It’s winner-take-office for the Kootenai County Commission candidates in the May 15 primary.
There are no Democrats or third-party candidates vying for the office that oversees a wide variety of functions, including land-use decisions, solid waste treatment and property tax assessment appeals.
That means the top vote-getters in both the District 1 and District 3 races will take office in January without having to compete in the November general election, which isn’t uncommon in fiercely Republican Kootenai County. Currently, no Democrat holds elected county, state or federal office there.
In the District 1 race, where the commission represents the entire county, Commission Chairman Todd Tondee, of Post Falls, is seeking his third term and faces four challengers living in the western section of the county. Even though all the candidates are Republicans, their backgrounds and experience are varied.
Both Gerald Arno and Bruce Noble previously ran as Democrats. Noble lost to Tondee in the 2008 election and had two failed bids for the Post Falls Highway Commission.
The former Democrats are notable in a year where the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee is splintered into at least three groups varying in conservative ideology. Some Republicans have complained that the local party has been infiltrated by Constitution and Libertarian party members.
The two other candidates in the prominent race are Tim Herzog, a real estate agent who ran against Tondee in 2008, and Marc Eberlein, an unsuccessful candidate for the Post Falls Highway District and political newcomer who was endorsed by the United Conservatives of Kootenai County, the most conservative faction of the local Republicans.
Arno, who is a U.S. Army retiree and former Bothell, Wash., high school history and government teacher, and Noble, an engineer and surveyor who owns a renewable-energy development company, both say they are more fiscally conservative than the Democratic Party but more liberal with social issues that really aren’t involved with county decisions. Noble also touts his strong belief in private property rights, stemming from his land-use background.
Noble said he learned in 2008 that it’s nearly impossible for a Democrat to get elected in Kootenai County. He doesn’t think the County Commission should be partisan.
He and Tondee are the only two candidates who support restructuring county government and the potential hiring of a county administrator or manager, which would make Kootenai County the only county in Idaho with a structure similar to many cities.
Tondee and the two other current commissioners, including Dan Green who is seeking re-election in the May primary, have asked the prosecutor to draft a ballot measure for the November election asking voters if they want the commission to hire a county manager.
The measure also would allow the commission to appoint the county assessor, clerk, coroner and treasurer. These officials are currently elected.
Noble wants the commission expanded to include five part-time commissioners, preferably nonpartisan.
Arno, Eberlein and Herzog oppose any government restructuring. Arno calls it “foolishness,” while Herzog is opposed to the idea of hiring a county administrator. Eberlein, a cabinet-maker and North Dakota rock quarry owner, counts his opposition as one of his main campaign issues.
Another main issue in the election, as is common in a growing lake resort area like Kootenai County, is land use and rules for development. Although the poor economy has slowed the area’s rapid growth, the controversial issue of where and how to allow homes, especially on the area’s waterways and steep mountain slopes, remains hot-button. Most of the candidates talk about preserving private property rights and not allowing the county to usurp those rights in the name of regulation.
The county is in the process of rewriting zoning and subdivision rules, which Tondee said is a balance of preserving property rights and allowing residents to develop their land while protecting sensitive areas, especially Lake Coeur d’Alene. He said the current rules are contradictory and old, meaning almost every land-use proposal must go to a public hearing.
“Our goal is to have it less regulatory than today but have a clear path on what you can and can’t do,” Tondee said.
Eberlein argues the county is taking property rights and adding rules that prevent building or make it punitively expensive. He said that talk of “smart growth” and “open space” are just “eye candy” that’s being “stuffed down our throats.”
Arno’s top issue is better funding of law enforcement to bolster resident safety, including hiring more deputies. Yet he opposed building new “legacy” buildings such as a jail or new justice building with a parking garage.
Herzog’s main concern is reducing bureaucracy and restoring confidence in county government, especially among county employees. He said there are too many discontented employees.
The current commission, including Tondee, has eliminated 20 staff positions in an effort to make government more efficient and cut costs.
“We’re trying to maintain the business perspective,” said Tondee, who owns a used-car lot. He said the commission is also trying to keep property taxes low.