BOISE – Gov. Butch Otter has appointed an eastern Idaho city councilwoman to the state House despite concerns raised by local Republicans that the selection process may have contained serious flaws.
Otter announced Wednesday he selected Idaho Falls Councilwoman Barbara Ehardt to replace outgoing GOP Rep. Janet Trujillo. Trujillo, a three term representative from Idaho Falls, is leaving her District 33 legislative seat to serve on the Idaho State Tax Commission.
According to emails provided by Otter’s office, the Republican governor received multiple letters from residents claiming the process used to select the three possible replacement candidates may have violated state law and Idaho Republican Party rules.
“We bring this to your intention given the critical importance that this process be followed with exactness,” wrote Nathan Olsen, an Idaho Falls-based attorney, to Otter’s office on Dec. 22. “The selection of a person to fill an open legislative seat that is normally an elected person is extraordinary and has significant implications to the citizens of the affected legislative district.”
Others who reached out to Otter’s office included Idaho Falls Police Department spokeswoman Holly Cook and Republican Party volunteers John and Coleen Erickson.
The contention revolves around one of the state’s 35 Republican legislative district committees.
State law dictates that legislative district committees are in charge of finding three nominees to send to the governor if a GOP lawmaker prematurely leaves office. And under party rules, the only person who can call a legislative district committee is the legislative district committee chairman.
The chairman of the District 33 legislative committee is Stafford Smith, who has been out of the country for several weeks.
Olsen, as well as a handful of others who reached out to Otter, argue the meeting was improperly scheduled by Vice Chairman Tony Potts – a Republican who was recently appointed to the Idaho Senate by Otter – using a Bonneville County Republican Central Committee email.
“The so called ‘notice of election for the office of state representatives’ attached to the notice sent by the Bonneville County Republican Central Committee does not suffice,” Olsen wrote. “By law the central committee is a completely separate entity.”
Otter’s spokesman Mark Warbis says the governor’s office was aware of the concerns, but decided to appoint a replacement in order to fulfill the statutory responsibility of filling the seat before the Dec. 30 deadline.
In Idaho, the governor has 15 days to select one of the three candidates provided by the legislative district committee. If no appointment is made within that timeline, the legislative district committee designates the replacement.
David Hensley, Otter’s chief of staff, added that he consulted with Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, Secretary of State Lawerence Denney and the legal counsel of the Idaho Republican Party while reviewing the issue.
The decision is important because Republican lawmakers in GOP-dominant Idaho rarely face competitive primary elections once elected or appointed to a legislative seat and tend to easily fend off Democratic opponents in general elections.
Olsen said Thursday he’s not planning on taking legal action to challenge Otter’s selection but didn’t know if anybody else might.
“I’m not surprised by Otter’s decision, but I am disappointed,” Olsen said.
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