Recent articles discussing county government prompted me to write. I was honored to represent Lewis & Clark County as a commissioner from 2001-2006. The last four years of my tenure I witnessed commissioners enacting many illegal requirements; a water quality emergency declaration using fabricated data, forced emergency zoning attempts, public road building regulations.
I questioned the validity of the valley water quality data. The Environmental Health director privately told me there was no emergency; there were three small areas requiring immediate attention. She said she would publically share the information but, when the time came, she reported the opposite. Prior to the meeting, the commissioners discovered she was going to provide truthful information. She was directed to falsify the figures. A subsequent lawsuit revealed the deputy county attorney told her he could make her department go away if she did not falsify the facts.
Commissioner Hunthausen supported Commissioners Tinsley and Murray as they threw the law to the wind and supported using fictitious water quality information. All three passed emergency zoning and were almost successful in conning the public. The IR exposed their dishonesty in 2008, reporting there never was an emergency. The commissioners never offered a truthful explanation.
Attempts to provide statutory information to the commission repeatedly fell on deaf ears and several lawsuits were filed. For example, the Christisons’ subdivision was one of many illegal decisions. Having lost the lawsuit, at least seven similar lawsuits are on hold until the Christison case is completed. Other past litigants are now asking for reconsideration of their suits.
The county attorney’s office is also to blame for what is still happening. The deputy county attorney told me the commission could make any decision it wants, and unless the county is sued, it is law. He said all the commission had to do was say their decision was based on public “health, safety and welfare” and he could defend it. He said that even if the county lost in court, it would win in the end because he would bankrupt the plaintiff with their attorney fees.
The county now must pay the Christisons’ attorney fees. When the cost of private attorneys, county staff and county attorney fees is added to the current $673,000, it’s not a stretch to assume we’ll be paying at least $1 million. Misleading legal advice will cost us millions in future lawsuit decisions.
This year’s budget has roughly $440,000 to settle lawsuits or prepare for court. That’s not enough. If a recent estimate of $16 million in lost lawsuits is accurate, one of two things must happen: our taxes will dramatically increase or services will be drastically reduced, meaning massive layoffs. Both could happen. Don’t forget, there’s no plan for road improvements.
We all should be offended when Commissioner Hunthausen said, “It’s our responsibility to follow the law”; he’s frustrated that some are portraying the commission as anti-development. Commissioners Hunthausen and Murray have always been anti-development. The resulting lawsuits are proving it. They break the law to serve their purpose, and you and I are paying for it. It’s not about subdivisions, it’s about anything they want to do. Words are meaningless; it’s their voting record that’s important.
Commissioner Hunthausen took credit for being the instrumental supporter on a cornucopia of county projects. His claims are inaccurate. In at least one instance he takes credit for a project that he resigned from before completion.
When I was a commissioner, I told folks they should become involved and run for office so they could change laws they disagreed with. My fellow commissioners said if they didn’t like what the commission did, they could sue; the county had staff attorneys and the public had to pay theirs by the hour.
Mike Fasbender took both suggestions seriously. He filed several lawsuits and won because the other commissioners illegally manipulated the law. He also filed for county commissioner. Mike’s a brave man: bright, honorable, honest and more than anything else, he’ll follow the law. I think our county deserves it.
Anita L. Varone is a former Lewis & Clark County Commissioner.