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County Courthouse Needs Streamlining

Tue., March 26, 1996

One of the best bills passed by the 1996 Idaho Legislature has received little fanfare.

After dragging their heels for a year, legislators hammered out the details for a constitutional amendment, passed in 1994 by 106,261 votes, that permits Idahoans to redesign their county governments.

Bigger counties, such as Ada and Kootenai, can jettison the archaic three-commissioner system for several other options. Meanwhile, smaller counties can choose to go together to fund such offices as prosecutor and sheriff.

The needs of and services provided by Kootenai County, with a population of almost 92,000, are far different from those of Benewah County, population 8,780. Yet, all Idaho counties have had the same cookie-cutter governments, each headed by a three-member Board of County Commissioners, since statehood.

The new law allows a commission-executive form of government, a commission-manager, a three-member commission with changes in one or more county offices, five- or seven-member commissions or a combination of these options. It allows counties to combine, eliminate or make appointive any of the countywide elected offices - such as treasurer, clerk, assessor and coroner.

Now, many county races are little more than beauty contests with personalities, public exposure and party affiliation more important than competence. The Kootenai County assessor’s race two years ago offers a case in point. A little-known challenger almost rode the Republican tidal wave to victory over eminently qualified Tom Moore, the Democratic assessor.

Currently, the city of Coeur d’Alene runs more smoothly than the county courthouse. The Coeur d’Alene mayor and his part-time council set policy, and city Administrator Ken Thompson and his staff carry it out. Department heads are screened for competence. Meanwhile, county government bumps along with nine elected officials sitting atop their own fiefdoms and sometimes pulling in opposite directions.

A move to revamp government can be triggered by county commissioners or by petitions signed by at least 15 percent of those who voted in the last general election. At a minimum, county commissioners should appoint blue-ribbon committees to investigate the current structure and recommend possible changes.

The November elections aren’t that far off; each Idaho county will elect two commissioners this year. Their campaigns and those for other county offices would provide a perfect setting to debate this complicated issue.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board

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