BOCC alters rules for public comment, terms for employees’ tuition reimbursement

By Soncirey Mitchell
Reader Staff

The Bonner County board of commissioners continued its months-long streak of argumentative business meetings on Tuesday, Jan. 23, when members sparred over public comment, Commissioner Asia Williams’ agenda items and tuition reimbursement for county employees.

Chair Luke Omodt opened the meeting with a motion to add a 12th standing rule to the code of conduct, which the BOCC initially adopted on Dec. 19, 2023.

Bonner County Commissioners Luke Omodt, left; Asia Williams, center; and Steve Bradshaw, right. Photo by Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey.

“Rule 12 says that all members of the public wanting to give public comment in the regular business meeting must sign up prior to the meeting being called to order. Members of the public wishing to give public comment via Zoom must submit a completed form prior to the call to order,” said Omodt, claiming that the rule will help maintain order and make it easier for the commissioners to follow up on any issues or questions posed by the community.

After Williams questioned whether legal counsel approved the new rule, Deputy Prosecutor Bill Wilson testified that counsel had not, though he expressed neither approval nor disapproval during the meeting.

“Historically, legal has made the comment that either we do public comment or you don’t do public comment,” said Williams, “but if you’re going to place restrictions around that public comment you open yourself up for a negative outcome.” 

She further argued that members of the public often can’t prepare their comments in advance because questions and ideas arise during the commissioners’ discussion.

Despite Williams’ protests, Omodt’s motion to adopt the 12th rule passed with a second from Commissioner Steve Bradshaw.

Bradshaw then moved to amend the agenda to strike all 21 of Williams’ items, which covered legal opinions, her upcoming pre-business meeting “Commissioner Chat” guests, events, projects, community issues, open meeting laws and the July 26, 2023 investigative report regarding the fairgrounds’ fraud. She divided each topic into three separate items labeled Action Chat, Discussion Chat and Decision Chat.

Bradshaw called her items “redundant” and stated that they had “absolutely nothing to do with the Bonner County business meeting.”

Before the commissioners could vote, public protests derailed the meeting, causing Omodt to call for a recess. Bradshaw’s motion eventually passed with Williams dissenting.

The rest of the meeting’s debate was largely dedicated to a proposal by the county’s Human Resources Department — following up on a Jan. 4 workshop — to rewrite Tuition Reimbursement Policy 2500, which helps county employees afford necessary education. The proposed changes would, among other things, shorten the application for reimbursement and make it available to a wider number of employees.

Williams expressed concern that part-time employees, and those who receive grades as low as a “C,” are eligible for reimbursement.

“In terms of the overall investment in the county, investing in a permanent, full-time employee provides a greater benefit than a part-time employee,” said Williams, stating that making tuition reimbursement exclusive to full-time employees would encourage part-time employees to aspire to permanent positions.

“A major portion of our Road and Bridge employees — maybe as high as half of them — started out as part-time employees, and through this education thing they were able to get on full time,” said Bradshaw, expressing his support for the program.

The commissioners voted to approve the changes to the policy with Williams dissenting.

The meeting came to an abrupt end in the middle of the public comment portion, when Omodt recessed the meeting until the scheduled 11 a.m. executive session.

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