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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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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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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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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The legacy of cutting Title X

During budget discussions with the Public Health Nurse, Ravalli County commissioners showed yet more impacts from the cutting of Title X funding.

Aside from the obvious loss of vital health services for hundreds of low income Ravalli County women, the cut of Title X funds also resulted in substantial staffing changes in the Public Health offices.

When Title X funding was accepted, the Public Health office was staffed by six full time people.

Without Title X funding, the office is still staffed by six people, but only one is full time now. That means less service for people that need it. Fortunately the Legislature finally agreed to expand Medicaid coverage so some of these low-income women will again have access to health services.

It was also telling that when discussing the budget, the commissioners didn’t discuss the possibility of accepting Title X funding and any budget changes that would entail. That tells this writer that they have no intention of pursuing the acceptance of those funds despite all but Jeff Burrows saying they would accept those funds.

It’s too bad this commission, made up of all conservative men, are so intent on denying health services to those who need it most.

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Part time commissioners

Being a Ravalli County commissioner sure is a cushy job. Look at their calendar this week. There’s nothing on the calendar for Thursday and Friday is scheduled as “office management,” which is the same as “we’re not really in.”

This week, you’re paying your county commissioners for 3 days of “work.” These are the same commissioners who earn at least $62,000/year plus full benefits and mileage reimbursement for driving to and from work.

For a conservative group of politicians, they certainly aren’t giving the taxpayers their money’s worth.

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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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