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For the week of September 27 through October 3, 2000

Democratic charade for McHanville?

The one distinguishing characteristic of authoritarian regimes—read that, tyrannies—is that they dispense with niceties of democratic checks and balances and instead concentrate power in the hands of a few.

Enter Len Harlig, the retiring Blaine County Commissioner, and his exasperation with the democratic process.

In a burst of candor that apparently reveals an autocrat’s impatience with county government, Commissioner Harlig suggests that the Blaine County Planning and Zoning commission be ignored, and all future proposals for development adjoining the new St. Luke’s Medical Center at McHanville go directly to Commissioner Harlig and two colleagues.

Commissioner Harlig seems to suggest that P&Z deliberations are a charade, and county commissioners will do what they please anyway.

Could it be that Commissioner Harlig has already made up his mind on critical issues involving McHanville and St. Luke’s without any advice from the P&Z, or the public?

Well, now.

Cynics might reasonably wonder this: Since St. Luke’s has been pressuring Blaine County to zone McHanville for a large medical office building, is Commissioner Harlig in a rush to do St. Luke’s bidding and ram through approval? Is that why the County Commissioners have already reviewed a new zoning ordinance for the area and said they like it before it has even gone to public hearing?

If true, that goes a long way toward creating every appearance of a "done deal" behind closed doors.

For its part, St. Luke’s also has shown its impatience with Blaine County government rules and regulations, most recently in attempting to get what it wanted in the way of signage that otherwise was not permitted.

But the biggest prize St. Luke’s seeks is the medical office building, a large commercial enterprise to house physicians and ancillary medical services, whose approval rests with Commissioner Harlig and his colleagues.

To that end, St. Luke’s management has pulled out all stops in its public appeals to Blaine County officials to get its way.

It’s tried threats (without the office building, it said it might pull out of the Wood River Valley) and then sob stories (the hospital might flop financially without the building).

As for Commissioner Harlig’s vision of how to streamline democracy, is there any doubt that ignoring the P&Z process would invite swift legal action that could make county commission decisions invalid?

The proper response to Commissioner Harlig’s fanciful proposal to ditch the P&Z procedure is a firm rebuke from his colleagues and an invitation for Harlig to go quietly into retirement.

If he stuck around any longer, Commissioner Harlig might promote dispensing with public meetings on grounds that the rabble—the public—that shows up to voice its opinion simply slows down the commission’s decision-making.


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