Bitterroot Politics

You get what you vote for…

Bitterroot Politics - You get what you vote for…

Commissioners looking for way to reinstate Legacy Ranch

As should probably have been expected, the Ravalli County Commissioners this week met to discuss appeal options after their approval of the massive Legacy Ranch subdivision was struck down in court.

Their own lawyer told them their odds of winning an appeal were pretty slim though. That kind of shows you how thorough the failure on their part was when it comes to the review of this subdivision that faced almost universal objection from the community.

Commissioner Iman said they tried to do a real thorough review of the application and just couldn’t understand why they ended up losing the lawsuit anyway. Could it be that their review wasn’t nearly as thorough as they thought? Or maybe it’s that their definition of thorough doesn’t match up with what most people consider thorough? That wouldn’t be surprising given this commission’s aversion to actually reading through the materials or doing any work outside of the office… or really, in the office.

Commissioner Burrows gave the most telling statement of all…

“I think we’re waiting to see if the developer will appeal,” Burrows said. “They are the biggest player in this.”

Really? The developer is the biggest player in this? Shouldn’t the public, the people you serve, be the biggest player in this? The people that live in the community are the ones that stand to gain or lose the most from this development. It is their community that will be impacted by the addition of 600 new homes over the next few decades.

It’s this kind of attitude, of serving the developer instead of the community, that is the biggest problem with our commission. They serve those with money at the expense of everyone else. Had they been more interested in making sure the Bitterroot Valley remained the great place that it is, maybe they would have given the application a more comprehensive review.

So when the commissioners complain about losing yet another lawsuit, remember who it is they’re fighting for. They’re not fighting for the people, they’re fighting for the developer. The public overwhelmingly rejected this proposed development but the commission unanimously approved it. In this case, the people won but that doesn’t mean the commissioners won’t keep fighting to take that victory away.

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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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Special treatment for Burrows

The current commissioners are fond of stating their political beliefs hold that a person should take personal responsibility for their actions and not receive special treatment from the government. That’s their belief anyway unless they are the people that want special treatment.

Jeff Burrows recently received some of that special treatment from his fellow Republican commissioners.

Several years ago, Burrows was appointed to fill the vacated seat of Matt Kanenwisher. At the time, Burrows elected to not join the state pension plan. The problem he’s stuck with now however is that once you decline it, you don’t get another chance to get in later. He made a choice, knowing that you only get one opportunity, and, according to his political philosophy, should accept the consequences. He’d just have to set up his own, private, retirement account separate from the county’s plan.

That’s not how it played out though. First, Burrows asked all of the county’s legislators to go to the Legislature and change the rules, thus allowing him to get in on that pension plan. When that didn’t work, he got his commissioner buddies to set up a way for him to get in  on a county-sponsored retirement plan just for him! While he did recuse himself from the vote, there really wasn’t a need as all four of his buddies voted to do him this favor.

This act shows how little Burrows really believes in his political philosophy. He’s just in it to get what he can for himself. His $60k-plus salary plus full benefits isn’t enough, he’s got to have as much as he can. He wasn’t interested in taking responsibility for his mistakes. He was interested in getting as much out of the taxpayers as he can.

This is the problem with a homogenous board of commissioners. They quietly slip this one through when no one is looking and help their buddy take more money from the people, knowing they’ll get the same treatment when they need it later.

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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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Government inefficiency

The sordid tale of Valerie Stamey just never seems to come to an end. This week the Montana Supreme Court ruled that she could not keep her employment records at MCPS secret and they were released to the public.

Shockingly, they revealed she was terminated for misusing school funds to pay for items for a private catering event and her husband’s concessions business. This should have disqualified her from consideration for county treasurer but when you’ve got buddies in high places I guess it doesn’t matter.

But now, she’s been gone for a while and if it weren’t for media reports about the court ruling, we may have forgotten about her. Apparently the commissioners had.

Suddenly, after the stories in local newspapers appeared, she’s back on the commission’s calendar. This time they’re talking about hiring a process server to serve Stamey with the lawsuit they decided to file against her OVER A YEAR AGO. 

For a party that rants and raves about government inefficiency, it sure doesn’t work efficiently when it comes to dealing with this black mark on the county. Their lack of efficency already cost the county. When Stamey’s house was forceclosed on, the lack of action by the commission meant the county lost out on any funds that would come from the eventual sale of that property. 

Now Stamey has had a year or more to hide and the odds of getting the lawsuit served are poor. Had they simply served her when she was still collecting her paychecks from the county, perhaps the county could have gotten some of the money back that she cost it. Instead, the lack of effort by the previous commission and the current one has ensured that we’ll just be out the hundreds of thousands of dollars she’s cost.

And in case you were wondering, this isn’t the first time this topic has been on the commission’s calendar. They discussed this a year or so ago as well. Apparently no action ever came of that and they’re going to talk about it again. Government inefficiency at its finest. The next time one of these commissioners talks about how inefficient governments are, know that they speak from experience. They’ve done everything they can to make sure this drags out as long as possible.

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Road woes

It didn’t take long for the new commission to start offering excuses as to why the county roads are in such poor condition. And their excuse gives them an ongoing out for why they don’t address the under-staffing at the road department.

SRS funding has not been continued by Congress (gotta cut that federal government spending after all) so that leaves the county about $725,000 short in the budget.

A few things about this situation…

1) Last summer, then-Senator Walsh’s staff came to meet with the commission. They discussed Walsh’s desire to pass legislation making that funding permanent. The commission didn’t express any support for this move, nor did they offer to write a letter showing the importance of passing this legislation for the county.

2) When then Representative Daines’ staff came through, they didn’t mention this funding at all in issues they were concerned about. They could have asked Daines’ staff to express their desire to have him sponsor similar legislation in the U.S. House which would have helped get the funding re-approved. Instead they did nothing.

3) They’ve known this funding problem was coming. So did they do everything they could to get the roads in great shape before the winter conditions hit? No they didn’t. They left the Road Department horribly understaffed throughout the summer. So during the best time to build and repair roads, virtually nothing got done because there just weren’t enough people to do the work. They didn’t start hiring additional crew until September – missing most of the road work season.

4) Will this new funding shortfall result in more layoffs in the Road Department? That was the excuse they used last time to lay off crew members. It’s no secret the commissioners are not fans of the road workers union. This may be how they finally break the union and contract out the work to private companies.

5) Expect your taxes to go up. It seems to be the way this commission handles all their problems. Settle a lawsuit? Raise taxes… Feds cut spending like we advocated? Raise taxes… Whether they finally hire the right number of workers for the Road Department or contract the work out, they’ll likely raise taxes to fund it. This from a Republican commission.

Roads are the number 1 issue for the county commission. Or they should be. But this cut to SRS funding is how they’ll excuse their lack of efforts in improving the county’s valuable infrastructure.

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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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