A judgement day of sorts will arrive for Bannock County’s leadership with the Nov. 3 election.
Two of the county’s three commissioner posts are up for grabs as well as the county sheriff’s position.
Republicans Ernie Moser and Jeff Hough, the two incumbent county commissioners on the ballot, believe the county’s headed in the right direction and the last thing that’s needed at this juncture is for there to be more turnover on a county commission that has been a revolving door in recent years.
In the sheriff’s race, incumbent Republican Tony Manu is being challenged by political newcomer Nate Stewart, a former employee at the Bannock County Jail.
The question Bannock County voters need to ask themselves regarding this election is one of staying the course or not.
The county has been no stranger to controversy in the last couple years, from the inexplicable death of jail inmate Lance Quick due to alleged neglect and starvation to the painful countywide property reassessment that led to failed recall efforts against Bannock County’s assessor as well as the county commission. Then there’s the commission’s very vocal frustration with Southeastern Idaho Public Health over that agency’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as an embarrassing shouting match over road issues at the county courthouse that led to a commissioner booting a Pocatello city councilwoman from the building.
It’s hard not to be a little concerned when you look at these episodes.
But those intent on voting out the incumbents at the courthouse should realize that bringing in yet another slate of rookie officials could lead to more rookie mistakes. The frequent changing of leadership at the Bannock County Assessor’s Office, for example, has not been good for that office or the county.
All that being said, we would like to share some thoughts on the candidates in hopes of helping your decision-making process this election season.
HOUGH VS. ALEXANDER
One candidate who we are particularly impressed with is Republican Commissioner Hough.
Hough was appointed in July to replace fellow GOP Commissioner Steve Brown, who moved from Pocatello to take a job in Alaska.
Since then, Hough’s done a lot of good things for our county government, such as creating a financial analysis team to brainstorm county expense issues big and small and providing badly needed management training to all county supervisors.
Hough has a ton of management experience and training from his time as Idaho State University workforce training director. He’s also a business consultant and formerly served as Twin Falls’ economic development director.
Hough is running against Democrat Lisa Alexander, who has managed several Democratic election campaigns in the past and has now thrown her own hat into the ring. She has deep Pocatello roots, graduating from both Highland High School and Idaho State University. She’s also the former director of the Bannock County elections office.
Alexander’s husband, John, was a state lawmaker during the 1990s, so she’s no novice to Idaho politics.
If elected, Alexander would be the first woman to serve on the Bannock County Commission in more than 20 years and the first Democrat to serve on the commission in nearly a decade.
Hough admits that he doesn’t think the commission does a good job of telling its story to the public. Alexander would tell you that a vote for her would be to change that story for the better with a more mature style of leadership, greater transparency and the public having a voice in the county’s decisions.
We gave both Hough and Alexander our highest marks of any of the county candidates for how they handled our questions during their interviews with us and we imagine voters are going to have a very difficult time deciding who to vote for because both of these candidates are articulate, have the necessary bandwidth to do the job and are the kind of people we need in our county government.
MOSER VS. INDEPENDENTS
The other commissioner race on the ballot has incumbent Republican Moser trying to fend off challenges from independent candidates Lorin Nielsen, the county’s former sheriff, and Robert Ballard.
This will be Moser’s second term on the commission, and we believe he is trending in the right direction as far as learning the job.
Moser deserves credit for making good on his first term campaign promise to hold town hall meetings in the county’s smaller communities to give those folks a feeling that the commission is not all about serving Pocatello and Chubbuck, the county’s largest cities.
He correctly points out that his first term has seen the commission having to deal with two major crises — the botched 2019 countywide property reassessment and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those are certainly major events and we’re fairly certain that if the commission could have a do over on its response to the reassessment fiasco that it wouldn’t make the same mistakes twice.
Moser also points out that unlike past commissioners, he, Hough and Terrel “Ned” Tovey look at their positions as full-time jobs and are at the courthouse daily to make the county’s government the best it can be and to better serve county residents. We would give the current commissioners an A grade regarding their accessibility to the public and media.
If Moser’s view of the county’s government is that if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it, his challengers see much the opposite being true, especially regarding the commission’s leadership abilities.
Voting for Nielsen is almost like voting for an incumbent in this race because he’s been one of the county’s top officials for decades and knows the county government inside and out.
Nielsen believes the number of missteps by the commissioners during the past few years is proof positive that change is needed. We do think that if Nielsen were on the commission, his steady, transparent and inclusive leadership style would steer the commissioners clear from the kind of nonsense the group’s sometimes become embroiled in during the recent past.
One thing we know about Nielsen from his decades at the Sheriff’s Office is that he owns his agency’s mistakes and in doing so is seen by most people as a trusted and credible public servant who does the right thing even if doing so opens him up to criticism.
Voting for Ballard would be akin to really hitting the reset button on the county’s leadership. He’s an experienced businessman who would be able to do a solid job for the county, though there would be a bit of a learning curve. Ballard says the county’s leaders need to be more accountable for their actions and he believes the county’s management of the Portneuf Wellness Complex needs to be drastically improved.
Ballard is the true outsider in this race but he makes a convincing argument that unless voters want more of the same, he deserves their support.
MANU VS. STEWART
The last contested county race is the contest for Nielsen’s former sheriff’s position.
In one corner is the current sheriff, Manu, a longtime member of the Sheriff’s Office who’s well known and well respected in the community. Manu was appointed this past summer to replace Nielsen, who retired and then threw his hat into the ring for Moser’s commissioner’s post.
Manu’s being challenged by Stewart, an independent candidate who is a former Bannock County Jail employee.
Stewart’s inspiration for running comes from the four years he spent working at the jail and how he believes the facility is in need of reform.
After Quick’s much publicized death, we firmly believe Manu is also aware of the problems and is working toward solutions.
Manu’s platform is one of experience and also change in that he says with him at the helm it won’t be business as usual at the Sheriff’s Office.
We believe him.
For all that Stewart lacks in law enforcement experience, and he lacks a lot there, one can’t help but feel that he’s an individual who is running for public office for the genuine reason that he wants to make things better, in this case regarding the county jail.
Manu, who’s done every job at the Sheriff’s Office from patrol deputy to school resource officer to now sheriff, has the support of the entire local law enforcement community and would have no learning curve if elected.
The same cannot be said for Stewart, but if as expected Manu wins this race we would encourage him to have a long chat with Stewart about the county jail because we believe that Stewart has some compelling insights into the facility and how it can be improved.
Voters have the opportunity this election to adjust the course of their county government in not just the sheriff’s office but in the county’s top posts — the county commissioners.
As in most elections, this boils down to a question of whether you have confidence in the incumbents or not.
We don’t feel that voters could go absolutely wrong by voting for any of the county candidates, but we’d encourage everyone to realize that voting for inexperienced candidates means there’s going to be a learning curve and rookie mistakes.
We’ve seen enough of those in recent years in the county.
But there’s no better way to change the direction of the county than to vote in new leadership.
We’ll all find out which way Bannock County voters are leaning on Nov. 3.