Bitterroot Politics

You get what you vote for…

Bitterroot Politics - You get what you vote for…

Who will they blame it on now?

Well, the commissioners are in a bind now. For years they’ve been blaming lawsuit losses over subdivisions on the previous group of commissioners. The awful Democrats made such bad decisions that they led to lawsuits against the county.

Now they’ve lost one of their own that the Democrats had nothing to do with. Legacy Ranch, the massive development approved by the commission despite loads of objections, was struck down in the courts recently. The court stated the commission failed in their decision making process in several areas. Basically, they rubber-stamped the development without bothering to look at what kind of an impact it would have on the county and the environment.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the commissioners approved a development over the span of decades. This was not a development that would be completed in the next few years. This is one that generations of Bitterroot residents would be dealing with. It’s impossible to determine the impact a development will have 20 years from now. Why would you approve it now and be in a position where you can request/demand changes to the plan as the conditions change.

The court also stated the commissioners failed the “hard look” standard in multiple ways but this shouldn’t be a real surprise. The current (and previous) commission has a tendency to not look beyond the first page or two of a report. They don’t seem all that interested in actually learning about what they’re looking at but instead just vote with their gut or how their party expects them to vote.

You get what you vote for and in this case you get a group of commissioners who are more concerned about helping their developer buddies/donors than looking out for the public good. And they can’t blame this lawsuit loss on the Democratic commissioners. This one was all theirs.

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Chilcott and the truth about unions

In discussing approval of a negotiated labor agreement with one of the unions, Greg Chilcott spoke of his feelings about unions. He was upset that union members would be paid better than non-union members. Arguing that all county employees should be treated the same, he revealed a couple of things.

1) Unions get better compensation from the county than non-union employees. Chilcott obviously believes it’s because they’re a union, which is essentially true… but only because a union has the ability to negotiate the terms of their compensation whereas a regular county employee has no such power. When employees band together to negotiate their pay, they’re far more likely to get better terms than if they try to do it individually. The power of the group is more than the power of the individual.

2) Chilcott would rather pay union members less rather than increase the pay of regular county workers to be on par with union employees. His argument that unions receive special treatment wasn’t about regular employees receiving too little, but that union members should get peanuts, just like all the other county employees.

It was obvious watching the video that Chilcott has a philosophical problem with unions. It was also obvious that he hated that they managed to negotiate better pay.

Some of these unions were arguing for pay that would reward longevity with the county. It would allow them to steadily increase their income to be similar to what they could get doing the same job in Missoula County. Specifically, the 911 Call Center Operators were asking to have pay bumps at 5, 10 and 20-year marks. The longest tenured operator the county currently has is 5 years. The county regularly loses employees to other jurisdictions because they can make far more money somewhere else. Paying them a little more allows the county to retain them rather than constantly having to train new employees. This is an overall cost savings for the county and a boost in efficiency.

It’s too bad all Chilcott can see is his hatred for unions rather than the benefits of paying someone a living wage.

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Julie King schools complaining commissioners

The county commissioners have been up in arms recently that they don’t have standing to object to the Forest Service’s latest Travel Plan for the Bitterroot National Forest. They’ve argued that they should have a say in the travel plan and the forest should hear their complaints.

The problem with that, however, is that Forest Service rules only allow people who submitted comments on the draft travel plan to file objections. The county commission never commented on the travel plan so they have no standing to file an objection now.

The commissioners point to their “Natural Resource Policy” as their comment, but it was put out in 2012 while comments were taken on the travel plan in 2009. Three years before the natural resource policy.

They also complain that those were the actions of a previous commission. The problem with that argument though is that Greg Chilcott and JR Iman were on the commission at that time and never submitted comments on the draft travel plan.

Julie King, the current forest supervisor, takes the commissioners to school in her letter to them. You can read the letter HERE. She lets them know that not only does she have evidence that the forest DID include the commission in discussions back then, but that even if they didn’t, the travel plan doesn’t fall under the same regulations as forest management. And the natural resource policy which the commissioners point to as their comment addresses forest management, not travel management, so even if it had been done in time, it still wouldn’t give the commission standing to object now.

It’s also great to see her point to the fact that Chilcott and Iman were both on the commission in 2009 and didn’t offer comment at that time, but chose not to.

