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Wyoming lawmakers consider lowering speeding fines

A bill being considered by Wyoming lawmakers would reduce the cost of speeding.

House Bill 12, which passed by a unanimous vote in the Joint Judiciary Committee in November, aims to rewrite Wyoming’s uniform bond schedule to simplify how tickets are written and lower their amounts. A court-authorized bond is issued to correspond to a speeding ticket. A driver can go to court to contest the citation or choose to pay the bond and waive his or her court appearance.

The current bond schedule consists of nine different speeding categories, depending on where the driver is clocked. Those categories range from unpaved roadways to urban districts to school zones and a single category can consist of up to 40 different bond amounts.

“It’s confusing for the patrol. It’s confusing for the court. It’s confusing for the public,” said Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs.

The proposed legislation would tear up the current bond schedule, keeping in place special bond amounts for school and construction zones. The new bond schedule would consist of three different subcategories — general, school and construction — with bond amounts increasing in a relatively linear fashion dependent on speed.

Those amounts would generally decrease compared to the current bond schedule.

Under the current system, a driver speeding by 5 mph in a city can pay $80, on an unpaved road pays $40, and on a highway pays $25.

The proposed schedule would eliminate that discrepancy, and set all fines of speeding by 5 mph at $20. Court costs and fees would not apply for charges of speeding by 5 mph or less.

The legislation would also cap fines upon conviction at $800, down $200 from the current max, which can be imposed on someone who is caught speeding in a school zone multiple times in one year.

The legislation was born of a Wyoming Highway Patrol request for simplified bond schedules, Baggs said. After the legislation came before the committee, three amendments were floated and two passed to reduce the bond amounts across the board.

Hicks said the legislation would still provide a “reasonable deterrent” to speeding while not being exorbitant.

After simplifying the bond schedules, the committee went on to amend the legislation to reduce fine amounts.

Committee Chair, Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, said the reduction in fine amounts could in part be attributed to legislators’ awareness of Wyoming’s slow economy.

Lower fine amounts come with a cost, however. The Legislative Services Office estimates that the bill would cost the state about $750,000 per year. Because the money from speeding tickets typically goes to county schools, the bill would cut about $1.5 million over two years from an already beleaguered school funding system.

Speaking generally about the cost of the bill, Christensen said the legislation did not cut the cost of speeding as much as some might estimate because court costs will still be imposed for most speeding tickets.

The bill has been sponsored by a committee, but still needs to be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature to be considered because 2018 is a budget session. If passed, it would become law in July.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Evan Martinez, 10, watches model trains run Thursday afternoon during an exhibit presented by the Central Wyoming Model Railroad Association at the National Historic Trails Center in Casper. 

A look back at the past year's turmoil in the Casper Police Department

Over the past year, the Casper Police Department has undergone a number of changes, including the dismissal of its chief and the hiring of a new leader.

On March 4, the Star-Tribune received a copy of the Casper Fraternal Order of Police’s survey of the majority of Casper police and civilian staff. In that survey, more than 20 officers — about a fifth of the total number of sworn personnel — said they were actively seeking work outside of the department.

Much of the criticism was leveled at the department’s leadership and what was perceived as unrealistic performance expectations.

At their meeting that evening, some City Council members called for an investigation into the department.

Former city manager John Patterson appointed Jim Wetzel chief in February 2014. Wetzel joined the department in 1999.

A week later, Wetzel told reporters that he was working to fix “communication gaps” and make himself more available to his employees. He said he planned to meet with patrol teams and with officers individually to hear their concerns.

Despite those efforts, two-thirds of Casper police voted against Wetzel in a “no confidence” vote held by the Casper Fraternal Order of Police that same week. Sixty officers said they had no confidence in his leadership, three voted that they did have confidence and 10 officers abstained. In a letter attached to the survey results, the order’s leaders requested that Wetzel resign. The letter then listed three areas of concern: the chief’s hiring practices, his “ethical leadership and practices” and his “failure to establish direction and vision of the department.”

The situation escalated further when City Councilman and former police chief Chris Walsh wrote a letter to the city’s top administrator at the time requesting a criminal investigation into some of the allegations against the chief. The letter was leaked to the Star-Tribune on April 22.

Interim City Manager Liz Becher, who took over the position after former city manager V.H. McDonald unexpectedly retired, said she could not act on the recommendation of a single councilmember. The city did conduct an investigation into personnel issues at the department through local attorney Judith Studer.

Despite the turmoil, Wetzel told the Star-Tribune on April 25 that he had not considered resigning.

The next week, however, city leadership announced that it terminated Wetzel’s contract, immediately ending his term as police chief on May 5. At a City Council meeting the following week, many of the council members backed Interim City Manager Liz Becher’s decision to dismiss the chief.

In a later interview with the Star-Tribune, Becher declined to explain what exactly caused her to terminate Wetzel’s contract. Wetzel was an at-will employee and he was dismissed “without cause.”

