Here We Go Again
Is Bonner County government once again flirting with extreme political viewpoints? A look at the Property Rights Council
Political life in Bonner County is a curious, and sometimes dysfunctional process. Like permissive yet negligent parents, residents mostly ignore whatever their government is getting up to until they just can’t ignore it anymore, at which time they tend to come down hard on the miscreants.
That may—or may not—be what’s happening now, as a suggestion to remove tax funding for some popular programs has served to spotlight other actions that are also causing some dismay, as residents are asking “What is this Property Rights Council, and why does the local tea party seem to be running it?”
After years of gestation and a birth that went almost unnoticed, “Cornel’s baby,” as everyone seems to refer to it, burst into attention with its unveiling on the Bonner County government website in October, in a structure that Terry J. Harris, Executive Director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, described on the group’s blog as, “elaborate and expansive, and borderline incoherent.” It’s an apt description for a government program that looks much like an amoeba; a program where even Rasor admits, “We might have overreached a bit,” (which he blames on the enthusiasm for getting government under control), and which seems to call for a sound track with The Who singing, “Ain’t the new boss just like the old boss?”
It’s also a program that appears to have put the cart a few miles ahead of the horse. Back in May the commissioners drafted a resolution to create the Property Rights Council, named a group of mostly men to sit on its board, created a position for a program manager whose duties, in part, are tied to this program and began training the new members. By October they were ready to put the council to work examining the county’s watershed ordinance and whether there are “free market” alternatives to it; on a consideration to “interpose” themselves in a dispute between Priest River residents Jack and Jill Barron and the EPA; examining user fees in lieu of taxes in regard to the sheriff’s office; and, at some point, drafting and adopting the mission statement and bylaws that will actually structure what they will do and how they will do it.
All those documents, along with the information on their webpage on the county’s website, are “in flux,” according to Pam Stout, the newly hired Paralegal Program Manager and “a work in progress,” according to Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Scott Bauer, who is the person responsible for drafting the documents and is one of two attorneys (of the seven total) from the Prosecutor’s office who spend their time providing legal advice to the county. That’s a good thing given the documents are riddled with typographical errors, confusing language and potential illegalities.
An opinion from Brian Kane, Assistant Chief Deputy in Idaho’s Attorney General’s Office (see attached PDF file 11-38589 Response.pdf), pointed out some of the problems: for example, a “members only” section to the website, a violation of Idaho’s Public Meeting Law; unavailable documents, a violation of Idaho’s Public Records Law; and language comparable to “loyalty oaths” language Bauer now says was only intended to serve as “placeholders,” with promises they will be amended.
That opinion, by the way, was requested by Idaho Senator Shawn Keough in response to community concerns with the structure described in all that paperwork.
It’s difficult to separate what the Property Rights Council will do from who it is that’s doing it. There’s Rasor, a county commissioner known for his strong, libertarian beliefs. There’s also his fellow commissioner and supporter on the council Mike Nielsen, whom many in the county are now looking at with jaundiced eyes. There’s the tea party leader with no legal background being paid a stunning salary to train volunteers as paralegals. There’s that young attorney from the prosecutor’s office who appears to work night and day on developing this program. And there’s the council itself, many of whom are known in the community for their proclivity for anti-government, anti-tax beliefs.
As for what it will do, the council is designed to promote an economic-cum-political science idea from the far right side of the political spectrum called “Public Choice Theory” when it comes to the county’s business. Public Choice Theory says that those within the political marketplace — voters, government employees and politicians—base all their actions and decisions on self interest.
“I have seen a continued erosion of personal property rights in my 35 years in Bonner County,” said Rasor. “I was trying to figure out a way to get a different perspective.” That’s right. Because they believe government can’t be trusted to consider your property rights, they’re setting up an arm of the government that will do just that.
Yes, it’s confusing. And it only gets worse. Consider Pam Stout.
Her family, she says, calls her “Grammy Pammy,” and if you sit down to talk with her you’ll note she radiates a calm, grandmotherly kindness that’s reflected in her gentle speech patterns. Yet in the tradition of the Red Queen, our local tea party leader—and new employee of Bonner County government—appears to have no trouble with “believing six impossible things before breakfast,” and, at least in her political beliefs, epitomizes the word “paradox.”
Stout says she believes in limited government but is comfortable with her new role as the Paralegal Program Manager for Bonner County’s new Property Rights Council, which adds a few extra layers of bureaucracy to county government. She believes taxes should only be levied for ‘essential services’ yet has no problem with her own $23,000, tax-funded yearly wage for a part-time position. She doesn’t believe that the ends justify the means; except, of course, when she does, as when she says the unwieldy new bureaucracy of which she’s a part is acceptable as it will ultimately “limit government.”
Stout has been hired to preside over a program to train various levels of volunteers who will work in support of the goals of the Property Rights Council, as well training paralegals to assist county departments with legal research. The published paperwork regarding training for these volunteers focuses heavily on the aforementioned Public Choice Theory.
She says the Property Rights Council will “increase public participation” in government despite the fact there are some significant barriers to that participation—if you don’t believe in “free markets” and “private property rights,” in the way that far-right, conservative think tanks consider those issues, you’re not going to be welcomed into the club.
And she hopes that Scott Bauer will have time to train her as a paralegal, before she has to teach those skills to others.
Does your head hurt yet?
