Most Idahoans would be surprised to learn that the most contentious local politics in Idaho are not in a major city but in Jefferson County which lies between Idaho Falls and Rexburg.
The county sheriff is currently under indictment and the sitting county prosecutor is facing a recall election on March 10th. And, more drama is likely in store.
Jefferson County is heavily Republican and extremely conservative in flavor. In 2014, Governor Butch Otter took 71% of the vote while his Democratic opponent, A.J. Balukoff, received only 19% of the ballots. In the 2014 primary, Rep. Mike Simpson fended off his conservative challenger, Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith, by only an 8 point margin in Jefferson County while he was simultaneously prevailing district-wide by 23 points.
Like much of East Idaho, the county is heavily LDS.
But, change is afoot in Jefferson County. Once known for its laid back lifestyle, the county saw its population jump 37% between 2000 and 2010 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While agriculture still plays a substantial role, much of the former farm ground around Rigby now consists of newer subdivisions. Such growth naturally leads to conflicts between an increasingly urbanized population and a shrinking rural base and those who have recently moved in and those who’ve been in the area for generations.
These cross-pressures have been manifest in several ways, most prominently in the activities of several local groups focused on what they perceive as government corruption.
A few years ago, local resident Bruce Baxter founded a group called the Restoring Integrity Project. According to the group’s website, it is “dedicated to bringing to light the deeds of the dishonorable officials in our county.”
In 2014, the Idaho Legislature changed Idaho law to require the Attorney General to investigate any complaint it receives against elected county officials accused of violating state law. The bill, SB1369, became effective July 1, 2014 and sponsor Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, told IdahoReporter.com that “This bill is about eliminating a conflict of interest problem that has existed since about 1996 or 1997 when the attorney general’s oversight of county prosecutors was removed entirely. As a result, since that time no one has had the authority to review or investigate the actions of county prosecutors and the other county elected officials unless the county commissioners or the county prosecutor requested appointment of conflicts counsel.”
In the latter half of 2014, Mr. Baxter filed an official complaint with the Idaho Attorney General’s Office against various Jefferson County officials. On October 21, 2014, Paul Panther, Deputy Idaho Attorney General, signed a letter to Baxter indicating that the Idaho Attorney General was investigating the conduct of Sheriff Blair Olsen and Prosecuting Attorney Robin Dunn. Press reports in October of 2014 indicated that the Idaho Attorney General had impaneled a Jefferson County grand jury to look into the issues.
On January 26, 2015, Jefferson County was rocked by the indictment of Sheriff Olsen by the grand jury on four counts. Three counts relate to using public money for personal use and the fourth is a charge of misuse of public funds by a public officer. At issue is a serious expenses incurred between January 2010 through January of 2015 for the purchase of a cell phone and service for Olsen’s wife and the purchase of a lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association for Olsen. If convicted, these charges could carry penalties of up to 14 years in jail and a fine of $10,000 per count.
Olsen previous told Karole Honas of Local News 8 that the phone was registered to him and that it was given to his wife as an alternative way of reaching him.
Further adding to the local intrigue is a recall election set for March 10, 2015 against County Prosecutor Robin Dunn.
The recall effort was launched by local resident Lyndsay Goody and is being conducted under the auspices of We the People of Jefferson County. Last fall the group submitted more than 3400 signatures (of which 3,246 were certified) asking for a recall.
Goody says Dunn has a history of using the County to subsidize his law office, that he is often conflicted-out from representing the County because of his private law practice and that a recent incident where Dunn got into a scuffle at a horse track was unbecoming a public official. She also claims that a lack of good legal advice led to the County paying $82,206.30 in attorney's fees for a dispute concerning Eagle Rock Sanitation.
Dunn asserts that the opposition is “merely trying to ‘smear’ my reputation”. He notes that he does not vote on County decisions nor handle County money and that he is a part-time prosecutor with the right to handle outside clients. “I have faithfully served the County as an elected prosecutor over 32 years which is the longest tenure in the State of Idaho. At all times, our staff has handled all assignments from any case, civil or criminal, that is our responsibility”, says Dunn. He also believes that a general election, rather than a runoff election is the proper place to remove a public official.
Regardless of the merits or weaknesses of the recall, supporters have a high hurdle to overcome. Pursuant to Idaho Code § 34-1712(3), a recall may only succeed if the March 10th recall obtains a minimum of 9,167 votes in favor, the same number that elected Dunn in 2012.
That will be exceptionally difficult in that there are only 12,364 voters registered in all of Jefferson County as of February 5, 2015. To prevail, recall advocates need 74% of all registered voters to turn out and also vote in favor of the recall. Mathematically, that is a significant challenge.
The advocates’ chance of succeeding is further weakened by the fact that only one other item is on the ballot. The West Jefferson School District, which constitutes only three of the County’s total precincts, is holding a general obligation school bond on that date.
The estimated cost of the recall election is $10,000.
Tim Hurst, Idaho’s Deputy Secretary of State, in an interview indicated that Idaho has a few recalls filed each year. “Most are for local districts, school districts, recreation districts, highway districts and, occasionally, in a city,” Hurst said. He emphasized what makes recalls difficult is that a recall, to prevail, must obtain at least as many votes in support as elected an official in the first place. That is easier for offices that are filled in low turnout elections but harder for offices elected in higher turnout elections.
Whatever the outcome on March 10th, Jefferson County politics are not likely to simmer down any time soon. Sheriff Olsen is facing an upcoming trial and it is unclear what else the grand jury might do. Further, the advocacy groups in Jefferson County assert that other officials also deserve scrutiny. Bruce Baxter of the Restoring Integrity Project told Local News 8 television, when Sheriff Olsen was indicted, that “there are much, much bigger issues in Jefferson County, and a lot more people involved, in our opinion.”
So, expect Jefferson County internal politics to continue to generate considerable heat in 2015 and, perhaps, beyond.