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Commissioner on right track with structure

| August 28, 2020 1:00 AM

When Bill Brooks suggests it might be time to revisit the way Kootenai County’s governmental leadership is structured, freaking out and hitting auto-eject is neither rational nor productive.

Brooks, one of the three Kootenai County commissioners, is suggesting a hearty, healthy community discussion about leadership. This subject has surfaced several times over the past few decades, for good reason: It makes sense to consider options. As with business of every kind, times change, and the business or governmental entity that does not adapt to massive change becomes archaic or worse.

Brooks’s point, boiled down into the most basic terms, is this: Having three full-time commissioners overseeing a $99 million budget while also being plunged into the minutiae of day-to-day drama might not be the best bang for the taxpayer’s buck. Did you know that in any given year, a Kootenai County commissioner might attend 250 or more meetings? How does that bode for efficient, effective leadership?

Across the country, many counties have employed a system common among cities: Electing a five- or seven-member part-time body essentially serving as a board of trustees, who employ a full-time administrator or manager to handle day-to-day operations.

One point Brooks makes is that this structure guards against the potential damage that can be done when it takes just two agenda-driven candidates to get elected and flex muscles of extremism that do not serve the general population. With five or seven commissioners, the county as a whole would not only have broader representation, but also greatly reduce the chances of disaster, like setting a match to building codes — which a previous County Commission essentially did a few years ago. (And both commissioners supporting the building code opt-out were promptly defeated by Brooks and Chris Fillios.)

There's no question of overspending, either. Part-time commissioners would need to be paid much less than full-timers, and shifting that savings would allow commissioners to hire an outstanding administrator.

A key point is that the administrator is not the big boss; she or he is the CEO who must answer to the board. Concerns that an administrator could make some bad hires for positions that now are elected — assessor and treasurer come to mind — fade when you consider that those hires will need to be approved by the Board of County Commissioners. The commissioners would still have their hands firmly on the controls of county governance, just with far fewer distractions on matters that could easily be handled by subordinates.

In 1890, when a three-commissioner/no administrator system worked just fine, Kootenai County’s population was 4,108. It’s right at 170,000 now, again with a budget near $100 million.

We encourage citizens to engage in this discussion and offer their thoughts and ideas. The world will not end if the current system of county governance crawls forward; it just might look a lot brighter under a more efficient structure.