All of this points out, once again, that this board of commissioners is not forward thinking. They react to things. They don’t look ahead. They have no plan for the future. All they can do is react to things as they come. Instead of planning ahead and working to move the county in a specific direction, they’re content to just drift along and let the current take the county where it will. This is no way to govern and it’s hurting the county the longer it goes on.

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Unprofessionalism on display

When watching budgeting hearings with the county commissioners, one thing is abundantly obvious. These five men have no sense of professionalism.

It’s routine to hear joke comments throughout the discussions. It’s equally common to hear them joking that they are cutting someone’s salary in the budget. Or taking a department’s expenses out of the department head’s salary.

I’m sure they would say they’re just kidding and having fun with the department head, but it’s a subtle reminder that they are the ones in control and they can cut your pay at will.

Mostly though, it’s just plain unprofessional. Someone’s livelihood isn’t a joke. It’s not something they should be joking about taking away. The responsibility placed with them by the taxpayers is to wisely spend the money to make sure they are getting the most from their money. They’re not being paid to sit around joking with one another about the very real expenses in the budget.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against a little bit of levity in budget meetings. It’s a long, difficult process that can be stressful. But these commissioners are constantly making side comments that have nothing to do with the discussion or are at the expense of the person presenting a department’s budget requests. This just isn’t professional.

I would hope these commissioners would be capable of treating each department head with the respect they deserve and stop joking about cutting their salaries or their department’s budget. Each department has been running as lean as they can for several years and asking for a modest increase isn’t out of line and it is something to be carefully considered. It’s not something to joke about or dismiss with an offhand comment.

Take these meetings seriously. Setting the county budget is the biggest responsibility of a county commissioner. It would be nice if Burrows, Chilcott, Iman, Schallenberger and Hawk treated it that way.

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Ready to start paying for the airport expansion?

Over the last few weeks, the Ravalli County commission has been going through their annual budget hearings. Each department comes and presents their budget requests. For the most part the commissioners just sit there and accept whatever they’re told. They’ll ask a few questions but that’s about it.

The airport budget hearing revealed some unsurprising news… at least unsurprising to this writer…

During the discussion, the issue of expansion costs came up. Last year, before the expansion plan was decided upon, a group of anonymous donors claimed they would pay the county’s share of the expansion costs. They would ensure the county had to pay $0 when it came to the expansion.

During the meeting however, the cost of expanding the ramp area of the airport came up. Then the airport manager let the cat out of the bag… the group will only pay for the expansion of the ramp beyond what is already there. That means the resurfacing that will also be required is going to cost the county $215,000. So much for the county not having to pay anything if it agreed to expand the airport.

Had this commission not thrown out the previous plan and simply moved forward with the approved and selected expansion plan, the project would be done and it would have cost the county less than it’s going to cost now. If you think taxes are high and services poor now, wait until the bill comes due for this expansion. This is not conservative governance. This is “take care of your buddies” governance.

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Too late again

Before the last election, the Ravalli County Commissioners discussed putting a move from 5 commissioners to 3 on the November ballot. They spent a couple hours discussing it and listening to public comment before it was helpfully pointed out to them that they didn’t have enough time to complete the process in order to get it on the ballot. Two hours of people’s day was wasted because the commissioners hadn’t looked to see if they could do something before proposing that they do it.

Fast forward 9 months and they still haven’t learned. The Forest Service has released their draft Travel Plan for the Bitterroot National Forest. This impacts what kinds of activities are allowed on the forest and shuts down a number of roads and limits motorized travel in certain areas.

So of course the Commissioners schedule a meeting to discuss filing an objection. Here’s the problem with that though… new Forest Service rules, which were widely reported in local media, only allow people who comment on a proposal to file an objection. Of course the commissioners didn’t comment on the travel plan update while it was being put together, because they don’t pay attention to those things… so when they scheduled this meeting, a Forest Service official kindly informed them that they wouldn’t be allowed to file an objection since they hadn’t commented earlier in the process. Once again, their inaction and reactive posture prevented them from having a seat at the table.

So then they fall back to their controversial and pointless “Natural Resource Policy” claiming that it is their “standing comment” which should give them ground to object to the travel plan. They also claim that since they were never specifically asked for comment, the Forest Service failed at following the rules of “Coordination,” – the crazy Tea Party notion that the Forest Service has to do whatever local government says. Now we see just what people have been telling them for years… Coordination is not a real policy but only one imagined by Tea Party separatists hoping to usurp the federal government.

