The new all-Republican Ravalli County Commission has had an interesting first few weeks in office. They've made some dramatic and contentious gestures to push the kind of limited and localized brand of government conservative voters nationwide cried out for during last fall's general election. But to their opponents, they look ill-informed and overreaching.
With the Bitterroot Valley's long history of anti-government sentiment, we've been watching these developments from a distance, wondering just how far alterations to county policy will go.
The commission's first official act on Jan. 3 was to announce its intention to repeal a rewrite to local subdivision regulations hurriedly passed by the previous Democrat-controlled commission only 10 days earlier. Bitterroot residents on the left have since voiced concerns that this will lead to an abandonment of subdivision regulations and zoning. But fresh-face Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher says nothing could be further from the truth.
"There certainly were a lot of things about [the regulations] that the sitting commission now thinks are steps forward," Kanenwisher says. "The question is, do you keep what you have now and then start changing it...or do you go back to what we had 10 days ago and complete the document before we implement it?"
In another provocative move early this week the commission took up a staff comment policy outlining how and when non-elected county employees can publicly talk about governmental affairs.
"What they're simply looking at is a chain of command in an effort to make sure the information we release is correct," says Ravalli County Human Resources Director Robert Jenni. "What they don't want is, for example, a janitor commenting on county policy that they may not have knowledge of."
Fellow newbie Commissioner Suzy Foss says the commission isn't implementing gag orders, but merely trying to establish a more structured public process. But Kanenwisher understands that the county's history with the far right may lead to misinterpretation of the new commission's intentions.
Take the recent training session four commissioners attended, hosted by the nonprofit American Stewards of Liberty, which teaches that county governments are "equal, not subordinate." Such language sounds suspiciously like right-wing claptrap.
"I had somebody the other day ask, 'Are you talking about secession?' Well, no, wow, that's quite a jump," Kanenwisher says.
But it looks like they're playing with fire. County planner John Lavey resigned the same day the new commission announced plans to repeal the subdivision updates. He initially cited frustration with the move, but later recanted his statement in the Ravalli Republic.