County Clash

by Pia K. Hansen.

District One -- When Gus Johnson took office back in January 2001, he says he already knew he would seek a second term as one of Kootenai County's commissioners.

"You know, a two-year term is sort of a short time to serve," says Johnson. "When the first term is over, that's when you have really gotten into things." The former Post Falls mayor says he looks at his commissioner position as something to which he has worked his way up.

"I was a member of the city council first, then mayor and now commissioner," he says. "Post Falls is the fastest-growing city in the state, so I came in well prepared."

Johnson says he was still surprised by the amount and variety of issues commissioners deal with.

"It's everything from tax assessment to indigent policy," he explains. "It's definitely a full-time job."

Democratic challenger Paula Payne-Laws has an inside track to public service and policy development as well. For the last 15 years, she has worked as an administrative assistant for the city of Coeur d'Alene. It's the first time she has run for office.

Payne-Laws says she decided to run against Gus Johnson because she felt like she wasn't being represented by the sitting county commissioners.

"I could definitely add a different perspective," she says. "As it is right now, the commissioners are not representing all the citizens."

Highest on her list of what needs to be taken care of is the Rathdrum Aquifer. She says she attended six cooperative aquifer meetings and was disappointed not to see any of the Kootenai County commissioners there.

"Everyone was there, from Idaho and Washington, DEQ -- everyone. Kootenai County was the only entity that wasn't represented," says Payne-Laws. "That showed me clearly that they don't represent me. I called the office and asked why they didn't go and was told they weren't required to be there." Johnson says commissioner chairman Richard Panabaker went to the meetings.

"I didn't go," he admits. "Usually the chair will do meetings like that."

If Payne-Laws doesn't feel represented, it's difficult to imagine what Libertarian Thomas R. Macy -- the last challenger -- must feel like. He campaigns wearing a costume that makes him look like a combination of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. So far, he says the high point of his campaign was meeting Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, when he was out doorbelling in Hayden and the Governor's campaign bus came through town.

"They got a big kick out of that, on the bus," he says. "Most people are having fun with it just like I am."

Macy says he's a self-trained electrical engineer who's worked for state, federal and local governments, but is now retired. He campaigns on a traditional Libertarian platform, promising to cut down on government and increase personal responsibility.

"Everywhere I worked for the government, there was always a colossal amount of waste," he says. "In some places, people were employed just to keep the government bosses employed. If I am elected, I would like to take a close look at all the positions and the departments in the county, to determine if the work really needs to be done."

The Aquifer and Growth -- Johnson is mainly running on his experience, saying he has lived all his life in the Coeur d'Alene area and that he knows what's going on. "The decisions I make, I meet people when I walk down the street here, and I want to be able to explain to them why I did what I did," he says. "I'm going to be around for a long time."

One of the bigger issues among his two opponents is growth and how it's managed. Both Macy and Payne-Laws say that the commissioners have done a bad job in planning for growth.

To that, Johnson says that as a sitting commissioner, it would be inappropriate for him to make comments about the developments that are currently going in. "You kind of sit there as a judge, when they come with the plans," explains Johnson. "For the candidates, that's easy to talk about, but I can't."

Payne-Laws doesn't hesitate to talk about the developments.

"I think the comprehensive plan should be followed a lot more closely with regard to protecting the water and the air and the quality of life we have here," she says. "I don't want to see people in rural areas being impacted with cluster homes, like the Green Meadows and the Lost Creek developments."

Macy pretty much agrees with her assessment, saying that developments like those will ruin the area.

"The commissioners we have right now have deviated from the comprehensive plan every chance they got," says Macy. "That's bad. If you look at the aquifer, for instance, the indication is that we have allocated all the water we have already. The concept that we continue to build without water is ridiculous."

Payne-Laws says new developments should be guided by the infrastructure. "I think there should be some annexation of areas that new developments would be allowed to come into," she says. "It should be based on what's available as far as water and sewer and roads go."

The Budget -- Just like Washington, Idaho is having budget problems, and the local governments are beginning to feel the pain.

"For the next couple of years, the biggest challenge for Kootenai County is definitely going to be the budget," says Johnson. "The state's problems gets passed on to the county, but I'm still pretty optimistic -- I don't predict a deficit."

Macy spearheaded the fight against the half-percent sales tax that was ruled unconstitutional in July. It was money that the county had counted on spending on its new jail.

"Since we lost the half-percent sales tax, we have to go find the money for the jail somewhere else," says Johnson.

Payne-Laws says it's all about getting wants and needs balanced out better.

"I think one of the biggest challenges is to make sure taxes don't go through the ceiling," she says. "I do believe there will be a budget shortfall, especially now, after we lost the half percent sales tax. That's going to hurt."

Macy says that instead of turning to taxes, the county should bring jobs into the area that would create wealth - instead of just service-level jobs.

So voters have to decide if they want to stick with what's tried and true in Johnson, or if they want change.

"If I'm elected, I think we'd end up with a better group of commissioners in a sense that we would get more diversity in there," says Payne-Laws. "We would be able to create good partnerships with other agencies outside of the county and also with the different departments who work under that umbrella."

