BOISE – In the conservative crucible of Idaho’s far north, a tea party leader aiming to slim down government has a new title: government employee.
Pam Stout, a tea party activist interviewed by late-night TV’s David Letterman last year, landed a $25,000-a-year, 19-hour-a-week post heading the Bonner County Property Rights Council.
Stout is recruiting volunteers to this new arm of local government to advise county commissioners about slashing spending, free-market alternatives to regulations, and intervening in disputes with Washington, D.C., bureaucrats. Not everybody need apply, she said.
“If you don’t have a free-market perspective, you’d be uncomfortable,” said Stout, whose title is paralegal assistant, though she’s not a trained paralegal.
Some people are responding warily to what they see as an ideologically motivated panel installed inside the courthouse, funded with taxpayer dollars and blessed by elected leaders.
They fear its work could have a chilling effect on county employees trying to uphold local, state and federal laws, particularly those protecting the environment.
“Government should be inclusionary,” said Terry Harris, director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. “This is a layer of bureaucracy by ideologues who you would think would be opposed to bureaucracy. It’s spending where you’d think they’d be opposed to spending money.”
This new council is the first of its kind in Idaho, said county Commissioner Cornel Rasor, who rejected Harris’ suggestion that it’s a right-wing shock troop aiming to gut government from the inside while on the public’s dime.
Too often, he said, government has only this message: “Shut down, regulate, close and control.”
“We’re not taking anything away from people who believe property should be regulated,” Rasor said. “We’re simply providing an alternative perspective that was never there before.”
Clare Marley, the county planning director, was out of the office and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Rasor, the council’s founder, and the two other county commissioners are due to vote Tuesday on formalizing how the council is run.
Its seven charter members – including a former Republican commission candidate, GOP officials, tea party activist and Planning Commission member – are already getting started.
Their first tasks include figuring out how to jettison the historical society, extension agency and county fairgrounds from taxpayer support, Stout said.
On Oct. 6, they initiated an investigation of how the county might intervene in a dispute between a couple and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after the agency declared their property near Priest Lake a wetland.
Council members will also vet proposed county watershed rules that could limit junkyards, landfills, feedlots and hazardous materials near Lake Pend Oreille and Priest Lake, to make sure the regulations don’t meddle too much in individual freedoms.
The council is being advised by the State Policy Network, a free-market California think tank that aims “to push back against an oppressive federal government,” according to its website. The Idaho Freedom Foundation, the network’s Idaho branch, will teach classes on free-market theories to council volunteers, Stout said, including using a text called “Government Failure” supplied by the libertarian Cato Institute.
Pushing back against the federal government is hardly a novel concept in Bonner County, where many people have moved to live out their own fiercely held beliefs of independence.
Ruby Ridge, the remote mountain sanctuary where Randy Weaver’s deadly 1992 standoff with federal agents helped inspire the militia movement, is just to the north.
And love for Washington, D.C., wasn’t exactly inspired earlier this year when federal prosecutors alleged violations of the federal Endangered Species Act against a North Idaho man who shot a grizzly bear just south of the Canadian border. The man said he was acting in defense of his children. He eventually paid a $1,000 fine.
“This kind of attitude at the federal government level has created that kind of a backlash, particularly here in northern Idaho where we’re more conservative,” said county Commissioner Mike Nielsen, a former law enforcement officer from Alaska who lives in a home at the end of a mile-long driveway and has three propane tanks to keep it heated.
It’s not just the feds, Nielsen said. During his 2010 campaign, voters told him again and again they were under siege from county land use regulators.
“What I was told was, ‘Mike, we need somebody to protect our property rights,’ ” Nielsen said. “It’s like we own the land, but the government or someone else is telling us how to use it.”