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For the week of December 20 through 26, 2000

Heavyweights roast retiring Harlig

Express Staff Writer

When it came to roasting Blaine County Commissioner Len Harlig at his retirement party last week, most obeyed a principal tenet of local politics: It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.

Sheriff and longtime friend Walt Femling told fart jokes about Harlig, 67, to the crowd of 200 gathered in the Sun Valley Lodge Sun Room last week.

Bud Purdy scorched him a different way: "I didn’t know he had this many friends," the south-county rancher said into the microphone.

David Wilson, the mayor of Sun Valley, lamented the colorful "happy sweater" Harlig wore for the occasion, a garment that he claimed was 17 years old, "and had to smell."

Harry Rinker, a developer who most recently asked Harlig to forgive the giant berms his construction crews created without permission along Highway 75, wasn’t actually in attendance. But he sent along a letter, read aloud, praising Harlig for the 16 years of public office he served.

Over shrimp cocktail, hot wings, stuffed mushrooms, baked brie, crudites, a jazz trio, Ste. Chapelle Merlot and Chardonnay, the community’s most important decision makers began gathering at 6 p.m. for the open-to-the-public event, making small talk and eating small food while Harlig greeted his guests at the door.

Harlig has a reputation for being the three-member Blaine County commission’s heavy hitter. During seven years as commissioner and nine on the

Planning and Zoning Commission he has helped make major land-use decisions in the county. His most recent project has been helping to promote the closing of the county-run Wood River Medical Center and the opening of the new St. Luke’s hospital.

Set to replace him in January is Sarah Michael, who has an extensive background working on conservation and transportation issues in Blaine County and northern California.

Harlig said many people have been trying to convince him not to retire, "but this is really it." After selling off his Los Angeles Sportsman’s Lodge—a hotel and restaurant business—in 1973 so that he could move to the Wood River Valley and relax, he instead got caught up in local politics. Nearly two decades later, the self-proclaimed reluctant public servant is definitely stepping down.

His friends at the Dec. 13 retirement party called him a "reasonable voice," an "activist" and a "continuous force" in this rapidly changing valley.

Whatever feelings Purdy has about asking permission or forgiveness, he said, "Thank God there was no planning and zoning" to regulate development 62 years ago.

But then "these damn Californians discovered Sun Valley," and wanted to build on the "crick" and build berms.

Len Harlig soon followed them, bringing with him the planning and zoning concept, Purdy said with blatant exaggeration.

"Everyone wanted open space, but they wanted the other guy to provide it."

Purdy promoted the idea that he has lived in Blaine County all his life, but emcee Mike Riedel exposed the truth: Purdy himself went to high school in Redlands, Calif.

"Politicians and diapers have one thing in common," Riedel added, "they should be replaced often."

Harlig was so touched when Riedel invited him to the microphone that he had to take a moment to compose himself.

"Normally, when things like this are said about people," Harlig finally began, "they’re dearly departed."

He claimed he is essentially a shy person, despite his public stature. He thanked his wife Carol Harlig for organizing the party and called her "the diamond in my setting of life."

Politics—which he prefers to call public service—is a ham-and-eggs story, he proclaimed. "The chicken is involved but the ham is committed." He declined to say toward which metaphor his proclivities tend.

He noted that 75 percent of the people in attendance haven’t always agreed with him. "How did I get elected?" he said.

When his successor Sarah Michael takes office, Harlig plans to give her three envelopes, just has his successor gave him. If she "gets into trouble," he said, she should open the first envelope, which contains a note advising, "Blame it on your predecessor." Trouble again? Open number two, which advises, "Blame it on the media." And, if she "gets into trouble" a third time, the remaining enveloped advises "Prepare three envelopes."

In addition to the party, Carol Harlig is arranging to have a bridge on the north-county Harriman Trail dedicated to her husband, who said, "I can’t think of anything that pleases me more than to have something in the community with my name on it."

Harlig called the Wood River Valley, "the best place on earth," and said that he has enjoyed working with most of the people here.

"It’s been just great," he said.


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