A Sheridan County political controversy has been put to bed — at least for now — with naming Holly Jennings to fill a vacancy on the county commission.
Jennings was sworn into office Tuesday in front of a large audience at the county courthouse, said Sheridan resident Jeff Wallack.
The appointment process became extremely heated in August when Sheridan County commissioners declined to accept any of the three nominees selected by the Sheridan County Republican Party to fill the fifth seat on their board, finding none were qualified for the job.
The commissioners believed by not making a decision that under state law, it would be up to a court to decide who would fill that seat.
On Sept. 1, Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Darci Phillips issued a court order that she would only select from the three candidates provided by the Sheridan GOP. Then on Thursday, Phillips picked Jennings for the position.
“I am truly humbled to get the opportunity to represent the people of Sheridan County,” Jennings told Cowboy State Daily.
The Sheridan County GOP, of which Jennings is vice chair, also was grateful.
“We thank Judge Phillips for her sober and expeditious ruling, and the exemplary process she used to select the nominee to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Allen Thompson,” the party said in a blog post.
Did They Screw Up?
The commission’s refusal to pick one of the three candidates drew outrage from the Sheridan GOP, with some members of the party calling for their arrest. The party also has made threats that it will pursue legal action against the commissioners.
Phillips indicated in her original order that the commissioners acted legally and accepted the nomination process in her court.
“I believe that the judge followed the statute after the commissioners did not,” he said. “Judge said Holly was qualified and the chair said she was not.”
Sheridan County Commissioner Chairman Christi Haswell indicated that even though the three candidates provided by the county party were technically eligible for the role, she didn’t find any qualified for the job.
Sheridan resident Gail Symons supported this opinion, citing two past situations in Wyoming where this happened. She said Wyoming law on vacancy appointments needs to be updated to include qualifying experience in addition to basic eligibility for a position, in response to the more partisan nature of current day politics.
“Real experience is no longer a criterion, adherence to the Republican Party is,” Symons said. “A county commissioner role has nothing to do with political ideology. It has everything to do with process and speech.”
While interviewing the candidates last week, Phillips verified that all three met the basic statutory requirements of the role. Then, she asked them about their prior experience and qualifications.
Symons believes the most significant fallout from this situation will come during the 2024 county commissioner elections, which she expects in Sheridan and for similar roles statewide to be extremely partisan.
“Are the voters of this state going to accept the ugliness or say enough is enough and focus on character?” Symons questioned.
Wallack said the other commissioners attended Jennings’ swearing in on Tuesday. Despite their previous opposition to her being elected, Jennings said she plans “to move forward and do the job with the diligence that the position requires.”
“I believe in bringing a high level of professionalism to any work environment,” she said.
Jennings was the fourth-place finisher in the 2022 county commissioner elections, one spot out of winning a seat.
A Family Affair
Jennings is the daughter of state Rep. Mark Jennings, who was one of the founders of the staunchly conservative Wyoming Freedom Caucus but is no longer an official member.
With Holly Jennings now on the county commission, she joins her father and sister Kristen Jennings, who serves on the Sheridan City Council, in a family representing three branches of local government in Sheridan.
“My family has always been very serious about public service and leading by example. I am honored to follow in those footsteps,” Jennings said.
The Jennings family isn’t the only one to have extensive ties in Wyoming politics. Cheyenne Republican state Reps. Dan and Dave Zwonitzer are both serving in the Legislature. Gillette Republican Sen. Eric Barlow’s daughter serves in Gov. Mark Gordon’s cabinet.
Jennings said she plans to focus on listening to her constituents and will work to get the county to spend money more wisely.
“My main goal as a County Commissioner is to first and foremost be as available and responsive to my constituents as possible,” she said. “As for specific projects, I would really like to look into additional ways we can prioritize spending to help decrease the burden on the taxpayer.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.