Aren’t you glad you’re paying for these commissioners to get nothing done?

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Back from a break

After the Legislature ended, I needed a break from politics. Watching the crazy shenanigans carried out by the Bitterroot Valley contingent made my head want to explode. Rather than getting more and more angry, I stepped away to get some perspective and relax a bit.

I’m back now though and there’s plenty to talk about! From Nancy Ballance claiming not funding infrastructure was a good thing to the commissioners being reactive rather than proactive, and it keeping them out of the process one more time. So let’s get back into it!

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Whole lot of nothing

Do you ever sit back and think about what you’re paying for a whole lot of nothing? Because if you’re a taxpayer in Ravalli County, you’re paying a lot for not much.

In this instance, I’m referring to the county commission. Ask yourselves if you can name one thing the commission has done in the past six months. Can you? You might be able to name one, because they did make the news by giving MAPS Media Institute a special day. Other than that though, can you name anything?

Probably not. That’s because the commission really isn’t doing much with their terms.

They’re not working on making Ravalli County more attractive to businesses. They’re not improving roads. They’re not working to fix a diversion dam that has killed a young child and prompts state officials to shut down a portion of the river when water levels get too high.

Given that there aren’t too many subdivisions for them to rubber stamp these days, what exactly is it that they’re doing all day?

If you believe the commissioners’ calendar, they’re busy with “office management.” Of course, anyone familiar with the work of the commission knows that “office management” is code for “we’re not here.”

For all of this not working, you’re paying at least $62,000 per commissioner. That means for five commissioners to do virtually nothing, the taxpayers of Ravalli County are paying more than a quarter of a million dollars.

But hey, you get what you vote for.

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You’re not getting what you pay for

Anyone taken a look at the Ravalli County Commissioners’ calendar lately? It won’t take you long to read it if you haven’t. We’re seeing an awful lot of “Office Management.”

For those that don’t know what that means… It’s commissioner code for, “We’re not doing anything so we probably won’t bother to come in.”

For this astounding amount of hard work, you, the taxpayer, are paying them more than $60,000/year plus full benefits.

If they truly have so little to do that they only need to schedule meetings one day a week, (or maybe 2) perhaps they should be helping out in other departments around the county.

Maybe they could go downstairs and help the motor vehicles department during busy hours so the line moves a little faster.

Maybe they could head over to the road department and help out there. They’ve already made a big deal about how they’re short on funds thanks to SRS funding cuts. I’m sure the road crews would love to see the commissioners out working to help make things better instead of sitting at home collecting their paychecks. They could be out driving plows to help clear the roads during a snow storm. They could be out patching the holes in the roads that were ignored over the summer while the commission sat by not letting the department head hire workers back.

Or maybe they could actually do the work they were elected to do. They could be working on policy to attract new business growth. They could be working to make things better in our county.

Instead we’re getting none of that. We get “office management.” We get an absentee county commission that complains about an intrusive federal government and its overspending then turns around and complains about not getting enough federal money. We get a group of commissioners content to not do anything while collecting their fat paychecks.

You get what you vote for which is why right now, you’re not getting what you pay for.

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The tale of Valerie Stamey continues

If you didn’t see the county commissioners’ calendar early in the week or last week when it was initially released, you would have missed something. The commissioners are going to discuss the notion of taking action against disgraced treasurer Valerie Stamey.

A year ago, they suspended her for taking the county and several county entities to the brink of bankruptcy. It then took them about six months before they decided to stop paying her. At the same time they started discussing whether they should file a lawsuit to recoup some of the costs to the county.

In their delay between deciding to sue her and actually filing the lawsuit, Stamey split. That meant she was never served with the lawsuit. That meant that when her house was repossessed, the county didn’t get any of the proceeds because they took to long to file their lawsuit.

Now, a year after first suspending her, and nearly six months after deciding to file a lawsuit, the commission is finally getting around to discussing hiring a process server to track Stamey down and serve her with their lawsuit. Why wasn’t this discussion held months ago?

Whatever Stamey’s name is now, she should have been served months ago, when we still knew where she was… like when she was collecting her paycheck in the parking lot of the county building. Instead, we get to spend even MORE money to hire someone to track her down.

This is the ultimate illustration in bad governing. You get what you vote for folks.

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