The decision came a few days after Studer’s investigation was expected to be completed. It is unclear exactly what the investigation found as city officials have repeatedly declined to release the report or discuss in detail what the report contained. Becher said that elements of the investigation factored into her decision.

Two weeks after his dismissal, Wetzel attended a city council meeting and publicly criticized city leadership for more than 15 minutes. It was the first and last time he spoke publicly since his dismissal.

Becher appointed Steve Schulz, a captain at the department, as interim chief while a permanent replacement was sought. City Manager Carter Napier announced the hiring of a new chief on Dec. 1. Keith McPheeters, former deputy police chief of Farmington, New Mexico, was sworn in on Dec. 11.

Democrat Jones officially declared winner over Roy Moore

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Democrat Doug Jones’ historic victory over Republican Roy Moore was declared official Thursday as Alabama election officials certified him the winner of the special Senate election, despite Moore’s last-minute lawsuit claiming voter fraud.

Jones defeated Moore on Dec. 12 by 21,924 votes in a stunning victory in a traditionally red state, becoming the first Alabama Democrat elected to the Senate victory in a quarter-century. The win came after Moore, best known for stands against gay marriage and the public display of the Ten Commandments, was dogged by accusations of sexual misconduct involving teenage girls that occurred decades ago.

Jones said in a statement that he looked forward to going to work for the people of Alabama in the new year.

“As I said on election night, our victory marks a new chapter for our state and the nation,” he said. “I will be an independent voice and work to find common ground with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get Washington back on track and fight to make our country a better place for all.”

Jones will be sworn in on Jan. 3, narrowing the GOP’s advantage in the U.S. Senate to 51-49. He takes over the seat previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In a brief meeting Thursday at the Alabama Capitol, the governor, attorney general and secretary of state signed paperwork certifying the final ballot numbers. It was a quiet punctuation mark to a tumultuous election marked by the misconduct accusations and Moore’s eleventh-hour legal fight.

Moore had refused to concede his loss to Jones and filed a last-ditch lawsuit hours before the certification, saying he believed there were voting irregularities that should be investigated. A judge denied his request to stop the election certification. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said his office has so far found no evidence of fraud.

In a brief statement, Moore stood by his claims that the election was fraudulent and said he had to fight Democrats and over $50 million in opposition spending from the Washington establishment. He said he had no regrets.

“I have stood for the truth about God and the Constitution for the people of Alabama,” he said.

On election night, Moore had pegged his hopes on votes from military serviceman and provisional ballots. The official numbers certified Thursday showed that Jones slightly expanded his lead over Moore. Jones had a lead of 20,715 in the unofficial returns and was ahead 21,924 in the certified result. In all, more than 1.3 million people voted in the special election, including 22,850 write-in votes.

Jones is a former U.S. attorney best known for prosecuting two Ku Klux Klansmen responsible for Birmingham’s infamous 1963 church bombing.

As he launched his campaign, he said he saw an opening for a rare Democratic win against Moore, a polarizing figure in the state. Moore was a twice removed from the position of chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Once was for defying a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building. And he was permanently suspended last year for urging probate judges to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of federal court rulings.

Moore’s campaign was deeply wounded by the sexual misconduct accusations. Moore denied the accusations and said in the lawsuit that he had passed a polygraph test to prove they are false.

Moore’s attorney wrote in the wide-ranging complaint that he believed there were irregularities during the election, including that voters may have been brought in from other states. He attached a statement from a poll worker that she had noticed licenses from Georgia and North Carolina as people signed in to vote. The complaint also noted the higher-than-expected turnout in the race, particularly in Jefferson County.

“This is not a Republican or Democrat issue as election integrity should matter to everyone,” Moore said in a statement Wednesday.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert and professor at the University of California, Irvine, said Moore’s complaint did not raise the sort of issues that lead courts to overturn an election. He said Moore’s complaint might just be a way for him to fundraise and throw “red meat to his loyal supporters.”

Merrill said Moore has a few options left, such as offering to pay for a recount within 48 hours.

“I can say this. I don’t think there is any doubt from the minds of anybody that’s in the room that if there was ever a question about whether Alabama conducts honest, fair election safe and secure elections, that question has been eliminated,” Merrill said.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Wyoming forward Hayden Dalton tosses the ball over his head for a basket in overtime against Drake on Dec. 2 at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie.

Behind the scenes at the Winter Olympics, a Wyoming rancher will create the downhill ski course

PINEDALE — The rancher from western Wyoming wears tan overalls pulled over a U.S. ski team jacket, and is every bit as versed in the nuances of hay farming as the subtleties of snow grooming.

He doesn’t even ski for pleasure much anymore due to aching hips, yet the Olympic fates of Lindsey Vonn, Aksel Lund Svindal and many of the best speed skiers are directly tied to the handiwork of Tom Johnston, a no-nonsense cowboy who spends his days toiling among hay bales on nearly 1,800 acres of leased fields near his home in Boulder.

