A crowded ballot for Kootenai County Commissioner District 3 shows some familiar names.
In 2016, Bob Bingham edged Leslie Duncan in the last Kootenai County commissioner primary. Bingham earned 29.2 percent of the votes and Duncan earned 28.6 percent, a difference of 69 votes. Bingham then beat Russell McLain, who ran as an independent, in the 2016 general election for the commissioner seat.
Now all three will face off on the primary ballot Tuesday, with three newcomers joining them: Republicans Luke Sommer and Bob Thornton, and Democrat Ruben Miranda, who will advance to the fall ballot.
The commission’s three seats each cycle through two two-year terms followed by a four-year term. The District 3 seat currently up for election would be held for a four-year term.
One of the hot-button issues the commissioners faced last month was whether to allow an opt-out option for building codes on residential homes on lots of more than 5 acres of buildable land. Proponents said state codes already cover plumbing, sewage, mechanical and electrical codes – the most important codes in enforcement, they said.
Bingham, along with Commissioner Marc Eberlein, voted to allow the opt-out. Bingham said his vote is an effort to reduce regulations.
While the vote was followed by some backlash, a number of Bingham’s challengers said they would have voted the same way. “Right now it doesn’t change that much,” Sommer said of the opt-out. “It affects few people.”
He added that he’d be concerned if the new requirement began to cause health or safety issues.
Duncan said she wasn’t sure how she would have voted on the issue. “I am for allowing property owners the option to choose to stay with the county permit process or be able to find private plan review and inspections,” Duncan said.
Some candidates expressed opposition to the move. Miranda said he sees why people didn’t want codes – the process was too long and there was too much back-and-forth between the various parties involved, he said – but he would like to reverse the building codes decision.
“It was kind of like a tattoo. It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said.
A former firefighter, Thornton said the opt-out program puts the county in a predicament, and his experience has led him to understand the importance of building codes. He said if elected, he would aim to reverse the decision.
McClain said he wants the building codes back in place for county residents outside the city.
Besides building codes, county commissioner candidates expressed a range of topics they want to focus on.
One stems from a January decision to allow tiny home villages to be built outside the city. Proponents say such projects could serve as transitional housing.
The caveat: The projects would have to apply for a conditional use permit, and commissioners would vote on each one after reviewing details. Those details could include criminal background checks, or organizers could be required to pass drug tests.
“Truly, this is just taking care of our own,” Bingham said, adding that he wouldn’t support any measure that would increase crime or lower the quality of life for county residents.
McClain said he wants the transitional housing to be in the city, so people have better access to resources like libraries without needing extra transportation. Sommer said he also wants transitional houses in the city.
McClain said he wants to give raises to county employees. “They need to be recognized at least,” he said.
To fight the opioid crisis, McClain said he wants to increase the price of heroin by disrupting supply, but did not elaborate.
“Needles stretch from one end of the county to the other,” he said.
He also wants the county to offer more internships to urge young professionals to work in the county. “Our biggest failure is we don’t have a workforce,” he said. “Any smart kid gets out of here fast.”
The county approved the hiring of a business analyst recently, and Bingham is in the process of filling the spot. That job will oversee a master plan for the county, and make the county more transparent “so people can take a look at the checkbook” and be involved, Bingham said.
Some of the candidates voiced opposition to the hiring. Duncan and Sommer both said they wouldn’t have voted to create the position. They said it is unnecessary. Duncan said spending outside the budget has been a problem, and she only wants to approve items that can’t wait until the next budget.
Miranda is concerned about environmental damage to lakes and waterways. He wants to limit or stop code variances that would harm the shoreline area of the lakes.
Serving a two-year term, Bingham said he was unhappy with the brevity of the county commissioners’ time in office. “You take office in January and then you have to run again next January,” he said. He also said the county doesn’t have a five-year plan, causing too much sway in finding solutions for issues.
Bingham is hoping to continue work on the Kootenai County Jail’s expansion project. He’s also trying to transfer the county’s system for hiring public defenders to the state because new rules being pushed from the capital are going to cause an increase in costs for public defenders. Bingham said he wants to improve parking and keep property taxes low.
The winner among the five Republicans will face Miranda, a Democrat, in the general election in November.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter