If you’re looking for examples of small government in Wyoming, towns like Medicine Bow, population 267, undoubtedly set the standard.
The community — known primarily for its role as a setting in Owen Wister’s seminal 1902 Western epic “The Virginian” — has never counted more than a few hundred people living together on this patch of high desert halfway between Casper and Laramie, a low-slung community of squat, single-story structures and the famed Virginian Hotel at its center.
But the paradigm in Medicine Bow is changing. A recent spate of wind energy projects on the outskirts of town have led to an influx of workers in the community, more than “doubling or tripling” the town’s population over the past few months, as was outlined at a recent town board meeting.
However, as the town’s needs have grown, finding people to keep up the vital operations of the town has been somewhat difficult.
In the past few months, Medicine Bow has wrestled with finding the funds to start a police department in the community — not to mention housing for whoever might take a job there — as well as recruiting a second notary public and hiring emergency medical technicians. The latter issue, according to minutes from the town’s Aug. 12 meeting, has proven challenging largely because there’s nobody around to do the job.
So naturally, it raised some eyebrows when this small town’s mayor, Kevin Colman, and its acting mayor, Karla Denzin, resigned within 24 hours of one another.
Neither Colman nor Denzin responded to requests for comment.
As strange a transgression as this was, in Medicine Bow it wasn’t unheard of. In fact, Colman’s political career began under similar circumstances 10 years ago when he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the council and, during his first council meeting, was appointed mayor after the resignation of the town’s acting mayor that night.
“So his career started and ended kind of the same way,” laughed Kenda Colman, the town’s Deputy Clerk and Treasurer — and the former mayor’s mother. “This has happened before.”
She said her son left his position as mayor to pursue a “new adventure” in Montana.
The power vacuum left Monday was quickly filled with the promotion of council member Sharon Biamon — the first woman, to her surprise — to be named the town’s mayor.
“I didn’t want to see us go backwards with someone who didn’t know what was going on,” Biamon, who also serves as director of the town’s museum, said in an interview Friday morning. “I feel we’ve made some great progress the last few years, and I’d hate to see us slide.”
Now the longest-serving member of the town council, Biamon said she’s focused on building on the progress the town has made the past several years while looking toward the future. The town’s trailer courts are all at least half full with workers on the wind turbines, Biamon said, and while she says it’s great to have a relatively massive influx of population, the sudden changes can create new issues — strains on their infrastructure included.
“The bigger cities can absorb these things a little better,” she said. “But these changes can have a pretty big impact on these little towns, you know? If you get 600 people on a water system that’s been running at 300, that requires all this manpower and chemicals. The costs just eat you up. But at the same time, we get all these new people, and that’s great.”
However, a council opening still remains.
According to town clerk Karen Heath, the council will accept letters of interest for vacancies, with a decision set for the town’s meeting Sept. 26. It’s not the only way the job could be filled, however. Heath noted that council member John Cowdin said that during his time as mayor in the 1990s, the town would refer to the results of the last election and ask those people if they would still be willing to fill vacancies, essentially expediting the process.
While both appointees will have to run for re-election in 2020, their quick ascension to public office is the way things move along in small-town Wyoming.
“It is a busy time down here,” Colman said. “We’re impacted by a lot of people — wind energy is all around us — and it all has to go through us, so you just have to pick up and get going. Things like this don’t happen very often but when it does, it’s pretty interesting.”
Follow politics reporter Nick Reynolds on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds
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