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Review panel’s role in jeopardy

A citizen board that reviews the suspension and firing of sheriff’s deputies is upset that the Kootenai County Commission might forgo the volunteer board in favor of a paid hearing officer.

The county commission is considering the change on the recommendation of its insurance company, saying it’s a way to reduce the county’s chances of getting sued.

Kootenai County is the only Idaho county insured by Idaho Counties Risk Management Program that has a three-member volunteer Merit Commission.

Merit Commission member Virginia Balser, a former 1st District magistrate, said it makes no sense to switch from the three-member citizen committee – all people with backgrounds in law enforcement or law – to a single hearing examiner. She said it will ultimately cost the county money and breed distrust in a sheriff’s department that already suffers from low morale and high turnover.

“Do you think if you put in a hearing examiner you’re never going to get sued?” Balser asked. “It’s just trading one group for the other. What’s the purpose?”

Dan Gregg, president of the Kootenai County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, is opposed to switching to a hearing officer to review discipline cases. He said the deputies respect the Merit Commission.

“People may automatically go to litigation and skip this process,” Gregg said.

Under the county’s proposed changes, the Merit Commission would no longer review discipline appeals. Instead the county would contract with a hearing examiner. The county would pick the examiner, likely an attorney specializing in employment law, from a pool of three qualified examiners. The deputy appealing the sheriff’s decision could disqualify the initial examiner.

After the hearing examiner rules, either party could appeal the decision to the county commission.

The citizen board would retain its ability to review sheriff’s department promotions, although board members alleged that the sheriff rarely asks the board to review promotions.

During the last 12 years, the Merit Commission has convened only twice to hear an appeal. Kootenai County Commissioners Rick Currie and Todd Tondee said the change is needed and that deputies have no reason to worry. Commissioner Rich Piazza wasn’t clear on whether he supported the proposal but said either way deputies need protection.

“They (ICRMP) watch us extremely close and this is one of the things they talked to us about,” Currie said.

The commission hasn’t scheduled a date to make a final decision. But the commission will decide today whether to reappoint Balser and Bob Rosin to the Merit Commission.

The Merit Commission members asked the county commissioners several times why there is a need for a change, especially when recent settlement agreements paid to county employees had nothing to do with the review board’s decision.

Rosin, a retired FBI agent, questioned why the insurance company is dictating county rules.

Deputy County Attorney Pat Braden said the insurance company would prefer that the county disband the Merit Commission, not just revise its duties.

ICRMP Executive Director Rick Ferguson wasn’t available for comment Monday.

Sheriff Rocky Watson didn’t attend Monday’s meeting between the commission and the citizen board. Last week he said he had no position on whether the Merit Commission should review discipline appeals.

Watson wants the county commission to clarify that the Merit Commission can’t act as a hiring board. He said he would still use the citizen board to review all promotions, except captains.

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