Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Sun Valley mayor mulls his term

Thorson highlights accomplishments, goals

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson takes a break from his work to discuss his first two years in office. Photo by Willy Cook

Once a month, Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson invites his constituents for lunch. An informal affair, the monthly brown-bag events offer citizens an opportunity to talk with the city's leader.

"I am interested in community. I love it here. Community is made of the people who live here," Thorson said.

More than half way through his first term, the mayor sat down last week to discuss his progress, including the Mayor's Brown Bag Lunch he introduced in May. The lunch is an open forum to encourage public participation, one of many proactive steps Thorson has taken during his tenure.

When elected in 2003, Thorson was a political newcomer. Since then, the retired physician has sought to actively involve citizens in the legislative process and push forward progressive legislation.

Thorson began to make legislative changes by pushing through a "dark sky ordinance" designed to control light pollution. Later, Thorson oversaw compilation of the city's master plan development ordinance, which establishes a process to review master plan developments for large new projects. He also spearheaded workforce housing legislation that requires nearly all new developments, including single-family homes, to provide a degree of housing suited to local working-class people.

The mayor furthered the city's efforts to ensure workforce housing by cooperating with the Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority. He also cooperated with other regional entities to effectively connect the Wood River Valley's communities through public transportation. In May 2006, the north-valley-based Ketchum Area Rapid Transit (KART) and the valley-wide PEAK commuter bus officially became one entity, expanding the local public transportation system.

"I am a believer in regional cooperation. We can't do it by operating alone in our own jurisdiction. We can get a lot more done by pooling our resources," Thorson said. "We cannot be constrained by geographic boundaries."

Within Sun Valley, Thorson served as a key player in the development of the city's 2005 comprehensive plan update, and he is moving forward to implement the plan's key action items.

"The comp plan constitutes my marching orders for my time as mayor," he said.

He is leading the city in an effort to write new mass and scale guidelines, including setbacks, heights and building configurations in the Sun Valley and Elkhorn villages. The city has enacted a moratorium to allow for a comprehensive review of land uses.

But that is what he has accomplished. Sun Valley's leading public official is looking forward, too.

Thorson hopes to establish mass and scale guidelines for houses and condominiums in residential areas. The guidelines would provide specifications for redevelopment of residential neighborhoods.

"It's in anticipation of future pressure ... We don't want to look like the high-rise developments of other resorts in the West."

The mayor said mass and scale building guidelines are intended to maintain a feeling of community. Such development specifications will preserve view corridors and maintain a user-friendly, pedestrian-friendly community, where people can enjoy living. These are the reasons that Thorson, an avid outdoorsman, has called Sun Valley home for 20 years.

A key component of the Sun Valley ambiance, Thorson believes, is open space. When the mass and scale guidelines are in place, Thorson said work on a permanent open space ordinance will ensue.

The mayor is quick to credit the city's staff, led by City Administrator Virginia Egger, who was hired in 2004 for administrative support of city business.

"A major fundamental change over the last two and half years has been getting in place an incredible staff," Thorson said.

Employees were charged with increasing the efficiency of city business by updating the filing system, document storage and document retrieval.

"The anticipated systems you would think would be in place, we just didn't have."

Workplace efficiencies provided for completion of a revenue analysis, multi-year budget and updated capital and fixed assets plans. The financial statements, intended to ensure long-term stability, will be presented during the city's budget hearings next week.

"I want to take a look at what we need as a community and how we are going to pay for it," he said.

Looking forward, Thorson has big plans for the city, such as establishing pocket parks and making sure trailheads remain open and accessible. He has his eye on water conservation efforts, including a review of building setbacks from streams, an examination of the use of treated sewage water for golf course irrigation and the monitoring of residential sprinkler systems.

It's is big agenda, but he won't do it alone.

"I like information about what people like and don't like," he said.

To that end, Thorson invites participation. He tries to engage Sun Valley citizens during city meetings. Often acting as the mediator, he often looks for compromise among City Council members and public interests, even over a brown bag lunch.

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