an e-mail.

The council also appreciates the governor's efforts to bring all sides into the discussion on an energy policy for Wyoming, she said.

Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, said his group's members are disappointed that Mead let the hybrid redistricting bill go through last year. The bill allows the counties to set up a single member district, at-large representation or a combination. This hybrid districting arrangement can be used to isolate communities, Neal said, and could ultimately be used to isolate the Indian people in Fremont County.

Mead, meanwhile, came close to filling another commitment -- to visit all 23 counties in the state during his first year. He made it to 22 but didn't get to drop in on Niobrara County. A trip scheduled in December was canceled because of the weather.

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