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Government group goes back to 1996

by MADISON HARDY
Staff Writer | June 11, 2021 1:00 AM

KOOTENAI COUNTY - The optional forms of government commission went back in the past Wednesday night, interviewing participants of the first study in 1996. 

Within the 1996 executive summary, the commission recommended the county board expand from three to five elected part-time commissioners, who would hire a county manager.

In addition, the study group advised making the six elected officials hired positions. 

The board of commissioners didn't bring that recommendation to a public vote, former commissioner Richard Panabaker said, because it was believed to be unconstitutional. While the Idaho Legislature had passed the statute in 1994, the 1996 Kootenai County commissioners — of which Panabaker was a member — were informed that it had not been finalized under the state constitution. 

As a result, the study never saw the light of day.

"We were blindsided by that actually because we would not have asked all those people to work so very hard for a year, putting that thing together, if it didn't have any chance of being implemented," Panabaker said. 

Wednesday night, alternate commission member Bruce Mattare pointed out that the 1996 study listed 11 weaknesses in what was then the current form of county government and only four strengths. In comparison, the recommended form of government had 10 strengths and two weaknesses.

He questioned why the former participants felt there were not more operational strengths within the present structure, commenting that they all know "somebody who has made a career out of pointing out what's wrong." 

"Are there any operational strengths to this form of government? Or is this form of government so inefficient that we should just automatically consider discounting it coming out of the gate?" Mattare asked.

Jerry Mason, one of the nine 1996 study participants, said the current form isn't the most efficient. 

"I don't think it's got a lot of operational strengths," Mason said. "You've got nine peers running an organization. It doesn't take a lot of organizational theorizing to say that's a weak organization."

As stated in the executive summary, part of the 1996 commission's rationale for recommending changing the government was to manage the challenges caused by Kootenai County's population growth during the 1980s and 1990s. Drawing parallels to development today, Panabaker also said the current form has its faults. 

"We've outgrown that little system of government. I think we've got so much population, and it is so much more intricate than it used to be," Panabaker said. "There's a lot more going on, and I think it's time to look at something new." 

During the 1996 study, Mason said, much of the group discussions centered around tension between the commissioners and the other county elected positions — Sheriff, Clerk, Assessor, Treasurer, Prosecuting Attorney, and Coroner. What Mason found interesting, he said, was that usually, it wasn't the skillset that created an issue but the personality and attitude of individuals working together. 

In his experience with the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program (ICRMP), Mason described governments that have suffered from inefficient officials. 

Panabaker said factors like personality, work ethic and voter popularity play a significant role in what happens in government. As a former county commissioner, past mayor of Hayden, and a current Hayden city councilman, he explained how in 1996, commissioners considered the idea of hiring some officials. 

"We thought, OK, we'll have a study and see if we can hire some of these people in row offices that don't necessarily have to be elected, and maybe we could get some more efficiency out of that," Panabaker said. "Because, if they aren't doing the job, then you could do something about it. You can hire people with good credentials. Not just the fact that they're breathing and they're 32 years old."

Still, Mason and Panabaker didn't sing only praises for the alternative government structures permitted under Idaho Code. Mason recognized the public interest in voting for their officials and the feeling of a voice in political processes.

Panabaker also touched on the fear many residents expressed that a city administrator could create an imbalance in authority. 

"If you have an administrator there as often as the commissioners, pretty soon they get to be the king or queen. They've got all the answers, they've got the corporate memory, that all the new people on the block don't know what's been going on for the last 10 years," Panabaker said. "That was a concern in a way, but it was also positive that you would have that memory." 

The commission will meet again June 23.