Johnston also just happens to be one of the world’s foremost experts on shaping a race course, most notably the downhill and super-G tracks that Vonn, Svindal and the rest will zoom down in February in South Korea.

Every tooth-rattling bump and knee-buckling jump on the Pyeongchang course will have been exhaustively groomed by Johnston and his crew, whose goal, in ski parlance, is to create “hero snow” — the grippy surface on which these world-class speedsters can confidently push the envelope.

“A very nice track,” is what the 55-year-old Johnston is promising for a course that was designed by Bernhard Russi, the Swiss downhiller who won Olympic gold in 1972. Johnston has made seven journeys from his home to South Korea over the past two years to inspect and shape the Olympic terrain.

Johnston has six weather websites loaded onto his phone — including one from South Korea to keep current on conditions — and views them so often that his wife Cassy recently had to increase their phone’s data plan.

He likes to give off a gruff first impression — “I really don’t have time for all these interviews,” he lamented — but, during a leisurely tour of the properties he oversees, it’s clear he’s something far removed from acerbic.

He’s proud of every parcel of this land.

Here lies some of the most sought-after alfalfa in the county. On the other side of a dirt road bordered by badger holes, he shows off his laser-leveled land that produces various classes of hay. They’re meticulously planned out so water doesn’t gather and ruin the consistency of the crop. Across the two-lane highway, reside his roughly 125 head of Red Angus cattle.

On the horizon, the mountain range.

His life used to be a cycle: haying in the summer and, when it turned colder, heading up to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort so he could coach and direct events the ski club produced. Johnston’s family would follow him there — until the three kids reached school age. He eventually just pulled along a camper or stayed at a cheap place for a few nights before making the 80-mileish drive home.

Back then, Johnston was sometimes spotted wearing a jacket with these words embroidered on the back: “I’d Rather Be Haying.” He honed his craft at Jackson Hole — becoming a course-shaping artist who would water the slopes in extremely cold temperatures to create an icy surface that would hold up from the first racer all the way to the last.

In 1998, the U.S. ski team contracted with the local organizing committee for nationals. As director of Alpine events with the ski club, it was his show.

Johnston’s twists and turns were a hit, along with his organizational skills. Soon after, he became a technical adviser for the U.S. team. He credits Tim “Swampy” LaMarche, his predecessor and another course guru, for teaching him the ins and outs of the profession.

It’s all been trial by error, too.

Johnston was chief for the women’s speed events at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and ran the show for the women’s side at the 2014 Sochi Games. He’s known for his aggressive and durable snow, which is precisely the way racers like it. His preference is making it with a snow gun instead of letting Mother Nature do the work.

“Manmade can be super-fine particles so it’s really dense,” explained Johnston, who left for South Korea on Christmas Day. “The natural snow can be dry, fluffy — a real pain.”

He prepared the World Cup course for the women in Killington, Vermont, last month and lent a hand at the World Cup stop in Beaver Creek, Colorado, which is one of the racers’ favorite venues on the circuit.

“The course crew in Beaver Creek is probably the best in the world,” Svindal said. “We always have perfect conditions.”

In South Korea, Johnston’s main tasks include: Build and maintain the snow surface, including the macro features such as jumps and rolls, manage the snowcat operators and installation of safety features. His aim is to help Russi’s downhill design spring to life.

The men’s and women’s downhill tracks vary only slightly, with the men starting at a higher spot and diverging at one point through a narrow gully before merging again. Along the way, there will be four major jumps, which have been modified since a test event held at the site nearly two years ago. The changes should provide smoother, safer landings for the skiers who will be traveling around 80 mph.

“We have changed the landing zone of the jumps,” Russi said. “(It) means that the jumps will go longer this time. For sure, I will like it. But I will be nervous as well.”

On his farm two months ago, Johnston was worrying more about his hay crop than the ski slope after a quick visit to South Korea for course inspection. There was a snow storm about to blow through and he still had to stack 200 tons of hay. His wife — who works as a dental hygienist and helps in the fields in the afternoon — was driving a truck to haul the bales, while two more workers pitched in. They were up until 1:30 a.m. to accomplish the feat. It snowed three hours later.

Tom and Cassy met at the Green Mountain Valley ski school in Vermont as teenagers and got married in 1986. She occasionally travels with him to races, where he’s been known to ride with the snowcat operators at night as they groom the course or sleep with a radio next to his pillow so he can hear the chatter of those working on his hill.

Quality speed courses and hay are his pride and joy, and they have more in common than you might think. Both take attention to detail. Both depend on Mother Nature. Neither can ever be perfect.

Not that he’ll ever stop trying.

“I get really fussy with every element,” said Johnston, a former racer at Montana State and Whitman College in Washington, where he earned his degree in English literature. “The guys that hay for me, my wife, it drives them crazy. I’ve never put up a good hay bale, because there’s always this wrong with it or that wrong with it. Same with a course.

“But give me good weather and it will be a good course,” he said.