Candidates for Bonner County commissioner, sheriff take on issues at forum

By Soncirey Mitchell and Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Candidates for District 1 and District 3 Bonner County commissioner seats joined contenders for Bonner County sheriff at a community forum April 29 in the Sandpoint High School auditorium, providing voters with their perspectives on the issues ahead of the Tuesday, May 21 primary election.

Candidates for contested races gathered for two hours and spoke to approximately 150 attendees. Assessor Dennis Englehardt also addressed voters, though he is running unopposed on the ballot.

Candidates in contested races for Legislative District 1 seats participated in a similar forum April 30. Both nights were sponsored by KRFY,, the Bonner County Daily Bee, Selkirk Association of Realtors and the Sandpoint Reader. A recap of the April 30 forum will be published in the Thursday, May 9 edition of the Reader.

Candidates in contested Bonner County races at the April 29 candidate forum. Photo by Soncirey Mitchell.

County candidates were each given the opportunity for opening and closing statements, and asked questions gathered from the audience and presented by moderator Clint Schroeder, who serves as president of the Hagadone Newspaper and Media Groups, which is the parent company of the Daily Bee (no relation to Reader Editor Zach Hagadone).

To listen to recordings of both the Bonner County and Legislative District 1 forums, go to

Bonner County sheriff

Though opening statements from the Bonner County commissioner candidates led off the evening forum, it was the contest for Bonner County sheriff that drew the most heat, with incumbent Daryl Wheeler finding himself the target of repeated verbal swipes by challenger Steve Bradshaw, who has served as commissioner for District 1 for five and a half years.

The monthslong tensions between the Sheriff’s Office and the commissioners rekindled old arguments regarding public disruption of regular business meetings, with Bradshaw once again arguing that Wheeler has a responsibility to maintain order.

“I cannot and will not participate in illegal arrests made by commissioners in commissioners’ meetings,” Wheeler said, referring to the Jan. 26 trespass of Dave Bowman and Rick Cramer over alleged threats and unruly behavior in past meetings. “There were no elements of criminal trespass, and both those charges were dismissed by the prosecutor with prejudice, which means that [those charges] cannot go back [to the court].” 

Bowman’s charges were dismissed in court, whereas Commissioners Luke Omodt, Asia Williams and Bradshaw unanimously voted to accept Rick Cramer’s April 1 appeal to lift his trespass in an April 4 executive session. Cramer’s tort claim against the commissioners remains unresolved.

“Had [Wheeler] engaged and said, ‘You [the public] will settle down and control yourself or leave,’ everything you’ve watched over the past 13 months would not have transpired because they knew that law enforcement would keep law and order in our meetings,” said Bradshaw. “If I was a deputy and I was wanting to move to Bonner County and I watched that video, I wouldn’t come to work for him.”

“I can tell you that when you’ve got the truth on your side, what you do is you pound on the truth. And if you’ve got the law on your side, you need to pound on the truth. If you neither have the law or the truth on your side, what you do is you pound on the table,” said Wheeler.

Both candidate emphasized their commitment to the truth while taking shots at the other’s credibility, with Bradshaw alleging that Wheeler worked “secretly behind the scenes with FBI” agents to arrest resident Michael Pope for his part in the Jan. 6 United States Capitol attack — to which Wheeler responded, “I’m not really sure what that’s about.”

Regardless of the question, the candidates’ answers repeatedly returned to the low recruitment and retention rates of deputies within the Sheriff’s Office, though they provided different reasons for the deficit.

“We cannot compete with the outside agencies — especially south of us — unless we can offer the same kind of benefits and salaries that they’re going there [for],” said Wheeler, indicating that Kootenai and Spokane counties pay as much as $10 more an hour. In an effort to boost staffing, Wheeler said that he plans to enlist a full-time recruiter and continue to hire 18- and 19-year-olds who can start their careers working in the jail.

Bradshaw was adamant that the nation is facing a shortage of law enforcement professionals — which he claimed stems from conflict with the federal government — and that Bonner County employees are not leaving because of their financial circumstances.

