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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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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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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The inappropriateness of JR Iman

This week the commissioners have been having budget discussions for the upcoming fiscal year. In the process they’ve had a number of different department heads in to talk about the budget and the changes they’ve made for each department.

JR Iman has gone above and beyond in making some pretty inappropriate comments to at least two county department heads.

The first was while discussing pay increases for the head of the Ravalli County Weed Department. Ms. Morris had requested pay increases for herself as well as some people in her department. She then explained that for her position as a department head she was paid less than any other department head. Her modest pay increase would bump her up a couple spots and reward her for her longevity and the work she’s done.

Iman, in responding to why another department head is paid more than she is, stated, “Well they bring in a lot more money than you do.”

Really? The amount of money a department head brings in is more important than the work they do? Never mind that the head of the weed department brings in substantial grant money and provides a service that is vital for the community. It was insulting to hear Iman put bringing in money above everything the weed department has accomplished over the past few years.

The second comment from Iman came in discussions with Deb Rogala, head of the Fairgrounds. She  indicated she has plans to bring in a maintenance person at a lower pay rate than she had originally budgeted since the previous person recently left. She was questioned whether she would be able to find someone with enough initiative to be a good worker at the lower pay rate.

Iman chimed in with, “He’ll have two women chasing him around, that’s pretty good initiative.”

Everyone in the room groaned but no one called him on this clearly sexist and inappropriate comment.

So in the end, it’s embarrassing that we have a commissioner who so clearly says inappropriate things in public meetings, but it’s equally embarrassing that we have four other commissioners who sit there and allow him to make those comments without telling him to stop.

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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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