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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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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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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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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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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Meet the new commission, same as the old commission

The Ravalli County commissioners have certainly wasted no time in enacting the latest piece of their policy plans. Continuing a plan put forth by outgoing commissioners, the new commission followed through with a plan to allow new construction in the floodplain.

You can read about the history of the regulations and some of the testimony HERE.

This overturns a prohibition put in place 18 years ago. That’s right, they’ve eliminated a policy that was put in place nearly two decades ago. The regulation prohibiting construction in the floodplain reflects the unique nature of the Bitterroot River. Unlike many rivers in our state, the Bitterroot River moves around considerably from year to year. A good snow year and a quick melt often leads to flooding and changes in the river’s path.

One has to wonder what the inspiration for this radical change was. There has not been an overwhelming rush of applications for a variance to the previous regulation. There hasn’t been any public request for a change. Were developers asking for this change? Was Terry Nelson, head of the county planning department and himself a developer receiving numerous requests for variances? None of this information was presented at any of the meetings about the change in policy.

The Bitterroot River is an economic engine for Ravalli County. It brings in tourism dollars in a way that few other attractions in the county can. It is now at risk because the commissioners’ short-sighted decision.

What’s even more reflective of this commission however is the fact that the decision was made despite unanimous objection of the public at the meetings. Not a single person voiced support for changing the regulation. Not one argument was voiced supporting the change. The commission sat stoically listening to the public then ignored them and followed through with their plan. It’s hard to call this representative government.

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