Quick: Name the Ada County Commissioners and describe their job duties. Stumped? You're not alone. In fact, consider yourself among some politically active company. A lot of people don't know much about county government, agreed campaigners, organizers and staffers at a recent Young Republican luncheon that put county politics front and center.
Ada County Commissioner and former House Education Chair Fred Tilman, didn't stray far from his commitment to education or citizen involvement in his non-partisan chat that put the spotlight on county details such as who answers to whom at the commissioner's office. The informational lunchtime talk over pizza and chocolate chip cookies had the commissioner talking trash (in the landfill sense) and discussing county emergency management.
"You don't hear a lot about it," Tilman said of county politics. "There isn't a lot of glamor in it."
Tilman passed around flow charts that explained the county hierarchy and chain of command--a useful teaching tool considering a few GOP enthusiasts, who asked to remain nameless, admitted they were a bit out of the county political loop. Heck, reporters don't even give the county much attention, unless of course the landfill overflows or the emergency dispatch system conks out.
Those who did take notes during Tilman's talk, which fused his experience as a state representative and commissioner into a unique perspective learned that county politics come with a host of challenges that vary from those lawmakers face on the state level. For starters, county budgets don't have the wiggle room that lawmakers find useful in the Statehouse. "If you put money in one budget line, it can't be moved around," Tilman said.
The inability to move money from a department that under-spends to a cash-strapped budget can prove frustrating, Tilman said. The commissioner, who says he likes to run government like a well-tuned business, finds that absent wiggle room especially frustrating when gas prices are on the rise and police cruisers still need to make their rounds. "We're scrambling right now to figure out how to make adjustments," he said.
Commissioners also operate within a different legal framework, Tilman explained. If lawmakers find a problem with legal definition or guidelines or just a problem in general on the state level, they can rewrite or change the law. But commissioners are in the business of following the law. "For the most part, all we can do is apply the law to solve a problem."
Commissioners also have to use law to justify the decisions they make. "A lot of times in the Legislature, I'd vote no because I didn't like it. I didn't have to say why." The rules may vary from Statehouse to commissioner's office, but Tilman's message to the youthful conservatives transcended office and government level: "Get involved," Tilman urged. Join a political organization, or volunteer to serve on a county committee, he advised. "If folks don't step to do that, how will anything get done?" After all, Tilman said, "Who is the government? It's us, the citizens."