The Idaho Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered Kootenai County commissioners to replace Assessor G. Ray Lee with another Democrat.
The decision ends a tumultuous legal battle over which political party has the right to name a successor to longtime assessor Tom Moore, who died in November.
“We’re disappointed,” said Commissioner Dick Compton. “We had entered into this with a great deal of thought. We tried to pick the person who would do the best job.”
The debate has even led to legislation, now before the Senate, setting out guidelines for officeholders who wish to change parties.
By law, when an officeholder dies or resigns, his party gets to nominate three people as possible replacements. Commissioners are required to choose from among them.
But Moore, elected as a Democrat, had changed parties on his deathbed to give his deputy, Republican Mike McDowell, a shot at his post.
Democrats cried foul, and Prosecutor Bill Douglas agreed. He said Moore’s conversion didn’t change the fact that he was elected as a Democrat.
Democrats submitted a list of three candidates: a member of Kootenai Environmental Alliance, a soil conservation commissioner, and a former legislator who was an assessor in Boundary County 30 years ago.
Republicans later named three candidates. That list included McDowell and Lee, a one-time Democrat and commercial appraiser who recently had retired from the assessors office, but who was not chosen by the Democrats.
Commissioners chose Lee.
They said they’d wanted to not disrupt the office by naming someone without experience. But they also didn’t want to incite the Democrats by choosing McDowell, who has promised to seek election to the office in 1998 as a Republican.
“It was a political power grab we tried to avoid,” Compton said.
Democrats filed suit, leading to Wednesday’s decision.
The court gave commissioners 21 days to pick a new official. Compton said they probably will choose from the Democrats’ list without reinterviewing the candidates.
The nominees are: former legislator Marv Vandenberg; Harrison rancher and soil conservation commissioner Don Heikkila; and KEA member Susan K. Smith.
Attempts to reach Democrat Party Chair Linda Payne were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Lee, who had come out of retirement to accept the appointment, also was unavailable.
But colleagues said the 65-year-old probably won’t mind returning to retirement.
“He knew what the upsides and downsides were at the time of the appointment,” McDowell said. “But I think he’ll be disappointed. We felt like we had a good working system and Ray was a good contributor to the office.”