COEUR d'ALENE - Kootenai County commissioners will put out a ballot initiative this November proposing to create a county manager position and to turn several elected county positions into appointed ones, they announced on Tuesday.
The commissioners have authority under Idaho code to create optional forms of county government, a press release stated, but all three commissioners pledged in their campaigns to give the voters the final word.
"We've heard almost through the last three, four elections, that it's been a big debate," said Commissioner Todd Tondee. "So we need to answer that debate, and give people the opportunity to decide."
The commissioners have asked the prosecuting attorney to draft a ballot measure that, if it passes, would give the commissioners authority to hire a county manager tasked with administrative duties.
The same measure would also propose making the offices of county assessor, clerk, coroner and treasurer appointed positions, instead of elected as they are now.
The positions of sheriff and prosecuting attorney would remain elected positions.
The board of commissioners would also continue to have three full-time members, despite past discussions of expanding to five.
"I believe there are efficiencies to be gained," said Commissioner Dan Green of the proposed changes.
A county manager would handle day-to-day administrative tasks and free up the commissioners' time for policy making, Green said.
"I estimate 70 to 80 percent of my day is spent in administrative functions," he said.
He added that specific elected officials should be appointed because their duties are largely dictated by statute.
"They don't make many, if any, policy decisions," he said, adding that he doesn't think that applies to the prosecuting attorney or the sheriff. "I think their positions are primarily administrative in nature."
Tondee said appointing the other officials will give the commissioners more authority over them.
"It holds the three commissioners more accountable for their actions," Tondee said. "It's easier if you have someone doing something wrong to get rid of them, faster than trying to do a recall."
He doesn't think voters will be deprived of holding those officials accountable, he said.
"I don't see the voters holding those people elected as accountable now. They hold the commissioners accountable," Tondee said. "When they have a problem with the assessor or sheriff, they come to the commissioners and say, 'What are you going to do about it?'"
He hopes to see the commissioners expanded to five part-time officials someday, he added.
But he believes these changes must happen first, to allow for the added cost.
"I think we're going to get there eventually," Tondee said.
Commissioner Jai Nelson acknowledged that appointing the officials would add more responsibilities for the commissioners, which might be managed by giving more authority to the prosecuting attorney.
"I will support whichever way it goes, and implement it either way," Nelson said of the ballot initiative.
Assessor Mike McDowell said he is a proponent of putting these options before the voters.
But he hasn't heard much support for making elected officials appointed, he said.
"There are a lot of checks and balances built into the county government right now, by distributing authorities among elected officials," McDowell said. "This would tend to put that out of balance."
Coroner Deb Wilkey emphasized the importance of an expert medical examiner determining the cause and manner of an individual's death.
Her greatest concern is who she might be replaced with, she said.
"Do you as the public personage, do you want to make your choice on who's best for that?" she said.
The ballot initiative would need a simple majority to pass.
According to the commissioners' press release, a study commission in 1996 recommended expanding to five commissioners, and making all the other elected offices appointed, including prosecuting attorney and sheriff. A 2005 commission also recommended expanding to five, and making all officials but the attorney and sheriff appointed.
The commissioners did have a county manager from 1995 to 2001, according to what county staff could find on Tuesday.
This time the voters can decide, Green said.
"Ultimately, I can't reiterate enough, it's the citizens' decision," he said.