Residents of this small city in the heart of the Red Desert in southwestern Wyoming showed their dissatifaction with a national "Sin City" reputation by turning out en masse last week to vote for reform candidates.
"I think the national publicity has helped some people in the community to substantiate their case that there is something wrong here. There is a sense of hope that there will be change," said the Rev. Art Waidmann, whose ministry serves those whose lives have been jarred by this region's rapid growth. Residents have been afraid to speak out, he said, and their recourse was the voting booth.
Growth in the area has given the area a boom-town atmosphere. At the root of the growth is energy resources development, such as coal and uranium.
For state senator, voters overwhelmingly approved reform candidate Ford T. Bussart, who defeated 12-year incumbent Robert Johnson in surrounding Sweetwater County by 2 to 1.
Councilwoman Rose Belmain, who said she would fire the city attorney, the chief of police, the clerk-treasurer and the city engineer - if they don't resign first - was top vote-getter in the three-way mayoral race. She will opposed businessman C. Keith West in the November general election.
"This is really a pivotal day in the history of the county. For the first time in a long time we have consensus politics. I don't think there is a power base anymore, or a political machine," Bussart said. "I took on the whole machine and I still came out 2 to 1."
Bussart said he was publicly criticized during the campaign by then state Democratic Chairman Don Anselmi, who recently resigned that position amid allegations of corruption in the Democratic Party, by the party's vice chairman and by incumbent state Senate Minority Leader Johnson. Bussart faces virtually no opposition in November, barring a write-in campaign by Republicans.
Neither Paul J. Wataha, an accountant who has been mayor of Rock Springs for 21 years, nor any of the four council members whose seats were up for election, chose to run again. Wataha has not endorsed any candidate, and, privately, it is understood that association with incumbency is a policy liability.
Anselmi, in ill health, said he is "trying to keep a low profile," and that he does not want to be politically active or to endorse candidates. "My endorsement isn't worth anything," he said.
Rock Springs has been the focus of national media attention, including a CBS "60 Minutes" segment focusing on prostitution, gambling and drug dealing in the city, and on alleged unresponsiveness of those in political power. The segement was rebroadcast with brief updating a week before the primary election.
Public embarrassment, and the July 15 shooting death of undercover narcotics policeman Michael Rosa, are seen as catalysts in the voters' mood for changes in the political structure.
The director of public safety, the city's highest police official, was charged with first-degree murder in the Rosa shooting. He has been freed on bond posted by three couples, including a patrolman and city councilman.
A coalition of clergyman issued a public statement after the shooting, urging the community to, become politically involved and to vote.
"Recent events . . . have forced us to admit that for a long time we have remained silent . . . Rock Springs is at an important crossroads," they said. Rosa's widow, in a newspaper display ad, also urged voters to make changes.
While residents were voting in what is considered a heavy turnout, a state grant jury investigation of Rock Springs was contuning. Massive arrests in Wyoming and Colorado followed the indictment earlier this month of 21 persons on drug charges.
Councilwoman Belmain, 34, is known as a questioner and an advocate of open meetings and records. Wataha has called her a "dissident," she said.
A former city chamber of commerce president she said that most of the ordinances approved by the City Council this year, including projects involving millions of dollars, were passed under emergency clauses, and that city residents were unable to voice opinions or questions about them. "That's not the way a representative democracy is supposed to work. There's too few people doing too much."
West, her general election opponent, said he would have to analyze departmental needs before making staff changes. Police Chief Louis Muir has said he will resign in January, "and that would be acceptable to both of us." West said. West said he would like to see an image change for Rock Springs."We have been the laughing stock of Small Town, U.S.A."