The clashes between old and new Idaho aren’t hard to find in Bonner County, where massive new mansions and expensive coffee shops have all but elbowed out the backwoods shacks and beer joints.
Some of the tensions between old and new are surfacing in the increasingly heated race for control of the county’s board of commissioners.
The campaign began with upsets when the two commissioners facing re-election were unseated by fellow Republicans during the May primary. Lewis Rich beat first-term commissioner Karl Dye in eastern Bonner County’s District 3 by capturing 54 percent of the vote. Former Commissioner Bud Mueller nudged out sitting District 1 commissioner Marcia Phillips by a similar margin.
But Dye isn’t giving up. He has mounted a spirited write-in campaign for the Nov. 7 general election and has taken in $20,351 in contributions, which is nearly six times higher than Rich’s tally. Rich has no Democratic opponent.
Mueller and his Democrat challenger, Todd Crossett, are neck and neck in fundraising, each having raised about $8,000. Independent Wayne Stotts, of Clark Fork, is running a largely self-financed write-in campaign.
Mueller and Rich are running on platforms that call for smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation.
Rich, 59, said he was prompted to run because he thought the current commission was out of touch and not accountable to taxpayers. One of his main causes is to create what he calls a more “user-friendly county government,” which is what he said he experienced upon moving to the county nearly 30 years ago.
“When I had a problem, they wanted to work with me; they didn’t mess around,” said Rich, a volunteer firefighter and owner of an auto repair shop. “You can’t do that now. They’re not public servants – there’s a few offices that are exceptions, but very few.”
Rich’s top causes include ensuring no new taxes are levied without direct approval by voters and holding as many county meetings as possible in the evening – a time more accessible to people who work during the day. Rich would also like to see developers pay impact fees.
Mueller did not return at least five phone calls over the past week, but many of his views are spelled out on his Web site and can also be gleaned by looking at his performance as a commissioner during the late 1990s.
As a commissioner, Mueller helped dismantle the county’s building department. He also fired the county’s road superintendent and solid waste supervisor and at one point threatened to withhold bulletproof vests from the Sheriff’s Office during a battle over law enforcement spending.
Judging from his Web site, Mueller, a retired building contractor, does not appear to have changed his views much, including that the county “must get out of the business of over-regulating people’s lives and their property.” On his site, Mueller also describes a house he built shortly after moving to the region in 1962: “The house is still sturdy and beautiful despite having had no building inspection.”
In a recent editorial, the publisher of the local newspaper in Sandpoint urged residents against voting for either Mueller or Rich, saying the two men, if elected, “would be the conductors on the biggest train wreck this county has ever seen.”
Crossett, the Democrat running against Mueller, is much more tempered in the remarks he makes about his opponent, saying only, “We have different management styles, different ways of going about things.”
Crossett, 41, runs an international consulting firm that focuses on doing business in Russia’s far east. Working with bureaucrats from the former Soviet Union has affected the style he would bring to county government.
“You find a way to work with people,” Crossett said of his business. “There’s a big difference between leading and imposing your will. You can’t just walk in and boss people around. You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to work with them.”
If elected, Crossett said, his focus would include lobbying for property tax reform at the state level, bringing more openness to county government and streamlining the planning-and-zoning process. He stressed that his mind isn’t made up exactly how these issues should be reformed.
“Good discussion begets good ideas,” he said.
Then there’s Dye, the former Litehouse Foods sales and marketing manager, who is hoping people will remember his name (and exact spelling) when they enter the ballot booth in two weeks. Dye, 39, attributes his upset in the primary to low voter turnout. If he’s given another chance to serve, Dye said, his focus would continue to be tax reform at the state level, improving county roads and resolving disputes over the county’s emergency management system.
When Dye was asked to describe how he is different from his fellow Republicans, Mueller and Rich, he said the two men have “very extreme right-wing views.” In Dye’s view, “The middle of the road is where good decisions are made.”