by John Spina, Jackson Hole Daily
Nearly everyone — landlords and tenants alike — has horror stories about housing in Jackson.
On Monday, the Jackson Town Council took steps to provide recourse for disgruntled parties without going to court.
While still working out the specifics, the council said an ombudsman, or public advocate capable of providing legal advice or mediation services, would help resolve disputes outside of court.
“When people come to the housing department,” Town Attorney Audrey Cohen-Davis said, “they hand out information but they don’t have the staff to assist. That’s what an ombudsman does; they are an impartial advocate for citizen rights.”
Because an ombudsman would be an entirely new position for the town, setting it up is expected to take a substantial amount of time and staff resources. Furthermore, with little to no data on how pervasive landlord-tenant disputes are in Jackson, what an ombudsman’s role would demand remains unknown.
With that in mind, the council suggested the town contract with Teton County Access to Justice Center for at least one year to provide legal aid and to begin to gather data on how many cases are brought forward and what clients’ needs are.
“I think this is the most prudent approach,” Town Manager Bob McLaurin said. “Let’s go slow. … Let this position flesh out and see what the needs are in terms of staff, resources and legislation.”
Barbara Prescott, the executive director of Teton County Access to Justice, is all for it.
“We’d love to offer this kind of support,” she said. “We have offered relief on both sides of rental disagreements for years now by educating landlords and tenants on the law, being a go-between when things break down to the point where the two parties can’t even talk together, and educating them on their likelihood of recovering losses through litigation.
“At the very least it will let people know this is an option for them and that they can be successful,” she continued. “We actually just expanded mediation services, strongly believing if you get the two parties together they can usually work it out. Sometimes it’s just a call to the landlord saying you have a legal obligation to do this.”
With an immediate need for a mechanism that can hold Jackson renters and landlords accountable, without the expense of going to court, the council unanimously voted to earmark money in next year’s budget for a grant to Access to Justice. It also agreed to continue to research how it would set up its own system in the near future.
On Monday the council supported creating the position, but it also said it wanted to wait for data from Access to Justice to make decisions about the position’s powers and authority.
As outlined by Cohen-Davis, an ombudsman could assist with education and awareness of rental housing rights and laws, or evaluate the facts of an individual case and direct citizens to the correct avenue for recourse. Or the council could go so far as to grant an ombudsman investigative powers to determine if a case rises to the level of prosecution for a gross violation of laws.
Were investigative powers to be granted, the council discussed the possibility of creating ordinances that would allow the town to adjudicate disputes itself.
The council will begin work on next year’s budget in April, at which point a discussion will commence as to how much money it would appropriate to Access to Justice in the coming year.