A look at change

Officials considering restructure of county government

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Jeff Kovash, right, and Chris Weppner toss metal left at the recycling area of the Kootenai County transfer station in Coeur d'Alene into a large bin Friday.

The structure of Kootenai County government could face a major overhaul in the next couple of years.

With two newly elected commissioners and commissioner Chairman Todd Tondee ready to change the status quo, the three officials are taking a fresh look at restructuring county government.

Ideas include creating a county administrator position, or adding more county commissioners.

But there are many details to iron out before anything is put to a public vote.

"It takes some time to develop," said Commissioner Dan Green. "I personally don't see it (a vote on any changes) happening until the general election of 2012."

It all comes down to deciding what new positions or officials are necessary, the salaries they would receive and the authority they would wield.

Green said he is sticking with his campaign message to create a financial administrator and increase the number of commissioners to five.

"I would like to see the county commissioners be more of a part-time, policy-centered organization," Green said.

A financial advisor would alleviate some of the commissioners' administrative duties, he said.

For instance, commissioners sign authorizations on several kinds of notices a day, he said, which an administrator could handle instead.

"It would let us be able to spend time on policy decisions, and promote the continuity of operations," Green said.

An additional two commissioners would bring more experience to the table and allow a better representation of the county, he added.

If the five officials were part-time, Green predicted, they wouldn't cost the taxpayers any more than the current three full-time officials, who earn about $70,000 a year.

"Not only would it allow us to divide up some of our duties, because I think we do have a lot of duties, but it would also bring more experience," Green said. "More bodies, more heads, more experience."

Commissioner Jai Nelson said she likes the idea of an administrator handling day-to-day functions while the commissioners focus on policy.

But she worries the new position would add another layer of bureaucracy.

"That's what's so critical, is how you set up that person's duties. How much control they have or don't have," she said.

She also questions spending funds on a new position during an economic downturn, she said.

"I think at this point in time, reorganizing internally and developing a pathway to success is achievable without spending funds on an administrator right now," Nelson said. "We have confident, hard-working supervisors and managers and staff who can and are tackling day-to-day operations."

She is open to putting it on a ballot to get the public's reaction, she said.

As for more commissioners, she said, that might be a good idea down the road.

But for now, she would prefer to start by making the current three part-time.

"I think if they were part-time, you'd get a better draw of candidates," said Nelson, who took a break from her interior design business to take office. "It's very difficult to leave a profession for two or four years, depending on your term, and at the end of that time to try to be employed again."

Commissioner Tondee has a different idea for restructuring.

Ideally, he would like to see the other elected county officials - treasurer, clerk, sheriff and coroner - no longer elected, but appointed.

That way the county commissioners could fully oversee their roles and hold them more accountable, he said.

"They (the public) thinks the commissioners are overseeing everything, and we're not," Tondee said. "We set budgets for them (the elected officials), but they have autonomy to use those budgets as they see fit."

Creating a county administrator is something he wants to discuss further with the other commissioners, he said.

Tondee isn't a proponent of creating more commissioners, he added.

That just means more opinions to delay decisions, he said.

And the fewer the officials, he said, the easier it is to completely reelect the board.

"Just seeing through this past election, we have two new commissioners and the total direction of the board has been changed," Tondee said. "It's easier for the public to initiate change with three (commissioners)."

The commissioners' duties include supervision of the county offices, management of county property, administering county salaries, setting fees for county services and deliberating on planning and zoning projects.

The commissioners plan to continue discussing restructuring ideas, and will eventually propose a new ordinance that state statute requires to be approved by a public vote.

Nelson said that with the goal to have something on the 2012 ballot, the officials will take their time to weigh the options.

"It's on the table, but there are a lot of things on the table, and we are going through a prioritization process," she said. "In the meantime, pubic input is what we need."

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