January 24, 1997 in Nation/World

Crowd Rallies Behind Bonner Commissioners Later, Opponents Ask Judge To Overturn Ruling Abolishing Building Department

By The Spokesman-Review

In the morning, it was a crowd of sign-waving supporters who rallied outside the Bonner County Courthouse. In the afternoon, it was an attorney-led band of residents who marched inside with a legal complaint.

So went the day for Republican Commissioners Larry Allen and Bud Mueller, who polarized the county by abolishing the building department and building codes and firing eight employees last week.

About 80 residents turned out in the snow Thursday morning to glad-hand the commissioners and cheer their decision.

“We voted them in to do this. They stuck by their promise and now it has some people upset, but we support them,” said Pete Hodgkins, 44. He walked at the courthouse with other supporters who held signs reading: “We won, you lost, quit whining,” “Serve the people, not bureaucracy” and “Good job, Bud and Larry.”

Hours after the rally, the Coalition for Responsible Government held its own gathering in an empty courtroom. The coalition - with 20 or so members - said the commissioners’ meeting to eliminate the building department was illegal and asked a judge to overturn the decision.

“They (Mueller and Allen) came in with a secret agenda, rammed it through and didn’t ask for any comments,” said coalition attorney Scott Reed. “Their actions were in blatant violation of the Idaho Open Meeting law, and we are asking a judge to declare their decision null and void.”

The two commissioners started the controversy their third day in office. At a business meeting attended by about 100 people, they stunned the room with a motion to ax the building department. Allen read a “position paper” he had drafted that concluded the department is not needed. Mueller allowed only two audience members to speak before voting to topple the department.

Commissioner Dale Van Stone, a Democrat, opposed the move. Mueller and Allen drafted the new law abolishing the department before the meeting, he said, accusing his companions of violating the open-meetings law. Van Stone has filed his own complaint with the county prosecutor.

“The way this thing came down was a violation of the public trust. It was shoved down everyone’s throat without having a review or discussion,” Van Stone said. “Something of this magnitude needs to be thought out.”

In the coalition’s complaint, Reed said commissioners failed to post the meeting agenda 48 hours in advance, did not state where the meeting was being held and did not include abolishing the building department on the agenda.

“All of that is a violation of Idaho law,” Reed said. “The decisions … were arrived at secretly by a quorum of the board of county commissioners.”

Since the county prosecutor, Phil Robinson, was at the meeting, Reed also called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to pursue a case against Mueller and Allen.

Allen had not yet seen the complaint, but was not surprised by it. He said he knew opponents would not go away “quietly,” and he is sticking by his decision.

“I am not considering reversing it. I would disappoint three quarters of the county if I did that,” he said. “I am very confident there were no violations of the Open-Meeting Law, and that the allegations have no merit.”

The commissioners’ backers at the courthouse Thursday said a lawsuit won’t matter. If there was a violation, Mueller and Allen will hold another meeting and make the same decision.

“We finally have commissioners who are concerned and want to give government back to the people,” said supporter Jerry Wootan. “When you cut government spending somebody loses jobs and power. Opponents knew that and they attacked these commissioners early and hard. We are here to respond to that attack.”

Those rallying for the two commissioners walked up and down First Avenue, foisting their signs in front of county and real estate office windows.

“These guys are doing precisely what they promised and re-promised for months when they campaigned. That is a first in politics. There are just a lot of poor losers in this county,” said Al Parker, a retired Priest River resident.

The two smiling commissioners greeted supporters on the sidewalk, which included a member of the Idaho Citizens Awareness Network (I-CAN), a patriot organization, and Dave Barley, pastor of America’s Promise Ministries, a Christian Identity church that has espoused antiSemitic doctrine.

“This shows we have a definite bloc of support. It’s great,” Allen said.

Many opposed to the commissioners radical move are bankers, builders and real estate agents. They are concerned about rising costs of insurance and loans for homeowners. Without codes, no one can ensure that a new home, business or school will be safe, said Kris Contor, a spokesman for the coalition.

“If no one makes sure there are smoke detectors or if there is a fire and no (exit) out of a bedroom, it’s possible lives could be lost because of this,” Contor said.

Commissioner Van Stone said the battle over the building department is likely to be “long, nutty and nasty.”

“This could be the best idea the county ever had, and it might work out perfectly, but let’s do it right and make sure everyone is in on it,” he said. “There are multiple issues here that still need to be addressed.” , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)

MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition

Cut in Spokane edition

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