County who?

Why Ada County commissioner may be the best job on the ballot


The governor, legislators and judges all wield enormous power, but some argue that the mundane county commissioner is the most powerful position in the land. At least in the eyes of county residents.

"A lot of people don't know what a county commissioner is," said David Langhorst, a retiring state senator. Five months ago, he left his job in commercial real estate appraisal to campaign full time for Ada County commissioner.

"One of my goals after my first term is that people are going to know what county commissioners do and why they're important," Langhorst said. "I think people are realizing that these local government issues are really affecting their lives a whole lot more than what is going on in the Legislature."

Ada County commissioners manage a budget of almost $200 million, and oversee affairs as diverse as the courts, the sheriff's office, weed and pest control, elections, the Western Idaho Fair and the county landfill.

"I've heard it expressed that the counties do the functions that nobody else wants to do," laughed Langhorst.

Langhorst, a Democrat, is running against Republican Rick Yzaguirre, the current District 2 commissioner.

Yzaguirre was Eagle mayor from 1997 to 2002 and has been working in local government for 21 years. He said that being county commissioner is a tough job.

"A lot of the decisions that we make, by the time they get to us, they're not real easy decisions. It's usually pretty controversial, and usually somebody leaves the room unhappy," he said.

Even so, Yzaguirre said he's never been interested in running for the Legislature.

"A lot of what you accomplish is compromised to death by the time it becomes a bill. Things seem to get watered down," he said.

County commissioners only need one other vote for a majority decision, whereas legislators require dozens.

"It's much easier to get something accomplished, and you can do it a lot quicker," Yzaguirre said.

More than anyone else, commissioners are responsible for how Ada County grows. Not only do they collect property taxes, which make up about 25 percent of the overall budget, but they also control planning and zoning. Their votes decide where big developments proceed on county land.

Langhorst said the immediate, direct impact of the commissioner job is the reason he didn't seek another term as a state senator from District 16. His work passing a vehicle emissions testing bill last year in the Legislature inspired him to run for local government.

"Everybody came to the table and really wanted to do something meaningful and solve a problem ... This is what local government is like—people wanting to solve things, and not just espousing ideology. It was a good, instructive working atmosphere. It doesn't feel like that at the Legislature very often," he said.

In the other commission race, Republican Sharon Ullman is challenging District 1 Commissioner Paul Woods, the lone Democrat on the board. If Langhorst wins and Woods keeps his seat, the two believe they'll have an easier time accomplishing their goals for increasing open space and controlling development in the county, something both men cite as top priorities.

Woods would also like a better working relationship with cities. Woods said his vision for the county often differs from that of the other commissioners.

"I just believe that the county ought to be in partnership with cities when it comes to development. I am advocating for some serious changes in the ordinance," he said in regards to planning and zoning processes.

Woods believes that county commissioners get stale after two rotating 2-year and 4-year terms, mostly because after six years in office they've managed to anger just about everyone with their decisions. That's different from the Legislature, he said, because commissioners' decisions have such an immediate impact.

"I would be hard pressed to make a list of things that the Legislature did to me, but when you think about this community, county commissioners did Avimor. They did Skyline [The Cliffs development]. They did not address traffic. They did not address air quality. We're where the rubber meets the road," Woods said.

Ullman ran for the commission in 1992 as a Democrat, and then won the seat in 2000 as a Republican. She served as commissioner until 2002 and then ran again as an independent in 2006 against Paul Woods.

"I believe I took votes away," Ullman admitted of the heated 2006 race. "Had I not been in the race last time, it's likely that Paul Woods would not have won."

Ullman said she was "strongly encouraged" to run as a Republican this time in order to keep the vote from being split again.

She said that her main focus as commissioner would be to cut what she sees as wasteful spending and to make sure that the government is focused on protecting public health and safety.

"County spending is out of control," she said, citing her disapproval over the building of the Barber Park Education and Event Center. "Why is the government in the event business? The county could open an ice cream stand in the courthouse, and they would probably make money right away, but it's not an appropriate role for government," she said.

Yzaguirre disagreed, saying the county has been very fiscally responsible.

"We've been very proud of our accomplishments there over the last three years," he said, noting that commissioners haven't raised property taxes even though they could have done so. "We've set aside about $7.7 million that we could've taken that we haven't," he said.

Yzaguirre is not endorsing either Woods or Ullman, but notes that Ullman could be a polarizing figure if she were elected due to what he calls her "confrontational" management style. In 2005, Ullman pushed a criminal complaint against Yzaguirre, who owed nearly $70,000 in taxes, Lottery monies and Idaho Department of Fish and Game fees to the state through his grocery store in Eagle. Charges were never filed against Yzaguirre.

Ullman disagrees that she is polarizing, saying she likes "to bring people together and get them on the same page and find common ground." She said it's not about agreeing with the other commissioners, but "that elected officials have an obligation to do what's right for the public." She said she doesn't care whether other Republicans are endorsing her.

All the candidates agree that this year's race will be even more interesting because of the presidential election.

Yzaguirre said he's not sure how to read this year due to the high number of absentee ballots being sent out.

Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Chris Rich mailed out 183,000 absentee ballot requests, and says he's already received back between 40,000 and 45,000. In the last presidential election, the county received just 16,000 ballot requests.

"We've got 11 people doing data entry, two opening mail, and three time stamping from 8 [a.m.] to 8 [p.m.], Monday through Saturday," Rich said. "This is just totally unprecedented."