Friday, October 29, 2004

Ad misrepresents County Commission

Jail vote sparks tensions on county board

Express Staff Writer

Two members of the three-person Blaine County Commission were surprised Wednesday to open the Idaho Mountain Express and see they had endorsed an opinion that contradicted information they had spent the previous month disseminating about the prospects for a new county jail that?s often referred to as a public safety facility.

In the Oct. 27 issue of the newspaper, Commissioner Mary Ann Mix took out an advertisement that argued against points her fellow commissioners had been making at public meetings over the course of the previous month. The ad read, ?Paid for by Blaine County Commissioners,? but commissioners Sarah Michael and Dennis Wright did not know about the ad, nor did they approve its content, they said.

The catalyst for the controversy is a advisory vote Tuesday, Nov. 2, in which voters will weigh in on a county plan to build and fund a public safety facility, including a new jail, consolidated dispatch center and sheriff?s office. In Mix?s ad and a nearly identical guest opinion, she argued that the county has underestimated the cost of the jail by more than $4 million and has not exhaustively pursued opportunities to reduce the facility?s cost.

Michael and Wright have spent the last month spreading information of a different flavor.

?To contradict everything we said publicly in an ad that she claimed was paid for by the commissioners?I think it?s inappropriate misrepresentation,? Michael said. ?It totally misrepresents the position of the commissioners. It?s going to confuse the voters.?

Commission Chairman Dennis Wright agreed with Michael.

?It is a misrepresentation to say it?s paid for by county commissioners,? Wright said. ?The county isn?t going to end up paying for it. I think it?s probably illegal for the county to spend moneys on an advocacy effort like that.?

The 6-inch by 8-inch display ad on page A31 of the newspaper cost $303.60. When Mix arrived at the Mountain Express office on Thursday, Oct. 21, she asked if her opinion would be published. She was told it would be, and it was. But Mix later returned to request the ad. Before submitting the information, she edited the content and added the words ?Paid for by Blaine County Commissioners? to the bottom.

She initially said she would pay using a credit card but after consideration, said the newspaper should bill the county. Blaine County Clerk Marsha Reimann proofed the ad before it ran.

By Thursday, Oct. 28, the paper had not yet collected, but advertising managers were attempting to secure payment directly from Mix.

?I knew my co-worker was going to write an opposing opinion. I knew about it and encouraged it,? Wright said. ?I didn?t know about an advertisement, per se.?

Although the commissioners unanimously approved the Nov. 2 jail advisory vote, it was Mix who pushed for it hardest. During the 1990s, three jail bond elections failed to achieve the 66.66 percent majority voted needed for ap-proval.

According to Michael and Wright, the new public safety facility will cost between $8 million and $9.5 million. Ac-cording to Mix, the facility could cost up to $13.6 million. Their sources are obviously different.

Wright and Michael are using numbers they obtained from Beniton Construction, which said the facility could be built for $8.6 million or $9.1 million assuming 30 percent inflation. Mix cited a 2003 study by Washington-based DLR Group that said the facility could bee built for $13.6 million.

?I?m not going to build a facility that costs anywhere near what that study indicates,? Wright said. ?I guarantee the general public it will be under $10 million, or it won?t happen. I think the public knows I?m pretty tight fisted. I?m not here to build an edifice to anyone.?

The public safety facility would include a jail, new sheriff?s office and a consolidated Emergency 911-dispatch center.

In the mid-1990s, the county bought 3.23 acres on Aviation Drive in the Airport West subdivision in southern Hai-ley for the express purpose of building a jail and public safety facility.

That is the majority of the Blaine County Commission?s preferred site for a new jail.

Mix did not return telephone calls Monday or Thursday inquiring about the jail and the ad.

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