By Zach Hagadone
It was another week of procedural sparring and high-tension discussion at the regular business meeting March 7 of the Bonner County Board of Commissioners — again hovering around issues of public comment; civil litigation; training for county boards, commissions and committees; and general notions of transparency and how county meetings should be run.
Things got off to an oppositional start with the order of the agenda, which included an action item late in the meeting on whether to contract with Sewell and Associates to conduct work related to adjusting the boundary line at the Bonner County Fairgrounds.
The work, which is not to exceed $25,000 in grant dollars, centers on the permitting and construction of an RV campground facility at the property, which requires a full platting of the fairgrounds and a section of property to the south, which Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler opposed because he said it would carve off space into which his office might one day expand.
It’s a long-running controversy, with Wheeler telling commissioners that he had hoped “the land deals would end” after the county voided a lease in March 2022 with a nonprofit group that had proposed to construct an $8 million indoor ice arena on property that he has maintained rightfully belongs to the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office.
Commissioners voided the lease after an opinion from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office in February 2022 that the agreement had been too vaguely stated on the board’s agenda, and thus violated Idaho Open Meeting Law.
What’s more, Wheeler said, “Not one of us was invited to the table to discuss this land deal,” which he said came up at a January meeting of the Fair Board. The section located on the southwest of the fairgrounds, “In reality … [is] resting on the sheriff’s complex property,” he added before urging the commissioners to “immediately change course.”
At the outset of the March 7 meeting, Commissioner Asia Williams challenged the inclusion of the fairgrounds boundary item on the agenda, arguing that discussion on the topic was “premature” and hadn’t been appropriately agendized.
Commissioner Luke Omodt voted to second Williams’ motion to remove the item, then voted against it. Board Chairman Steve Bradshaw also voted “no,” while Williams chose to abstain.
Concerns surrounding the Bonner County Fairgrounds emerged repeatedly throughout the three-hour meeting.
Resident Kristina L. Nicholas Anderson testified about the need to fill vacancies on the Fair Board, which has been in a state of reorganization since the death by apparent suicide of late-Fair Director Darcey Smith on Oct. 31, 2022. She challenged that, “Doing your job would be helpful,” in appointing new board members — and that such appointments need not be conducted in executive session, so as to ensure that the public is part of the discussion.
Moving those appointments, and other human resources matters, into public view was a consistent point of discussion at the meeting, while Bradshaw and Omodt numerous times stated that such issues involving personnel are addressed in executive session specifically to protect personal details.
Meanwhile, Omodt said there are three active Fair Board mem=bers currently in compliance, and the “emergency” is to bring that number up to a quorum, which commissioners would address in executive session.
Williams reported that there has been a significant amount of interest among residents wishing to serve on the Fair Board, but there has so far been little to no communication between the county and those prospective board members.
Resident Monica Gunter also testified, opposing the RV campground in order to retain the necessary room for the sheriff’s complex to grow in the future.
“I cannot imagine taking away [the] sheriff’s property … this county is growing, it’s going to get worse, we’re going to need more jail,” she said, adding that the fairgrounds has less need of campground space than the county has need of expanded sheriff’s office services.
Emotions ran especially high as resident Dan Rose claimed that his right to speak had been abridged by Bradshaw deciding to close public comment after three residents had been allowed to testify. Commissioners have been limiting comment to four testimonials, and Rose argued that he had been the fourth witness on the sign-up sheet.
“Sit down or leave,” Bradshaw told him, later adding, “That’s my decision as chairman,” to limit testimony.
“You are acting in a way that you are not obligated to do. I have a right to speak,” Rose said, going on to call for a non-binding advisory question on the May ballot related to the grant being used to pay for the fairgrounds boundary line adjustment.
Transparency and public involvement again came up later at the March 7 meeting, when Williams broached concerns about human resources being addressed only into executive session, stating that the county is creating “an unhappy workplace.”
“You do not attract people to work in dysfunction,” she said before inviting resident Spencer Hutchings — who serves as treasurer of the Bonner County Republican Central Committee — to give a presentation on the idea of hosting a regular town hall at which citizens would be invited to ask questions of commissioners.
Hutchings proposed that commissioners’ business meetings are just that — intended to address county business, not necessarily to hear from the public in a back-and-forth dialogue. To serve that need, Hutchings envisioned hosting such a gathering once a month or bi-monthly at a neutral space, such as the fairgrounds, on a Saturday or after work hours on a Friday. Attendees would come to the door, present some proof of their county residency and engage in a free-form, recorded discussion at which — while remaining civil — “people should be able to vent,” Hutchings said.
“If it takes all day, it takes all day,” he added, going on to state, “We should get the opportunity to say something. … You guys don’t want to engage with us.”
Williams pointed to town halls conducted by Wheeler in the past, which have resulted in citizens feeling informed and heard. She moved to establish a town hall meeting with the full board of commissioners, which Omodt seconded.
Bradshaw, however, questioned the cost, which he said could run to upwards of $1,000 per hour just to have staff and facilities in place.
“Which one of y’all are willing to contribute to this?” he said.
“We pay for this government,” Hutchings responded. “You guys manage to pay for lawsuits that you get into all the time.”
Omodt moved to amend the motion, sending it to county attorney Bill Wilson to determine if such a town hall could be conducted in compliance with meeting laws and what infrastructure would be required, to which Bradshaw and Omodt voted “yes” and Williams voted “no.”
Omodt also addressed the issue of training for boards, commissions and committees, which he presented with material he gathered following a recent meeting of the Idaho Association of Counties in Boise.
Specifically referring to the widespread interest in the Fair Board, Omodt said there are statutory limitations on how the county can interact with its sub-agencies and how those bodies must conduct themselves — much of that including compliance with record keeping, reporting from staff and chairpersons, accessibility requirements for meetings, and other legal mandates related to personnel matters and privacy.
Ensuring those rules are followed is a matter of minimizing legal risk, which is especially critical as Bonner County is self-insured, rather than participating in the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program — which private attorney Ford Elsaesser, Prosecuting Attorney Lewis Marshall and County Clerk Mike Rosedale all said the county should rejoin during a discussion about receiving pro bono analysis and advice from Elsaesser about how much the county pays in fees to outside law firms in civil litigation. (A motion to retain Elsaesser on an advisory basis died without a second.)
Finally, both the disposition of the fairgrounds and the county’s legal exposure rounded out the public portion of the meeting — before commissioners went into executive session — when Omodt moved and Bradshaw seconded to go forward with the boundary line adjustment by Sewell and Associates, paid for with $25,000 in grant monies.
Williams again opposed the agenda item, reiterating, “I hold that this is not appropriate to discuss now,” because she said it hadn’t been properly noticed.
“This is exactly a re-do of what happened with the ice rink,” she said, adding later that she wouldn’t be surprised to see Wheeler “go straight to the AG” over the issue.
“If this moves forward because of a majority vote, it is clear that we are accepting risk, not mitigating risk,” she said.
The item was approved with “yes” votes from Bradshaw and Omodt.
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