It’s time to take a look at our county government and point out what’s becoming more clear every day: political extremism is harming our county.
With the latest appointment of a County Treasurer who is proving to be incapable of performing her job, we’re just about at ‘ground zero’ in the relentless and systematic implementation of an extreme form of political cronyism that is being foisted upon every department and public office by the County Commissioners. This conversion, and the underlying attempt to micromanage every department, seems to be an indication that the present Commission would rather dismantle the government than have it work the way it should.
The background for these developments includes the bitter fight in the local Republican Party between what you could call “old fashioned” Republicans and the new breed of no compromise, anti-government Republicans (you know, the kind that recently shut down the federal government for several days). Now the County Commission is made up of two old fashioned Republicans dealing with a majority of the new breed. The fall out from that is the current agenda to take over and micromanage every department and office in the county by replacing competent, trusted employees with people who are chosen for their ideology rather than their expertise.
The first office to suffer the imposition of this new ideologically driven agenda was the County Attorney’s Office where the public saved the commission the bother of having to make a political appointment by voting in a local attorney just because he had an “R” by his name. What the public didn’t know was that a politically motivated purge of that office was coming, which cost the taxpayers over $250,000. The public learned about it only after the secret settlement agreement was exposed.
Is political cronyism involved? Read the Human Rights Complaint of the Democrat that was driven out of the office, the one we all subsequently paid to do nothing for a year. The taxpayers footed the bill for this “house cleaning.”
Next, the Commissioners changed the job description of the head of the Planning Department to make it clear that no training or education in planning was required. The Planning Department, which is involved in planning and subdivision review, was always headed by a Planner in the past. But they were looking for someone with “people management skills,” so they dumbed down the job description so that an education in the field that was crucial to the department’s work was no longer required and gave the job to a “people manager” who just happened to be chairman of the Republican Central Committee. So when it came to putting out a staff report and recommendation concerning the largest subdivision in Ravalli County’s history, it took an outside attorney from the Montana Association of Counties to walk the commissioners through the process. The first thing he noted was that the Planning Staff’s report and recommendation took facts for conclusions of law and presented conclusions of law as though they were facts. This kind of thing happens when the department head doesn’t have the technical knowledge and expertise that the job requires, regardless of how well he manages people.
Another thing to note: not a single person who worked in that department when the Commissioners took office remains. Is that a clean house, or what? Is cronyism involved? What could be more blatant than hiring the chairman of the Republican Central Committee to a job that he didn’t even qualify to apply for under the existing job description?
The chance to reorganize the Road and Bridge Department came next when the Commissioners fired the department head. He was resistant to the Commissioners’ insistence that he make $50,000 worth of road improvements, an act that would basically annul a lawsuit settlement agreement in which the developer had dropped those demands. They claimed that the department head was lying to them and fired him. The federal lawsuit over that action will soon go to trial.
The County Commissioners swooped in immediately and took direct control of the department. Commissioners Ron Stoltz and Jeff Burrows ran the office, making the rounds daily, observing and analyzing the employees under a magnifying glass. Then they hired new department heads, splitting the duties between an Operations Manager and an Administrative Manager, and eliminated several positions in the department.
Is it cronyism? The new managers may not be on the Republican Central Committee but they certainly know who their benefactors are. After all, if they could fire the previous Road Superintendent on such flimsy grounds, the new hires must know who they are beholden to.
And now the Treasurer’s Office. Once again an opportunity presented itself when the recent Treasurer resigned.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows, in a conversation about the newly appointed Treasurer’s difficulties, volunteered his view of the recent appointment. He said that they had three applicants. One didn’t seem that interested in the job and wasn’t interviewed. Another, Linda Isaacs, “had a lot of experience in accounting but zero experience in management.” The third, Valerie Stamey, “had extensive experience in management and some accounting,” he said.
Once again, the focus on “people management” seems to have trumped the job requirements. The job requirements go way beyond “accounting” in the normal sense of the word. They are outlined in state law. Unable to change the job requirements, like they did with the planning department, the Commissioners made a “judgment call” instead. But it was a judgment call that placed “people management” skills over the real job requirements.
