Two Bonner County commissioners broke the law when they voted to abolish the building department, fire its eight employees and rid the county of building codes, a judge ruled Thursday.
The decision by 1st District Court Judge James Michaud prompted the county to suspend issuing its new $10 building permits.
County officials are unsure exactly what the ruling means and met privately Thursday to discuss it.
“We don’t agree with all aspects of it (the ruling),” said Commissioner Larry Allen. “I can’t tell you what the board will do at this point, but there are several avenues to take.”
The county and opponents of the building department ban are at odds over whether the court ruling means the county must reinstate building codes, reopen the building department and hire back its fired workers.
County officials don’t believe the ruling invalidates some 300 building permits issued since the department was eliminated, but admit a lot of legal questions are still up in the air.
One thing both sides agree on, however, is the county taxpayers are going to have to dish out money to pay for the commissioners violation of the state open meetings law. It could cost thousands of dollars in attorney fees, back pay for employees and damages.
“Even without this ruling, we have lost money for taxpayers trying to cover all the loose ends this caused,” said Commissioners Dale Van Stone. He opposed the plan and said he was never consulted about abolishing codes, the department or firing workers.
The plan, hatched by Commissioners Larry Allen and Bud Mueller, was suppose to save the county money.
“To pay this thing off it’s going to come right out of the taxpayer’s pocket. This was totally irresponsible by Mueller and Allen and really leaves us hanging,” Van Stone said.
At least three lawsuits have been filed against the county since the department was abolished in January. The eight fired workers are suing for back wages and about $8.8 million in damages. One basis for the lawsuit is that commissioners violated the open meetings law when they fired the employees.
“This decision seems to support their cause and the other suits that have been filed,” Van Stone said. “This raises a lot of legal questions about where the county stands and how we comply with the judge’s order.”
On Jan. 15, two days after being sworn in, Mueller and Allen voted to eliminate the building department. The item Allen posted on the public agenda only referred to “revision of Title 11, BCRC.”
A group of citizens, the Coalition for Responsible Government, said that item was too vague, violating the Open Meeting law and the public’s right to know. Judge Michaud agreed it was not proper notice.
“It gave not even a hint of the matters to be considered,” Michaud said. “The notice … was insufficient, ambiguous, misleading, and unintelligible to the average citizen.”
He ruled the repeal of the building code, abolition of the building department and firing of eight employees is null and void. The county was also told to pay attorney fees to the coalition. The total fee is yet to be set.
“What this has done for Bonner County is bring it back to sanity,” said coalition attorney Scott Reed. “It reinstates the code and the whole building department which satisfies the objective of the coalition.”
County prosecutor Phil Robinson disagrees. The judge’s opinion does not mean workers will be back on the job or the department will reopen. The county can file an appeal or ask the judge to reconsider his decision.
“Those are both options we are keeping open,” Robinson said. Another possibility is to create an agenda item that is more detailed and abolish the department again at an upcoming meeting.
Since the judge also ruled the commissioners do not have to hold a public hearing to eliminate the department it can be done rather quickly, Robinson said.
Commissioner Allen insists the previous agenda item was legal and understood by the public. Why else would 100-plus people have attended the meeting, he said.
His personal preference is to go back and abolish the department again to satisfy the legal requirements. “I’m really not worried about any of it,” he added. “I believe and I am confident everything was done proper.”
Van Stone said he would not be surprised if his counterparts take aim at the building department one more time. If they do, he hopes there would be public hearings so the public can air its concerns.
“The public’s trust was already violated. This was a deliberate action that should have never taken place,” he said. “There is a better way to do business than what was done Jan. 15.”
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