Wednesday, August 30, 2006

County nixes five-member-board vote?again


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

A proposal to expand the Blaine County Commission from three to five members became something of a Ping-Pong match this month before dying an abrupt death Tuesday morning, Aug. 29.

The inner workings of the deliberation ultimately became much more complicated than the relatively simple question of whether three or five commissioners would better represent Blaine County citizens.

With Commissioner Dennis Wright absent on Tuesday, and Commission Chairwoman Sarah Michael in support of posing the question of a five-member commission to voters in November, the decision was left to Commissioner Tom Bowman. Given legal complications, Bowman said he could not support seeking voter approval at this time.

The explanation requires a little history.

A week before, on Tuesday, Aug. 22, Bowman and Wright rejected the proposal, put forth by Michael, to ask voters if the county should elect five county commissioners rather than three.

Bowman and Wright said the proposal was premature because the county had only recently allocated funds to hire a county administrator.

On Thursday, Aug. 24, the prospect of a vote was resurrected when Michael and Bowman announced they decided they could ask voters if they would prefer three or five commissioners and simultaneously ask whether they would elect a county manager form of government, an alternative presented in Idaho's county governance laws.

While a county manager and county administrator would perform similar duties, the manager would be mandated by voters. An administrator would be mandated only by the County Commission.

"The administrator serves at the whims of the county commissioners and is not a permanent position," Bowman said. "The whole problem with that is if the administrator doesn't work out, we could have five county commissioners without a (supervisor)."

A county manager would be a more permanent position.

But the issue bogged down in legal complications on Tuesday and Bowman ultimately decided the county should proceed by hiring an administrator and consider whether to expand the commission at a later date. Though Wright was not present at Tuesday's meeting, Bowman said the two of them agreed on the issue.

At the outset of the Tuesday hearing, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tim Graves said he'd uncovered that Idaho Code will only allow voters to go to the polls to change the way county government is run every four years. What's more, only one change can be considered at a time.

"The problem with that is that those two questions cannot be combined," Graves said.

The county attorney said he'd asked the Idaho Secretary of State to issue an opinion on the issue, but the question was forwarded to the Idaho Attorney General.

"So I'm waiting to hear from the AG, which I don't expect until sometime in 2007," Graves said.

However, he opined that, given the context of whether voters are being asked to approve a five-member board or seven-member board, the state code makes total sense in that it only allows one alteration to occur at a time. But in this context, "it doesn't make any sense."

"I think some substantial revision (to the Idaho Code) is in order because I don't think what the code says is what the Legislature—the people who proposed these optional provisions—had in mind," he said. "So in my view, there's not a lot of gray area we can argue within, given the express language in the Idaho Code."

The complications brought Bowman back to his original thoughts on the issue.

"The problem I have with putting either on the ballot right now is, if either prevails, we cannot ask another question for four years," he said. "If we are successful in getting five commissioners, we will not be able to have a county manager for another four years."

Bowman returned to the idea that the county should proceed with the original idea of hiring a county administrator early in 2007, when a new county commissioner has been elected to replace Wright, who is not seeking another term.

"As soon as possible then, as soon as we've established that a county administrator can survive in this culture here, then we put on the ballot the issue of going from three to five commissioners," he said. "I think we can all agree that we want to work toward that five-commissioner model, but I think we need to do it in a mindful way."




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