By MATT FURBER
For the Idaho Mountain Express
Numerous Blaine County residents tested the mettle of District 1 Blaine County Commission candidates Wednesday in Hailey, during a Pizza and Politics forum sponsored by the Idaho Mountain Express.
For some Blaine County residents in attendance, the candidates—Democrats competing in the only contested race in the May 23 primary election—all had something to offer, making their choice a difficult one.
Tammy Eaton, Larry Schoen, James R. Super and Carl B. Johnston are vying for the opportunity to square off next November against Republican candidate Dale Ewerson, who is uncontested in his party's primary.
Democrat incumbent Sarah Michael is running uncontested in the primary election for District 3, but will be challenged in November by Mickey Garcia, an independent.
Listening to the candidates respond to questions from the press and the public, it became clear that candidates Eaton, Schoen and Super share similar views about protecting community values identified in the "Blaine County 2025: How and Where Will We Grow?" outreach campaign. Johnston did not attend the forum. He informed the Idaho Mountain Express that he was away on business.
Through the 2025 campaign, the county is trying to establish new growth-management ordinances. The ordinances will soon come before the current county Board of Commissioners for review. A corresponding county moratorium on the review of subdivision applications is in place until the end July.
Protecting sensitive ecological lands and agricultural attributes of the county is a priority for all three candidates who participated Wednesday.
Super gave the first introductory speech, emphasizing as his credentials his degree in economics and former service as a councilman for the city of Bellevue. Super also related childhood memories of visiting Redfish Lake when a person could walk across the backs of the fish because they were so plentiful. Super said he is keen to protect Idaho's character, which as a longtime outfitter in the state is important to him.
Eaton followed Super, explaining that she is running on the strength of her six years of service as a city councilwoman in Bellevue, where she is currently serving. Eaton said she enjoys her service to the community and will bring her high level of commitment to public service to the county if elected. Eaton's platform is one of conservation of county resources and she, like Super, focused on the importance of working to provide more community housing in the county.
Giving his equally brief and succinct opening statement, Schoen noted his 15 years of active public life in the county from the perspective of being a farmer and a conservationist. Schoen spoke about melding the towns of the north with agriculture in the southern part of the county. Nine years ago, Schoen introduced Farm Day, which has brought hundreds of north county residents into the fold of the south county agricultural lands. Schoen's resume includes work with the Carey Rural Fire Department, early membership on the EMS council and work with the Blaine County Soil Conservation District. He is currently the chairman of the Blaine County Planning and Zoning Commission.
All three candidates shared interests in getting a workable Transfer of Development Rights program going in the county to protect remote and traditional agricultural land from development. Super stressed that economic analysis will first have to be completed for such a program to work.
In response to a question about what key issue needs to be prioritized for the good of the community coming out of Blaine County 2025, Super said there is no one single issue that can be the sole focus because the big issues are interconnected. Super said workforce housing is tied to achieving higher density in the cities, which in turn is tied to the purchase of development rights in the unincorporated county.
Eaton stressed that water conservation would be one of her priorities if elected, explaining that she gives her full support to the water study being initiated by hydrologists Lee Brown, Bruce Lium and Wendy Pabich. Eaton also stressed that collaboration between political leaders and communities is the key to long-term sustainability in Blaine County.
Schoen said that self-interest is never absent in debates over community issues. Vetting various interests to reach the best outcome for the community is the point of the public process in government, he added. The key to getting the most out of exercises like Blaine County 2025, Schoen said, is getting people engaged in the process. He added that a politician should help to bring people into the public process because that is the key to finding "valleywide" solutions to looming problems.
In response to a question about what is the most important piece of language coming out of Blaine County 2025 that will go to the protection of sensitive riparian areas with growth focused in the cities, Eaton said the key is the county working better with the cities. Schoen said that the single most important aspect of Blaine County 2025 is that it is a signal that the community working together is taking control of its own destiny with rules that will offer more flexibility and more protection. Super cautioned that the TDR program is not in working condition. He added that a straight downzone is only a temporary fix for growth problems.
As for a question about what needs fixing in regards to Blaine County 2025, Schoen responded that he would like to see more openness in the process, not just focus groups. Such "visioning" concepts are important, but government also needs to continue to work on regulatory solutions, he said.
Super said economic analysis needed to support governmental regulation has not been done. He added that regulations must go to protecting the community into the next millennium.
"You can do it without stomping on people's property rights," he said.
Eaton said Blaine County 2025 has not resulted in a comprehensive water assessment for the county, one of the key reasons for calling the moratorium.
Super said between now and when a new commissioner is sworn in next January is a long time and it is his hope that the sitting commissioners will still reach many of the community goals set out by Blaine County 2025. He said in the interim he will continue to help promote a TDR program because it is a "good and honorable" way to get development moved off of farm ground. A key question remaining for all the candidates is finding appropriate receiving areas for development rights.
In the arena of TDR debates, Schoen said he favors some small cluster development in the county to allow farmers to accommodate their family interests to some extent.
The candidates responded to questions from the public about how to control taxes and protect public access to public lands. Schoen stressed efficient use of taxpayers' money in government operations and said he supports hiring a full-time county administrator. Super said that in terms of public lands, "Idaho is not for sale." He even suggested that a constitutional amendment be written to that extent.
When asked to differentiate themselves from the commissioners currently in office, each candidate declined to make such a comparison because, as Eaton said, if elected she would be working with two of them.
Finally, candidates had an opportunity to ask each other questions. Schoen asked his opponents to share an experience about when they have felt challenged and tested in their public positions and how their response showed their abilities. Super asked a question about what integrity in government means to each candidate. Super and Eaton shared their experiences managing wastewater in Bellevue during their respective terms.
In response to Super's question about integrity, Schoen said integrity in government to him means the ability to gel personal values with information about public issues and do your best job to make decisions that will help uphold the values of the community. Eaton said she gets a high from serving her community.
"We're there for the whole (community)," she said. In her closing statement, Eaton said public service is her calling.
Schoen said in closing that he is the best-qualified, best-prepared candidate. Super stressed that in addition to upholding the constitution, a commissioner's job is to act on behalf of the passions of the community.
"That's integrity," he said.
The general election is Nov. 7.