There are only a handful of options for the 392 residents of Burns, Wyoming, to eat out. Soon, there may be one fewer, as the Burns Town Council is evicting The Rustic Plate after a lease dispute with the business.
Burns residents packed the town council meeting room Monday, many testifying on behalf of the business and arguing against the town evicting the eatery at 134 S. Main St. that opened March 3, 2022.
After an extensive executive session, the council voted 3-2 not to renew the lease.
Although Rustic Plate Owner Ashley Osterman said the town “blindsided” her at many points in the lease negotiations and she’s disappointed, she’s also glad for the support she and the restaurant has had from the community. She also said she feels the town dealt with her in bad faith when trying to renegotiate her lease.
“It did restore a bit of my faith that this town is everything I have always thought it was, a community of stand-up people that just want what is best for where we live and are stepping up to ensure that happens and can decipher right from wrong with facts regardless of the parties involved,” Osterman said via Facebook.
Many in this eastern Laramie County community are now speaking out about the business not being allowed to continue its lease. Some also have made allegations of impropriety and conflict of interest with town council members, including one who runs a competing restaurant.
One of the five town council members responded to Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment. Council member Judy Johnstone referred all questions to Town Attorney Greg Hacker, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Osterman said The Rustic Plate has always leased its space from the town as it operates out of a building designated a community center.
Because she didn’t have full autonomy over the building, Osterman said the business paid a lower rent than others around town that have full control of their spaces to make renovations or improvements.
She said she was approached by Burns Mayor James Clark more than a year ago and told that she could be given full autonomy of the space in exchange for a higher rent, to which Osterman said she agreed.
“I told them that I was absolutely OK with the increased rate of rent, as long as I had the same rights to my space as all other renters in town,” she said.
Osterman said she had been told multiple times since meeting with the mayor that the clause restricting her autonomy would be removed from the lease agreement, which was set to expire Aug. 31. She was given a new lease to sign Aug. 15, but it also described the property as a community center, but with the higher rate.
She said she contacted the town, which told her a corrected lease would be sent over. On Aug. 29, Osterman said Clark delivered a new lease to her that still hadn’t been changed.
Attached to the lease were minutes from a town council meeting held the previous night during which her lease was discussed. Osterman said she was never informed her restaurant would be discussed.
During this meeting, the council voted to approve a lease with an increased rate for one month without the community center clause removed. Osterman said an amendment also was made to the motion stating that the lease would be extended for one month at a higher rent rate without the building being rented.
But that’s not what the lease Osterman was given reflected, she said.
“At this point, I began to get very uncomfortable with the situation because the lease that the mayor had presented to me was again a yearlong lease, not a monthlong lease as they had stated in the meeting minutes,” Osterman said.
Osterman said she voiced her concerns about the lease dispute to town council member Johnstone, who told her to come to the council’s Sept. 10 meeting to discuss the issue.
“As I am a mom of three kids, all in sports and various activities, I own two businesses and have another job on the side, I told her I had multiple scheduling conflicts that night and would not be able to attend, and I voiced my frustration that it had come down to all of this due to the town not doing what they had repeatedly promised,” Osterman said.
She said Johnstone expressed that she "understood and sympathized with my frustration.”
Osterman composed an email that was to be read before the council members at the meeting.
“I thought that this was a good compromise, and that surely after all the council members were made aware of the situation, that things would start to get moving in an appropriate fashion,” she said.
Osterman also proposed a compromise that continued her previous lease for one more month and paid her September rent based on the previous rate.
And Escalates More
After the Sept. 10 meeting, Osterman said she learned her lease wasn’t discussed by the council. At another meeting later in the month it was, but again Osterman said she was not informed.
According to the meeting minutes, at that second September meeting, Clark brought a motion to evict The Rustic Table from the community center because Osterman hadn’t signed the new lease.
“To say I was blindsided is an understatement,” Osterman said. “I thought that I was just waiting on the town’s attorney to correct the lease, not that I was going to be secretly put on a meeting's agenda and my eviction would be voted on without me even being made aware or given the ability to advocate for myself or my business.”
Burns resident Kelly Groeneweg said that when someone asked Mayor Clark on Monday if he would do his best to help the situation be resolved to keep the establishment, the mayor twice said, “no.”
Osterman said she was told by Hacker that the town never accepted her September rent payment because it was not at the increased rate reflected in the new lease. Osterman said she made the payment over the phone and bank records prove it was accepted by the town.
In late September, Osterman said a town council member delivered a "refund" check for the rent payment she made for that month.
Osterman said she corrected the lease to the agreement she believed had been made and submitted it to the town council with the request her eviction be rescinded.
Osterman said Hacker contacted her attorney to say the corrected lease would not be accepted and the town was continuing with the eviction.
What Happens Now?
James said Osterman is moving forward with suing the town over the eviction.
A GoFundMe has been set up on Osterman’s behalf that has raised $1,180 so far toward a $5,000 goal.
“The Ostermans are set to encounter legal fees very soon, as they have decided to take legal action to maintain their rightful place in Burns,” organizer Jennessee Cathcart wrote. “Your donation will go directly to that cause.”
Many people Monday also complained about the town not publishing online its town council agendas before meetings.
Burns doesn’t have a website, so it relies on its Facebook page for these types of notices. No council agendas have been published on Facebook over the last few months and minutes from some meetings also weren’t posted.
Local resident Jennifer James said it is the duty of municipal staff and elected officials to be mindful that their business is to be done in public as much as possible.
“I am beyond disappointed at the lack of regard for our residents, the council's improper notifications (not posting agenda) and limiting residents' right to speak,” she told Cowboy State Daily in an email. “I am particularly disgusted that one council member did not declare a conflict of interest, very shameful.”
Meeting notices must be published in a local newspaper of record, but there are no requirements for online publication. Although minutes must be recorded, they do not have to be published.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.