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Form of government group stands divided

by MADISON HARDY
Staff Writer | December 18, 2021 1:00 AM

Ahead of a three-week hiatus, study commissioners ironed out details this week in their preliminary recommendation to change the Kootenai County form of government.

Since May, the nine-member Optional Forms of Government Study Commission has conducted interviews and data collection to determine whether the Kootenai County administrative structure should stay or go. 

Based on their findings, the commission has developed a preliminary recommendation to:

• Increase the number of county commissioners from three to five, approved by OFGSC members in a 5-4 vote on Nov. 3

• Hire a commission-manager, approved in the same 5-4 vote

• Continue electing the assessor, clerk, coroner, prosecuting attorney, sheriff and treasurer

All recommendations are allowed under Idaho Code 31-5001. 

As part of the OFGSC recommendation, members identified the advantages and disadvantages of the current and proposed alternative government form. The preliminary recommendation and comparison of the two structures are available online at kcgov.us/970/Optional-Forms-of-Government-Study-Commi.

On Wednesday, several study participants expressed their concern that much remains unknown about the proposed alternative government. 

Tamara Bateson said there will be additional costs associated with increasing the number of commissioners and hiring a manager. The OFGSC has regularly considered how the change would affect county expenses but has no financial analysis to show specific amounts.

"If you're a commission-manager there will be a cost, and that will be a taxpayer cost," she said. "So there is a cost to this change in government."

OFGSC favored the commission-manager form to help county commissioners with some administrative duties and improve cooperation among elected officials.

However, OFGSC vice chair Brian Cleary said he'd read testimonies where intergovernmental conflict has severely inhibited managers from carrying out their responsibilities. 

"Commission managers find it very difficult to be commission managers because they're offending some part of the commission," Cleary said.

Still, OFGSC chair Dave Botting contended that county commissioners could focus more on important long-range planning by hiring a professional, business-trained manager. 

"If we take that effort off the county commissioners and give it to someone who statutorily is the sole administrator of their department, that leaves them free — not guaranteed — ability to look at strategic planning, other planning, and policy setting," Botting said.

While officials and department heads already set goals for their team, OFGSC member Kristin Wing said no cohesive plan guides the county. 

"It's very inefficient when you've got folks who are in a silo doing the best for their area but don't have the benefit of all working together," Wing said. "Is the commission manager the only way to do that? No. Is it a very good way to possibly do it? Yes.

"I think we owe it to ourselves and our community and our children to do something better."

Study commissioner Kurt Andersen pointed out that as revisions come to a close, the OFGSC identified very few "strengths" in the current system of government. 

"We seem to be falling into a similar condition as the former study commission," he said. "There are relatively few strengths being identified for the current form of government, which was one of the complaints that came up during various testimonies in the past. Truly there must be more to speak on behalf of the current form."

Despite the varied strengths and weaknesses, OFGSC member Bryant Bushling recommended the study provide an in-depth analysis of each factor.

"That way, the public can get both sides of the story in the report and make up their minds because ultimately, this is really for public benefit," he said. "The point is to write it and let the public decide which of those two arguments they believe is a strength that supports their view."

A public hearing is set for Jan. 19. OFGSC members will not meet on Dec. 22, Dec. 29 or Jan. 5. 

The study group's final report will go to commissioners for approval. If the document recommends changes, county voters will decide its fate during the November 2022 general election.