For the week of December 2 thru December 8, 1998  

Government of the unknowing and for the uninformed

Idaho voters decided in favor of term limits in a statewide referendum last month, but the Idaho Legislature may still have the final say.

By a fairly large margin, 57 percent to 43 percent, voters said Idaho should retain term limits on local and state lawmakers. Now, some lawmakers are saying the Idaho Legislature at least should give counties the option of repealing local term limits.

That’s a good idea. Otherwise, Idaho’s smaller, more rural counties may find themselves with empty offices or unqualified candidates.

If the Legislature does not give counties and cities the option to lift term limits, Blaine County may have to say goodbye to its sheriff, coroner, clerk and treasurer much too soon—even if voters do not wish to show them to the door.

Contrary to current common wisdom, good public servants don’t grow on trees.

It’s easy to spot the good ones. They have a sense of dedication about what they do. They’re not clock watchers. They’re vitally interested in their communities and their welfare. A big paycheck isn’t their first priority. Many could make more money in the private sector or in bigger communities.

Throwing qualified people out of office in small counties is just plain dumb because qualified people willing to subject themselves to public scrutiny in an election every few years are scarce.

In many Idaho counties, the custodians of the public purse and public records—assessors, treasurers and clerks—have made public service their life’s work. Without them, county courthouses would be little more than brick boxes full of disorganized piles of unsorted papers bearing official stamps.

For other offices, like sheriff and coroner, voters could be forced to choose between candidates Bozo Q. Clown and Jack N. Box because a well- trained, respected incumbent would be barred from running.

Even in general government offices, it’s not always a good idea to clean house. Term limits could leave even bigger counties with full-blown cases of institutional amnesia, or governments run by bureaucrats.

Some legislators may not want to risk the ire of constituents by overriding November’s advisory vote. It’s tempting to want to give voters the kind of government they voted for—government of the unknowing and for the uninformed.

However, the costs and consequences of inflicting change for the sake of change on local government must be weighed. The legislature must consider the theory of term limits against the realities. The Legislature should intervene and let local voters decide whether they want term limits in their counties or cities.


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