Two Bonner County commissioners were swarmed with complaints and threatened with lawsuits and a recall Thursday - one day after they had voted to abolish the county building department and fire its eight employees.
The radical move by Republicans Bud Mueller and Larry Allen put much of the business community in a stunned frenzy. Phones rang non-stop at the courthouse as callers worried about getting home loans, questioned whether they need a building inspection and wondered if they can get refunds on building permits.
“Everyone and their dog has called me,” said Building Director Bob Garrison, who will be without a job at the end of today. “People are outraged. They don’t believe something this stupid really happened.”
A group of bankers, builders and real estate agents already has hired an attorney. The group plans to sue the county, claiming commissioners acted like dictators and voted to eliminate the department at an illegal meeting. Employees who are losing jobs also may take legal action, while others are looking into trying to recall the commissioners.
Mueller and Allen have been in office only five days. According to Idaho law, a recall cannot take place until commissioners have served at least 90 days.
That is too long to wait to do something, said contractor Ivan Rimar, a spokesman for a group of about 65 business people and residents fighting the decision.
“We need to act now. This was not a democratic government in action; this was a fascist government,” Rimar said. “They are not representing the people of Bonner County, and we can’t let this type of government go on.”
The new commissioners campaigned for budget cuts and promised to deregulate the county. They kept their promise Wednesday, voting to eliminate all county building codes, institute a $10 building permit fee and ax the building department.
What outraged many was that commissioners did not discuss their plans with county workers, hid the item on the agenda for the meeting and took only two comments from the 100-plus residents at the meeting.
The commissioners had passed out their own policy days before, saying the public would be listened to and treated with respect.
“Then, here they have a meeting and refuse to allow any discussion on a major issue,” Rimar said. “Any sane person seeing that meeting has to say something is wrong here, kind of like watching the videotape of the Rodney King beating.”
The commissioners have been mum about their decision since Wednesday, when they said it is a moot issue and they would not reverse their vote.
Mueller said his campaign promises were no secret and no one should have been shocked he voted to abolish the department.
Some callers supported the commissioners, including a vast majority of the 100 people who telephoned county civil attorney John Topp.
“Some said, ‘What are they, nuts?’ but the majority were supportive,” Topp said, saying he does not understand the uproar. “From day one in their campaigns, the commissioners talked about this. Somebody must have thought it was a good idea because they got voted in.”
Former Idaho Gov. Don Samuelson, who lives in Bonner County, is solidly on the side of the new commissioners. He said contractors long have griped about problems in the department and had begged for changes.
“It’s one of those cases where you should be careful what you ask for because you just might get it,” Samuelson said. “These two are just following through on what they campaigned for. It’s been a long time coming and I support it.”
First Security Bank Manager Dave Christensen said 18 other counties in Idaho have no building departments, and loans for new homes still can be made there. It will require more paperwork and more work by homeowners and lenders, but it can be done.
“We don’t know all the ramifications yet, but we do know it will make it more difficult because the county used to take care of a lot of those details for the lenders,” he said.
But Christensen opposes dismantling the building department, saying that abolishing it is a drastic way to deal with minor problems in the department.
The Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce also opposed the commissioners’ action.
“This was a disservice to the citizens of Bonner County,” said chamber Executive Director Jonathan Coe. “While there certainly are ways in which the … building department could be improved, doing away with the department is not the solution.”
One major concern is that unsafe homes will be built and sold. The county will turn into a buyer-beware market, Coe said.
New homes still must be inspected by the state for plumbing, electrical and sewer systems.
“This won’t kill the economy,” Samuelson said. “Bankers will insist anything they put money into is done right. This will help the little guy afford a home by not paying outrageous building permit fees.”
As far as safety is concerned, Samuelson pointed to the new Sandpoint High School, which was built according to county codes. Its roof collapsed under heavy snow a few weeks ago while many of the county’s older buildings stood fast.
“That school was flattened, and it was done by architects and contractors and inspected,” he said. “What the commissioners did is not going to affect the safety of new homes.”