“Over the last five and a half years [the BOCC] managed to get their pay up as high as we can do it with the taxes that we have,” said Bradshaw, later adding, “To attract them, we’re going to have to have a functional, and not a dysfunctional, sheriff’s department where the deputies are not afraid to come to their superiors and voice an issue without retribution coming back on them.”

Bradshaw did not elaborate on any alleged “retribution” within the department, though repeatedly claimed that the office’s budget is being severely mismanaged. Budgetary concerns and a lack of staff played a role in the candidate’s response to a question regarding the county’s preparedness given potential future unrest.

“It’s really difficult to create scenarios that we don’t know are going to happen or not but I can tell you that right now we’re creating a GMRS [General Mobile Radio Service] radio network so that we can communicate with each other … which is integrated with our ham operators,” said Wheeler.

He believes that Bonner County is prepared for any potentiality, emphasizing the extensive training currently undergone by police and the cooperation between his office, search and rescue, and the area’s extensive neighborhood watch groups.

“I’m going to tell you right now, in the event of a major thing, our sheriff’s department is not large enough to handle it because it’s all management,” said Bradsahw, adding that there are only four or five deputies patrolling approximately 2,000 square miles.

He drew inspiration from Kootenai County’s volunteer network under Sheriff Bob Norris, indicating that he would like to draw on combat-trained members of the community “like veteran Luke Omodt, who trained soldiers,” and “Ron Korn with the Three Percenters” to support the department in the event of an emergency.

Bradshaw’s proposed reliance on community members echoed his background outside of the field of law enforcement, which he admitted to in his closing remarks.

“I may not have law enforcement experience, but I have management experience and I have a functioning brain and I know what it takes to get a job done. I know what it takes to run the Sheriff’s Office budget,” he said, later adding, “You need a sheriff that is honest and has integrity.”

Wheeler, by comparison, has spent 15 and a half of his more than 38 years in law enforcement as Bonner County sheriff.

“I just have two words, I think, to all of you concerned with public safety: Do you feel safe now? Do you want a sheriff that has every qualification and certificate that’s available in the state of Idaho?” asked Wheeler, later admitting that, two years ago, the county saw an “increase in fatal accidents of 250%” and ranked “No. 3” in the state for the number of “sexual assaults and sexual crimes,” even surpassing Ada County.

“I am committed to keeping this county safe, and committed to be that person that is going to push back against the government when they want to take over and intercede in your life and violate your rights,” he said.

District 1 and 3 Bonner County commissioners

There are six candidates vying for county commissioner seats in Districts 1 and 3 — James Burroughs, Brian Domke and Brian Riley in District 1 and Dimitry Borisov, Ron Korn and incumbent Luke Omodt for District 3.

Burroughs did not participate in the April 29 forum — nor did he respond to the specific questions the Reader sent for the candidate questionnaire published in the April 18 edition — but all five other candidates appeared on stage at SHS, touching on a number of common themes in their opening statements — principally authenticity.

Domke led off the event, describing himself as a “Christian conservative” with “constitutional values.” He emphasized that he intends to operate with civility and decorum as a county commissioner, which also served as a consistent theme throughout the night as candidates addressed the now-notorious unruliness of many BOCC meetings over the past year and a half.

Riley emphasized that while he wasn’t born in the county he’s been here for 39 “continuous years” and emphasized his local connections as a graduate of Sagle Elementary, Sandpoint Middle and Sandpoint High schools. 

“I got to be the first class to graduate from this high school — the new high school — in 1992,” he said.

Borisov told the audience how he emigrated from the Soviet Union and came to Bonner County in 1999, and while he “fell in love with this place,” spent a brief time in Seattle before returning to the area in 2001. He became a U.S. citizen in 2006 and got involved with local EMS services, which is how he first interacted with the BOCC, which he said is currently mistreating the public and “violating the rights that I’ve come to love.”

Korn said he’s been in the area for 26 years and been involved with volunteer services including serving as president and commander of the Bonner County Search and Rescue. Referring to the COVID-19 pandemic as “the China virus,” he touted his efforts in 2020 to “save” Sandpoint’s Independence Day celebrations after the Lions Club canceled the events out of an abundance of caution for public health and safety.

