In January, Dick Panabaker said Kootenai County commissioners agreed “not to cut each other’s throats” when they disagreed.
Five months later, no one’s gotten a scratch.
All but one of the board’s more than 200 decisions have been unanimous, a review of voting records from January to May shows.
A handful of the votes have been 2-0, when one of the three commissioners was out of town. But the allRepublican commission has registered a united voice in 146 nongrowth-related decisions and 50-plus planning votes.
The lone discordant note was heard Feb. 22, when senior Commissioner Bob Macdonald voted against a zoning change for a controversial machine shop project. On March 22, he flip-flopped and joined the majority in approving that request.
This record fuels fears among critics that the commissioners office has become a one-man show, led by Chairman Dick Compton.
“In Panabaker and Macdonald, we’re seeing two people who seem to have lost the power of speech,” said County Democratic Party Chair Bob Brown.
Commissioners scoff at the criticism and say they merely share a conservative ideology. They point out that Panabaker or Macdonald initiate most votes and that previous commissioners feuded.
As the board heads into its sixth month together, one thing is clear: Compton and Panabaker are making headway on promises of action. The question is, are they taking Kootenai County where it wants to go?
Supporters say commissioners are meticulously saving county taxpayers money, one dollar at a time.
Critics argue commissioners are using the weight of their office to trample the environment, leaving neighbors of development in the settling dust. They fear big business will be the sole victors.
When they took office in January, the two newcomers said they would reduce the cost of government, reduce regulation and provide leadership. They tout these accomplishments:
They consolidated county purchasing without hiring a new person. County Clerk Tom Taggart estimates savings will be $50,000 yearly.
They reorganized the county’s worker’s compensation insurance and expect to save another $50,000 this year.
They provided management training for department heads who came up through county ranks.
They drafted a county mission statement, put together an employee performance manual and employee recognition program and are reevaluating wage plans.
They convinced county departments to submit the lowest budget requests in recent memory, and are lobbying other taxing districts to keep budgets down.
“They’ve learned there is no million-dollar pot out there,” said Taggart, a Democrat who actively campaigned against both commissioners last fall. “But they’re finding $10,000 here and there where they can make savings.”
The commissioners fellow conservatives, vary in their praise.
“From what I understand, they are making decisions and doing a good job,” said attorney Peter Erbland.
“It’s easy to deal in platitudes, but we’ve seen nothing yet,” said tax activist Ron Rankin. “They said they would cut taxes. If tax bills go down, then they will have done well.”
“We really think it’s too early to tell,” said Pat Raffee, executive director for Concerned Businesses of North Idaho.Brown begrudgingly concedes
commissioners may save some money, but contends the overall cost will be great. He said the commissioners’ financial skill is offset by their willingness to lead a parade of development and a perception that commissioners favor friends and supporters - a charge the board denies.
Critics point to the following:
In February, commissioners allowed developer John Pointner to put in machine shops above the aquifer without forcing him to hook up to a sewer system. The city of Hayden may stretch sewer lines to the project, but the county’s most senior planning commissioner was so dismayed he sued commissioners.
In April, the board secretly met with a Post Falls city councilman without consulting angry neighbors and allowed him to run motorcycles around his private racetrack. Commissioners temporarily delayed the decision when The SpokesmanReview questioned the private meeting, but neighbors still filed suit.
Later that month, commissioners sought comment on revisions to a subdivision law by quietly passing it on to a handful of developers. Several of the developers were Compton campaign supporters.
In May, the board approved a 230-acre gravel pit over the aquifer without reviewing all the records from meetings between Interstate Concrete and Asphalt, neighbors and previous commissioners. Neighbors have threatened a suit and are discussing a recall petition.
Commissioners have approved 22 of 23 requests to develop, change zoning or divide property.
“On land-use decisions, commissioners deserve an absolute acrossthe-board F,” Rankin said.
Rankin and others charge that the board is showing favoritism, particularly to the 60-member group Concerned Businesses, of which Interstate President Bruce Cyr is a member.
Compton aggressively defends most of the board’s decisions and argues he never talked to Cyr about the gravel pit.
Critics say talk between Compton and Cyr was not needed.
“Overtly or subliminally, that board is bowing to influence from Concerned Businesses, whether they realize it or not,” Rankin said.
Compton does admit acting hastily on the Post Falls racetrack issue. That holds little sway with neighbors, who complain the board’s initial reaction was to defend a fellow elected official.
“There’s lots of room for improvement,” said State Line resident Lynn Humphreys, who fought the board on the racetrack issue. “Birds of a feather flock together and if you sleep in the same nest with the commissioners, you’ll get special privileges. Nothing has happened to change my mind.”
Some observers, like Blackwell Hill resident Gertrude Hanson, maintain Compton, a former IBM marketing executive, is struggling with the transition from boardrooms to the scrutiny of public office.
Last month, Compton sent letters to the governor and all three members of Idaho’s congressional delegation on Kootenai County stationery. His request: that each send his mother, daughter of an Idaho homesteader, a personalized message for her 100th birthday on June 8.
“I think it’s really fine that he wanted them to celebrate that birthday; that request doesn’t need to come from a commissioner,” Hanson said. “But it carries more weight when it does.”
The accusations and insinuations leave Compton weary, angry and insulted. “I can’t change perception,” he said. “I know I’m honest.”
He keeps a quote from Abraham Lincoln on his desk.
“If I were to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business,” the quote reads. “I do the very best I know how - the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end.”
Former commissioner Frank Henderson said the commissioners are doing well.
“They’ve been responsive and they’ve had the leadership sense to try and bring people together,” he said. “Remember, we won’t find perfection in our elected officials any sooner than we find it in ourselves.”
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