It’s been seven months since Kootenai County voters ousted two-thirds of the county commission.
Yet Commission Chairman Gus Johnson and Commissioner Katie Brodie have had to linger in office – an often awkward situation of having to finish a job voters no longer want them to have.
“Everything got personal,” Johnson said, reflecting on the May Republican primary where he and Brodie lost their re-election bids. “I leave here kind of disheartened. But I still love this county.”
Brodie said it has been tough but that’s how the political system works. She believes she and Johnson were booted from office in a groundswell of a “throw the bums out” mentality. They were among 23 incumbent county commissioners in Idaho – two-thirds of the 34 who faced opposition on the primary election ballot – who were defeated in the primary.
Brodie expects that reality to put pressure on incoming commissioners Rich Piazza and Todd Tondee in addition to Commissioner Rick Currie, the only returning commissioner.
Tondee, who beat Johnson in the primary and went on to win against independent Tom Macy in the November general election, doesn’t see it the same way. To him, the incumbents lost because of their failure to listen to voters and their insistence that everything was working smoothly at the county.
Tondee also puts Currie in the same category but said he hopes Currie will change with the new commission.
“If he thinks he’s doing a good job, he’s wrong,” Tondee said.
The relationship between the outgoing commissioners and the incoming officials is anything but jovial. Both Brodie and Johnson refused to help the new commissioners with the transition into office, as is customary.
“There’s not a lot of reaching out to the other guy,” Johnson said. “I’ve had a difficult time turning the other cheek on this one.”
He said Tondee made the election personal and indulged in name-calling instead of focusing on issues.
“This idea that we are doing everything completely wrong is a fallacy,” Johnson said, adding that he made the best decisions he could and didn’t have the luxury of instant replay.
Piazza and Tondee will be sworn in Jan. 8 at 10 a.m. It’s expected Currie will become chairman, a mostly ceremonial position.
Here’s what each commissioner, including the lame ducks, has planned for the new year:
He expects to receive the chairmanship but said it’s not a job he will cherish. “At any time, if someone else wants the job, they are welcome,” Currie said.
His top priority is establishing a 24-hour observation facility for people picked up by law enforcement because they are drunk, on drugs or who have mental illness. Kootenai Medical Center now houses these patients at a cost the county can’t always afford. An observation center is a less expensive alternative, Currie said.
He also wants the commission to hire a planning director, a key position that has been vacant since June. The commission has interviewed several candidates, but Currie said the new commissioners might decide to start over with the search.
The retired county property assessor won the seat against Brodie after two previous unsuccessful bids. He claimed that he was the most honest and trustworthy candidate and lacked the political arrogance of the current board of commissioners.
Piazza said he’s finally in a position to tout his idea for county employees to get a group rate on health care benefits if they retire early. It’s a proposal he tried to get noticed when he was still an employee, but it never went anywhere.
Piazza also wants the commission to start having periodic open houses across the county. Residents could come and discuss problems and ideas. Local legislators already have similar gatherings to help them stay in touch with constituents, he said.
Charging developers impact fees to cover the cost of new growth is another priority on his list, as is finding a solution for the overcrowded jail.
“The public is my main interest,” Piazza said. “They are the ones everyone is working for.”
The Post Falls city councilman who owns a local pizza shop has a plethora of ideas. But one of the first things he wants accomplished is to appoint board members for the newly created Aquifer Protection District approved by voters in November. Residents who live above the Rathdrum Prairie aquifer will now pay an annual fee to protect the water underground, the region’s source of drinking water.
During the election, Tondee pushed the idea of hiring a county administrator. He knows Currie and Piazza oppose the concept, so his plan is to point out every instance where an administrator might have been helpful.
“I’m a realist,” he said. “But hopefully that will help get my point across.”
He sees hiring a planning director as a crucial need, and he will propose paying a headhunter to find the best candidate. Tondee also wants to hire planning consultants to help integrate Smart Code, a planning model that Post Falls has adopted.
Other necessities on his list are conducting a study so the county can charge developers impact fees; hiring a human resources director for the county; and focusing on reducing the amount of drugs in the area, even if it means lobbying the Legislature for tougher laws.
Brodie will start her new job as executive director of Concerned Businesses of North Idaho on Jan. 8. The nonprofit business group acts a government watchdog and has been actively lobbying the county to hire a city administrator and change the form of government.
That’s a position Brodie didn’t support as commissioner. She said in theory she believes a county administrator position is needed. Yet she doesn’t know how it can work with the current form of government.
Brodie described her two years as commissioner as wonderful, educational and eye-opening.
She said her greatest accomplishment was voting with the other commissioners this year not to take the entire 3 percent increase in property taxes allowed each year by Idaho law. That will save taxpayers $889,000. Taxpayers also saved $1.1 million because the county only took 54 percent of the new growth available.
Her biggest frustration with the job was that the commission didn’t have more communication and teamwork with other elected officials.
As she leaves office, Brodie said she has no regrets.
“There’s a huge difference between losing an election and being defeated,” Brodie said. “I will never feel as though I’m defeated.”
The former Post Falls mayor who served as commissioner for six years doesn’t yet have a job but said he’s looking forward to returning to his blue-collar roots and spending time with his seven grandsons.
“I’m looking for a position where I can ride off into the sunset, just like Roy Rogers,” said Johnson, a third-generation Kaiser Aluminum worker.
Johnson said he is “99 percent sure” he won’t run for elected office again.
The highlight of his commission career was cobbling together the new Emergency Medical Services system in which paramedics and advanced emergency medical technicians consolidated with local fire districts. It was a move in 2002 that resuscitated the old system, which was in crisis, in debt and in danger of laying off dozens of employees.
One of his regrets was not lobbying harder for a $50 million sales tax proposal on the November 2005 ballot to expand the county jail while giving property owners tax relief, Johnson said Friday.
Since his primary election loss, Johnson stopped talking to the news media on most occasions and said he has had a difficult time dealing with the public, especially people who he said made his election loss personal. Johnson said the situation affected his family life.
“The last six months have been really difficult,” he said. “You go through it and end up a better person by not joining in and trying to defend yourself.”
Yet Johnson called himself a survivor and said he’s ready to move on. “I tried to do my best for Kootenai County and I thank (the voters) for that opportunity.”