Isaacs had worked as a deputy county treasurer in another county for four years. She also had worked for almost five years with Black Mountain teaching treasurers from around the state in the use of the government software that is critical to the performance of their jobs. Did she have any management skills? No record of any, according to Burrows. Does that mean that she can’t get along with her staff or manage an office? Not necessarily. But she wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt.
Stamey did have a history of doing the accounting for a big food service program. Does that qualify her for the Treasurer’s job which goes way beyond ordinary “accounting”? Not necessarily. But, she was given the benefit of the doubt.
Now Stamey’s shortcomings are becoming painfully obvious. Funds from the Clerk of Court’s office left in her desk for weeks because she couldn’t or didn’t know how to handle them. Funds submitted from the Sheriff’s Office also held up. They need these funds to be placed in the right account in a timely fashion to continue operations. Putting out the tax bills, another big problem.
And how is she doing in “people management,” her forte, according to Burrows? The office is in revolt.
Is it cronyism? She’s a Republican precinct captain.
What’s next? Two months ago the Commissioners adopted a new policy requiring the Sheriff to come before the Board to get permission to spend anything over $10,000, regardless of whether or not his budget, as approved by the commissioners, would allow it. This undermines the Sheriff’s authority over his own budget and also undermines his authority over his employees. He’s got to go on bended knee to the Commissioners just to make an expenditure that he has every right to make under his existing budget. It’s a blatant show of power by the Commissioners. They haven’t had an opportunity to replace the Sheriff, one of those “old fashioned” Republicans, and put in one of the new breed. But we’re sure that they hope to in the next election, or before if they can figure out how. It would be the coup de gras in their “coordination” efforts.
What’s it all about? Why all the effort at micromanaging every department, purging employees, and stuffing every department and public office with political cronies? The real aim is the dismantling of the government, beginning with the federal government, and “coordination” is the key concept. The commissioners say they simply want to “coordinate” with the federal government. But that movement is, without doubt, aimed at “county supremacy” and they are moving relentlessly in that direction by laying the groundwork here locally for lawsuits against the federal government over water rights and forest management to further that aim. They recently set up a fund to allow private donations to pay an out of state attorney to further their fight against the feds, an attorney that specializes in “coordination.” Once the fund is up and going you can bet that the attorney will be used for more than writing a few templates to oppose federal water right claims. Look for a case against the Forest Service over land management decisions that don’t agree with the new county policy for natural resources. Just last Monday Commissioner Foss brought forth the suggestion, supposedly from county citizens whom she refuses to name, to set up another fund to buy Ravalli County a $5,000 membership in the American Lands Council, a lobbying organization in Utah that advocates returning federal land to the states. Its tactics are “offensive” rather than the usual “defensive” approach to this issue and, of course, the offensive tactics include litigation.
The Commissioners act as though they have a mandate to take these extreme and radical actions. But not one of the Commissioners made this well organized program part of their campaign platform. Only one candidate for the state legislature made it an issue. He said that he would reject all federal funding to set us free from federal control. He lost.
Our commissioner candidates did not discuss this agenda with us during the campaign. No one mentioned “coordination,” no one mentioned an employee purge if elected, no one mentioned the cronyism to come, no one mentioned the takeover of our county departments and offices. No one mentioned rejecting Title X funds, which they rejected in part because they say they are tired of taking federal money with “strings attached.” But they are cherry picking among the funds with “strings attached” to eliminate programs that they politically oppose, like Title X, which provides funding for health care for people who can’t afford it otherwise. All this is aimed at the dismantling of our government and the placement of a small band of “so-called” Republicans in charge.
Of course, Republicans are not the problem. We would be facing the same problems if it were Democrats, Constitutionalists, or Libertarians implementing this sort of agenda. The thing is, we don’t want any political party micromanaging and politicizing every department and office in our county. It may be legal, but it’s just not right.
Our government needs to function. The radical agenda of the County Commissioners is having devastating effects on the morale of longtime employees in our county departments and offices. The only county office to successfully resist this agenda has been the Justice Department, which did so by going to court. The law protects them from this sort of manipulation. The same apparently doesn’t hold true for other departments and offices. Too bad.