Stout stands on more solid ground when it comes to the part of her job where she promotes free market policies via the training of paralegals and other volunteers in some time-intensive programs: the highest level of volunteer, along with the PRC members appointed to the council, must undergo 780 hours of this training (a little over 97 eight-hour days—people with real jobs probably should not apply). Stout’s background includes quite a bit of time working for the government in Salinas, Calif., where she’s from, along with seven years of running her own business. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics.
Stout says her dissatisfaction with the way government is currently being run caused her to join the nascent group of people who ultimately comprised the Sandpoint tea party; she even nominated herself as its president. She is also said to have joined a group called Friends of Liberty, and thus was ripe for the picking when a job she feels promotes her strongly held political beliefs came along. She is quite comfortable in explaining why she believes user fees are a better option than taxes, or how we’re destroying people by helping them too much.
The Property Rights Council and its offshoot Paralegal program rely heavily for their information on the State Policy Network, a California-based organization which, on its own website, states its purpose as “fighting to limit government and advance market-friendly public policy at the state and local levels.” Its mission is to develop various think tanks throughout the states to promote deeply conservative political opinions. (Liberals need not apply.) These think tanks are generally hostile to public education and to unions, and want to see most government services privatized (i.e. ‘user fees’).
The State Policy Network’s think tank resource in Idaho is Wayne Hoffman’s Idaho Freedom Foundation, a strong supporter of the “Luna Laws” that angered many Idaho residents earlier this year. (Those were the ones that, for example, require online education for high school students.)
This new Paralegal Program will train volunteers how to do legal research on various issues that confront Bonner County government as a whole, and the Property Rights Council in particular. Although the program manager (Stout) is an employee of the commissioners, she is supervised by the Prosecutor’s Office—because it’s the Prosecutor’s Office that is responsible under Idaho law for providing commissioners with legal advice. All legal research done by the volunteers will go through Stout, and then go through Bauer, who must sign off on any legal recommendations to county officials. The controversy over this program has caught the attention of Louis Marshall, the county’s elected Prosecuting Attorney, who is keeping a close eye on how these programs develop in order to ensure his office is adequately meeting its advisory role. “I have requested Mr. Bauer to give me regular updates on the progress of the PRC,” he said, “and have asked to be kept aware of any projects the PRC is working on.”
Apart from those 97-days of training, volunteers who choose to participate at this level will also have to learn how to actually do the legal research that is the purpose of their existence. In Idaho, there is no certification process for a paralegal, though when utilized by attorneys there are guidelines developed by the American Bar Association as to what they can and cannot do. Most specifically, a paralegal cannot be used in such a way that they’re engaging in the “unauthorized practice of law.”
Those who want to go the college route to become a paralegal will end up with an Associates degree in Applied Science. The Bonner County route to becoming a paralegal is less rigorous; in addition to the training in political theory, volunteers will be given passwords to two websites, Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw, and an 800-number that will connect them to an attorney who will help them craft the appropriate search terms to pull up cases of interest. Left unexplained is who it is that will develop an opinion or recommendation based on the results of those searches, and what skills they will be trained in to do so; what is very clear, however, is that the Prosecutor’s Office is responsible for that output.
This perceived need for greater legal research in Bonner County suggests an increase in the workload of the two attorneys already working full time advising the county; a troublesome thought given that Bonner County’s current need for legal advice, which consumes almost 30 percent of the resources of the Prosecutor’s office is, Louis Marshall concedes, “higher than average” for counties in Idaho.
So who has been tapped to serve on this Property Rights Council? Current membership is weighted heavily toward receding hairlines, white skin and Y chromosomes (there is only one female member). That might seem reflective of our community at large—in Bonner County there’s a preponderance of skin of various shades of white, and our kids tend to hightail it out of the area soon after high school in search of jobs or further education—but women traditionally make a greater appearance when it comes to government. Currently our two sitting state senators are women, as are two of our three resident judges. Sandpoint, the county seat, features a female mayor and several women on the council and, while there have only been two women elected as commissioners in the last 20 years (Susan MacCloud and Marcia Phillips), three of the county’s elected department heads are female, and seven more (including Stout) have been appointed to oversee departments.
The committee members include Tom Cleveland, Sage Dixon, Susan Fray, Don Smith, Harold Hilton and Roger Daar, with Louis Kins as a first alternate and Tom Clark as the committee chairman. Clark, by the way, has twice run for the position of county commissioner and twice has not been able to gain the support of a majority of voters. He got his greatest support in ‘98, when he was unopposed in the Republican primary and garnered 5,108 votes, losing by only 435 votes to Democrat Dale Van Stone in the general election. Two years later he tried again, but came in last in a three-way primary race to Bill Stevens and Jerry Clemons.
This is the group charged with examining Bonner County issues and funding through the lens of personal property rights and ensuring those rights get the priority the commissioners feel is needed; to intercede, if need be, when various laws are impeding those rights and to figure out a way to bring free market principles into the governance of the county. All their findings will then be delivered to the county commissioners, on whose shoulders any decisions will rest.
Unless, of course, they end up doing anything but, given that exactly what they will do and how they will do it is in that aforementioned “state of flux.”
What is sure is that county commissioners have the right to get advice from anyone they choose, and the right to make any decision they want based on that advice, as long as it doesn’t contravene existing law. Whether the creation of a council to receive only a certain flavor of advice turns out to be beneficial, or just another layer of bureaucracy in the process, is a conclusion that could also be said to be in a state of flux.
Commissioners are encouraging local educators to give students official credit if they become involved in this program which, according to the PRC pages on the Bonner County government website, will “help immunize students from academic biases favoring government intervention.” Given the confusion already present in the process, it should also give those students a first-hand look at just how messy our democratic republic can be.