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Kootenai County voters reject hospital candidates most skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines, protocols; back GOP-recommended candidates in library races

UPDATED: Wed., May 19, 2021

Kootenai Health photographed in Coeur d'Alene on Aug. 16, 2019.  (Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Kootenai Health photographed in Coeur d'Alene on Aug. 16, 2019. (Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Kootenai County voters on Tuesday rejected two candidates for the board of North Idaho’s largest hospital backed by the local Republican Party, but approved two GOP picks to sit on the board of the rural library district.

In a contest that saw more than 50,700 votes cast, the six candidates for the board that runs Kootenai Health were separated by less than 900 votes. Voters selected Bob McFarland, a retired medical doctor who served as Kootenai Health’s chief of staff; Steve Matheson, the Kootenai County treasurer; and incumbent board member Katie Brodie, a former Kootenai County commissioner and former chair of the local Republican Party.

The election was one of three in the county that drew criticism from residents concerned that the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee had injected itself into the race by recommending candidates through a questionnaire that, among other things, asked about the candidates’ conservative bona fides. Brent Regan, chairman of the committee, defended the process and said the party was pleased with Tuesday’s results.

“We recommended 10 candidates, and eight of them won,” Regan said Wednesday.

The two that didn’t were Duke Johnson and Chris Nordstrom, candidates for the hospital board who opposed mandatory COVID-19 vaccines as a condition of employment at the hospital and said they’d support loosening mask mandates at the hospital if elected. Matheson said in an interview earlier this month he was running mostly out of concern about perceived mission creep from the community hospital and would listen to experts as a member of the board on health issues. Incumbent Dr. Terence Neff, a retired pediatrician, was ousted from the board in Tuesday’s election. Neff, Brodie and McFarland had backed each other’s campaigns.

Voters outside the city limits of Coeur d’Alene elected two GOP-backed challengers for seats on the board of the Community Library Network, Vanessa Robinson and Rachelle Ottosen. Robinson and Ottosen earned 31.5% and 29.3% of votes cast in Kootenai and Shoshone counties to defeat incumbents Michele Veale and Bob Fish, the latter of whom raised questions about the central committee’s influence in the nonpartisan race.

Robinson and Ottosen ran on platforms calling for fiscal responsibility and suggesting that some materials espousing social justice issues should be moved from the children’s sections of the library. Veale and Fish countered that the board had not increased taxes during the COVID-19 pandemic, a first for the board, and that there had been no complaints from the public about materials in the library.

Evan Koch, chair of the Kootenai County Democrats, said Wednesday that the results in the hospital races were encouraging, but saw concern in the election of two GOP-backed candidates for the library network.

“I think the overall take-home message is our work is cut out for us,” Koch said. “We need to work to prevent this kind of thing from happening again in the fall, when our city council is all up for election,” he continued, referring to the party influence in races that are nominally nonpartisan.

Regan said the committee had not yet made up its mind on how to handle recommendations for candidates in the November elections. The ballot will include three seats on the six-member Coeur d’Alene City Council, as well as the office of the mayor. Incumbent Steve Widmyer has announced that he will not seek a third term.

Voters in Kootenai County approved the Republican Central Committee’s picks for positions on various highway, sewer and water district boards. They also approved a $14.9 million bond for Kootenai Fire & Rescue to build a new station and relocate two existing stations, as well as improve the department’s training area. The bond will be paid in 10 years and was approved with 77% voter support.

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