By Soncirey Mitchell
The Bonner County commissioners’ regular Tuesday, Sept. 12 business meeting was punctuated by three separate recesses, as acting-Commission Chair Luke Omodt attempted to rein in extensive deliberation and public comment. Officials dedicated much of the meeting to the discussion of two agenda items: software to enforce the existing short-term rental ordinance and a modification to Robert’s Rules of Order proposed by Omodt.
Ordinance 12-484 requires that property owners apply for a permit — initially costing $200 with a $25 technology fee — in order to lease out a short-term rental unit. The code defines these vacation rentals as “a single-family, duplex or multi-family residence, or condominium unit rented for periods of up to one month [30 days] per visit.”
Planning Department Director Jake Gabell brought forward a proposal to enter into a professional service agreement with Deckard Technologies for the purchase of its Rentalscape software, which searches websites like VRBO and Airbnb for unpermitted rentals in the area. The program can only discover units published online by the owners, and officials emphasized that they will not be going door to door searching for unregistered rentals.
Once the county identifies the units, they can be cross-checked with existing permits, and any unregistered rentals will be contacted to purchase a permit in compliance with the ordinance.
“We’re only at about 30% to 40% — depending on what numbers you use — compliance with how many short-term rentals we have in the county,” Gabell said, going on to clarify that he cannot give a specific number of unregistered units without using the software to catalog them.
“There’s anywhere between 650 and 850 [units] in the county,” Gabell added. “We have about 300 active permits right now.”
Commissioner Asia Williams expressed skepticism over the software, referring to it as “a policing of people,” noting that the county is the subject of consistent litigation and should not, if possible, open itself to more potential lawsuits.
“It is a policing mechanism because you’re not using it for vacation rentals. It specifically says, ‘For Short Term Rental’ [on the agenda],” Williams added, though did not elaborate on the distinction she was making between short-term rentals and vacation rentals.
“This is not moving in the direction of a police state,” said Omodt. “What this is, is moving in the direction of self-sufficiency and maintaining efficiency.”
Members of the audience also raised concerns that the software would monitor all properties in the county and would potentially reveal private information — two misunderstandings that officials were quick to dispel.
“The information that will be captured on this is from publicly maintained sites, so there is no information or a pass-through where the Planning Department will be sharing the private information that is not already readily available online,” said Omodt.
Throughout the discussion, he emphasized that Rentalscape is a means of protecting quality of life and private property rights for locals. The commissioners held a workshop on Aug. 30 to address local complaints and possible solutions about short-term rentals, but the issue goes back as far as 2018, according to Gabell.
For an additional fee, the software includes a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline, giving locals the opportunity to report issues with vacation rentals to the Planning Department. Complaints that fall outside of their jurisdiction — including matters for the sheriff like the enforcement of burn bans — would be rerouted to the proper authorities.
“Say it’s a Saturday night and there’s a large fire; no one from the Planning Department is gonna show up with a bucket of water and knock it out,” said Gabell.
“I don’t know the full risk of a county employee going out to try to enforce a notification of a bonfire that shouldn’t be had,” Williams said.
The cost of the software will not exceed $32,500 for the first year, and Deckard Technologies agreed to lock in the price at $29,000 for the second year, according to Gabell. The Technology Fund, rather than the Planning Department’s budget, would finance the purchases at a future date.
Williams objected to this means of payment, claiming it looked like the Planning Department could not afford to purchase the software. She noted that Bonner County will be starting the next budget year in contingency, having gone over the allotted funds for certain expenses.
County Clerk Mike Rosedale clarified that only specific line items will be in contingency, and money cannot simply be moved from one fund to another.
“The Information Technology Department provides a variety of software across the departments of the county,” said Omodt. “At this time, the budget that is available for the Technology Fund — with one pay period left in this fiscal year — is $319,697.61.”
Bradshaw claimed that the money earned by enforcing the ordinance would cover the cost of the software — a speculation that Williams argued may not be accurate.
The commissioners approved the contract with Deckard Technologies in a 2-1 vote, with Williams dissenting.
The final agenda item was a proposal for a new bylaw that will limit the number of times commissioners can place the same item on meeting agendas.
Under the new bylaw, each business meeting will conclude with a “motion for reconsideration,” in which the commissioners will vote on whether or not to reintroduce items at future meetings. Issues will only be eligible for reconsideration after three months or a majority vote.
“The purpose of bylaws, according to Idaho Code 31-820, is to make and enforce such rules and regulations for the government of their body, the preservation of order and the transaction of business as may be necessary,” Omodt told the Reader in a Sept. 12 email. “Our business meetings are not a talk show, grievance parade or food fight.”
The proposal would most notably affect Williams, who has brought back the same agenda items as many as eight times, according to Omodt. Her repeated proposals included streaming meetings via Zoom, reinitiating public comment at BOCC meetings — both of which were eventually enacted — and, more recently, removing Robert’s Rules of Order.
“Essentially, what you’re trying to do is make a memorandum that limits what a commissioner can put on the agenda and I don’t think that you have the authority to do that,” said Williams. “I can place an item on the agenda over and over and over again and then your job is to deliberate and vote it down.”
Omodt did not request that legal counsel review the proposal, and the memo was not initially in the commissioners’ packets or made available to the public by the start of the Sept. 12 meeting, as he drafted it that morning.
Bradshaw invited Prosecuting Attorney Louis Marshall to weigh in on the legality of the proposal during the meeting.
“It doesn’t require a legal review for you guys to do anything. You are decision makers so you can make your own decisions. Whether or not we think it’s a good idea, or whether or not you’re violating some other law — if you don’t ask us for review then you don’t get those questions answered,” said Marshall. “I do have concerns which I have already relayed to all of you that you do not have the ability to silence one commissioner or an elected official.”
Without a formal inquiry or time to prepare, Marshall was not able to definitively state whether the bylaw is legal.
“Even if the two of you pass this, you wouldn’t be able to enforce that. You don’t have the right to limit another elected official,” said Williams.
The motion to approve the new bylaw passed with a 2-1 vote. Williams emphasized for the record that her vote was not simply, “No,” but “No, this is not legal.”
Commissioner Williams did not respond to a request for comment.
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