Macy primarily wants to cut government waste. And he definitely does not want to raise taxes. "It's all about cutting the waste -- just cut the waste," he says.

Johnson says he wants a chance to continue the work he has started. "I think it's a wonderful time right now in Kootenai County," he says. "I'm pretty optimistic, and I'd like to be able to follow through on some of the projects I have begun."

District Two -- He's in his seventh year on the Coeur d'Alene city council, and now Chris Copstead is ready to move on to the board of county commissioners. His city term is up at the end of 2003, but he'll leave that seat if elected as commissioner.

"I've served on many boards and commissions and been involved in many aspects of civic life for a long time. I'm ready," he says. He sold his marketing and Web site development company two years ago and now works as the executive director of the Greater Hayden/Hayden Lake Chamber of Commerce.

Copstead says he's a Republican, but he decided to run as an independent candidate.

"I know many people vote the straight party line, so it's important that they know I'm Republican," he says.

The other Republican in this race is Elmer "Rick" Currie, who was born and raised in Coeur d'Alene and now works as a salesman at Robideaux Motors. Currie seems uncomfortable with the attention that has come his way during the campaign.

"I'm not the best talker; I'm a much better listener. I'm not a flamboyant person by any means," he says. "I can make good decisions and have people work together -- that's what I'm good at."

The last candidate is Christian Kirsch, a Libertarian who works as a logger and has lived in the Coeur d'Alene area for a little more than six years after moving from Ohio. He decided to run for office after helping to energize the Libertarian Party in North Idaho.

"We want to see some changes. We are tired of career politicians," he says. "It's my first time running for office." Kirsch says Coeur d'Alene is run by a small group of wealthy and influential people, and that dealing with that group and the other powers-that-be will be the biggest challenge for him, if elected.

"They are not going to like me, Libertarians have a different way of doing things," says Kirsch. "There are just certain people who run this county, like Duane Hagadone -- he gets his way. It's just like anywhere else." He adds that he doesn't think it'll be difficult for him to work with the other commissioners.

The Aquifer and Growth -- Copstead has spent eight-and-a-half years as planning commissioner for the city of Coeur d'Alene, so growth management issues are at the top of his list of important things to take care of.

"People should look at the comprehensive plan as a blueprint -- it's imperative that it's followed," says Copstead. "I don't feel it has been followed the way it should be. But we also have a lot of land-use issues, like new developments, that are of great concern, so I think it needs to be revised."

Currie supports the comprehensive plan but doesn't want to comment on whether it's been followed by the sitting commissioners. "That's a loaded question, I'm going to be working with some of the commissioners, so I'm not going to answer that," he says. "But it's the law. It's also a legal issue. If the law wasn't being followed, I can assure you that the lawsuits would be rampant, and they aren't."

Kirsch says he hasn't read the entire comprehensive plan, but even if he, as a Libertarian, is a firm supporter of individual property rights, he says planning is essential.

"You don't want to pollute the river and have that float down to your neighbors, and you need some control on urban sprawl," he says, adding that resources such as water from the aquifer should be managed as well.

Currie's number one concern is the aquifer. "It takes up just a small portion of Kootenai County, but it's by far the biggest concern," he says. "Managing the aquifer is not just a county issue, it's also a state and federal issue, and that's where the commissioners have some lobbying power. It absolutely has to be protected."

Copstead believes the scientific study of the aquifer that's currently underway will answer many questions. "I'm very concerned about the aquifer, especially when it comes to new developments above it," he says. "We have revisit the land-use decisions we've made atop the aquifer and make sure we know what we are doing."

The Budget -- The next couple of years may turn out to be quite an economic challenge for Kootenai County, and all three candidates share some degree of worrying about the budget.

"The budget is going to be a challenge, that's for sure," says Currie. "But I'm business-oriented. I think we can work it out." He supports a regional approach to economic development and transportation issues, regional meaning that he would like to reach out to Spokane County as well. "We should work together -- not only on the aquifer protection," he says.

Copstead says the city just went through a "really hard time" making its budget. We had to cut some positions. It's no different here than it is in many other places," says Copstead. "Balancing the budget without raising taxes is going to be a major challenge. All the revenues are down and expenses such as health insurance are up."

He says it's a shame that the half-percent sales tax was repealed. "That local tax option gave the county a boost. It was $9.5 million, and a lot of that came in during the summer, when the tourists are here, so the people who are visiting here were helping to pay the bills."

Kirsch is working for lower taxes and less government and more personal responsibility. "Everything doesn't have to be in the hands of the government," he says. "And look at some of the decisions they have made. The people voted against the jail, yet [politicians] gave us a choice between the half-percent sales tax or a property tax increase, and a jail expansion we didn't want."

Whereas Kirsch clearly views himself as the outsider in this race, the two other candidates both stress their ability to work with people of different opinions to build better partnerships.

"I always keep in mind that my opponent also is my friend," says Currie. "We have to be able to work together."

Copstead says the sitting commissioners haven't always done a great job of working things out.

"They have not worked together. They must have mutual respect," he says. "The commissioners should work as a partnership, also with other municipalities, and with departments and other government entities within the county."