Wednesday, April 5, 2006

County initiates government overhaul proposal

County manager system key focus of study

Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County Commission took the major first step Tuesday toward potentially overhauling its system of government through a process that may lead to a county manager answering to a five- or seven-member Board of County Commissioners.

With widespread support from the public, commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance to create a "Blaine County Governance Coordination Plan."

The ordinance is the first of many steps in an ongoing effort to enhance county government operations and communication with the public sector. It does not grant the commission authority to immediately institute any changes to the current governmental system.

The plan is designed "to guide the evolution of future Blaine County government and (provide) for a sequence of possible actions by future (commissions)," the ordinance states.

The ordinance was drafted by interim county administrator Stan McNutt, a consultant with more than 30 years of governmental management experience. McNutt was hired by Blaine County in January to evaluate the county's current system of government and provide a guideline to enhance efficiency in the future.

His work, which includes a 26-page report outlining the governance plan, will be included in the ordinance "as study references and sources of information on alternative courses of action."

While the county has several options to boost its own efficiency, the commissioners favor a county manager system of government, which is also McNutt's recommendation.

A county manager would essentially act as a chief executive officer, overseeing all county functions. This would allow the commission to expand from its current three-seat format to a panel with as many as seven seats. The commissioners favor a five-seat format, which would require the county to redefine its districts.

Evolving into such a system could take years. It would require the passage of two additional ordinances and a resolution, and would also need voter approval.

On Tuesday, McNutt commended the commissioners for their efforts in becoming familiar with the complex concept.

Blaine County Commission candidates Dale Ewersen, Tammy Eaton, Jim Super and Mickey Garcia also expressed support for the plan and commended the commissioners for their efforts. Ewersen, Eaton and Super are running for the commission's District 1 (south county) seat, which is being vacated by Dennis Wright. Larry Schoen, current chair of the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission, and Bellevue resident Carl Johnston are also running for District 1. Garcia is running for District 3 (north county), against incumbent Sarah Michael.

"I believe this is a positive, progressive step forward in assisting the citizens of the county," said Eaton, who is a member of the Bellevue City Council. "Without my administrator, I wouldn't be able to get half the things done. It's helped me tremendously to be able to serve the public in Bellevue in a better fashion."

Jima Rice, a business consultant who has worked for the county on a part time basis in the past, said evolving into a new system is essential.

"You need this for continuity, and you also need someone who has skills in administrative issues," she said. "If you have somebody who can do that, they will be good at prioritizing and that will increase efficiency.

"I can't see any reason why this shouldn't be implemented."

But just when it should be implemented has yet to be determined.

The commissioners could present the plan to voters in the November 2006 election. But Garcia and Super both feel that might be premature, since it will not give voters much time to become educated with the proposal. Garcia believes the November 2008 election would be more appropriate since it will be a presidential election and will likely draw more voter participation.

Len Harlig, a former Blaine County commissioner, commended the commissioners for a "thorough" job.

"It sets the table for what needs to be looked at before a final decision on major issues needs to be taken," he said.

But Harlig feels the county can "come up with a better product" if it establishes a study committee to further review the system and educate the public.

The commissioners agreed.

McNutt's work with the county will conclude Friday.

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