Korn promised to “bring unity, I don’t like division.” Meanwhile, he vowed to “bring back Biblical principles, constitutional principles and the people’s voice.” 

Omodt, who currently serves as chair of the BOCC and is the only incumbent in the commissioners’ race, emphasized his own local connections, noting that 30 years ago he launched his first political campaign as a student at SHS. 

Describing himself as “a local kid who grew up in the Selle Valley,” he also pointed to his experiences as a student and teacher in area schools, as well as his long career in the Army, where he served as a logistician.

He pointed to his record as a commissioner as evidence for why he should be reelected, including securing funding for seven new bridges, delivering the Colburn waste project on time and under budget, and instituting cybersecurity systems to protect the $100 million in funds that flow through the county treasurer’s office.

Questions touched on the candidates’ definitions of responsible growth, as well as how they would “revise or change” Bonner County Planning and Zoning to better serve citizens.

Domke emphasized the importance of basing decisions on sound data and research, while both Korn and Riley keyed in on the need for more housing to accommodate local workers.

Korn criticized allowing “seasonal RV parks in the middle of nowheres,” which rather than serving as short-term dwellings would end up serving as long-term low-income housing.

Riley said he supported reinvigorating the sub-area committees to inform land use and development policies, as did Domke and Borisov, the latter saying that “the county has no plan whatsoever” related to “responsible growth.”

Omodt noted that Bonner County hadn’t enacted any zoning regulations until 1980, while the last time the Comp Plan was revised was in 2005. Overall, he said, “For a county commissioner, growth needs to be sustainable and that means where we can afford the services, and that is what we are doing.” 

Korn said he’d consider re-combining county Planning and Zoning into one department, while underscoring, “The voice of the people needs to be heard.”

Omodt said that P&Z was separated in the first place to fulfill the update of the Comp Plan, to which Borisov said that once work on the plan is completed, it might be time to put those bodies back together. He also suggested eliminating the county hearing examiner position.

Riley emphasized that P&Z positions are volunteer, and challenged community members to get involved by attending meetings.

One of the biggest themes for commissioner candidates throughout the forum was the role of public comment during BOCC business meetings and how commissioners should interact both with the public and their fellow elected officials.

Borisov said that “public comment is the business of Bonner County,” reiterating a point frequently made by Commissioner Asia Williams and others who argue that policies enacted and enforced by Omodt and Bradshaw have unduly restricted citizens’ rights to free speech during meetings.

“[T]hey try to weaponize the rules against the public by silencing us,” Borisov said. “What kind of leadership is this? I came from the Soviet Union where people were threatened for speaking out.”

Domke repeated a pledge he made in the Reader’s candidate questionnaire to invite public comment on every agendized item, adding that, “It’s critical that we incorporate the extra time that might be needed in a business meeting to accommodate those comments from the public.”

Korn echoed the notion of hearing comment on every agenda item, saying, “The three people sitting up there don’t know everything that’s going on in Bonner County.”

Omodt has been the frequent target of some residents who feel his management of testimony at BOCC business meetings has been overly restrictive. He argued that while many ideas that come before the commissioners “may have merit,” the BOCC is not required by Idaho law to entertain public testimony on every agendized item.

“I am a small-government Republican” who is “not going to do things that the Legislature has not authorized, because it’s illegal,” he said, going on to add that the county hires “exceedingly competent people” to help formulate and carry out policy.

Riley indicated that he would be receptive to any and all input from the public, while noting that “everybody’s perspective is their reality,” which should be taken into consideration when trying to find solutions to issues in the county.

In answer to a question about how commissioners would communicate with officials they disagree with, Omodt said he would “act in accordance with the law.”

“I’m going to leave the responsibility of the coroner to the coroner. I have left the responsibility of the sheriff to the sheriff … but I will also tell you that I have fiercely guarded the responsibility of the board of county commissioners,” he said. “That was the job I was elected to do.”

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