SANDPOINT — Bonner County commissioners are turning to mediation to resolve their differences.
The unusual step on Tuesday to enter mediation to settle disputes among the board members followed the removal of Commissioner Lewis Rich as chairman. Commissioner Mike Nielsen moved to appoint Commissioner Cornel Rasor as chairman and Rasor seconded.
The motion passed on a 2-0 vote.
“I view this removal from chairmanship as punitive,” Rich said after the vote.
Both Rasor and Nielsen insisted the removal was not punitive, but Rich seemed unconvinced by his colleagues’ declarations.
“I’m not looking for punitive action. I’m looking for a change in direction,” said Nielsen.
Rich said he was being removed as chairman as retribution for releasing a series of emails written by Nielsen to all county employees. Rich also accused Nielsen and Sheriff Daryl Wheeler of campaigning against him during the last election.
Prior to becoming sheriff, Wheeler was party to litigation which successfully challenged the commission’s plan to enter into a lease/purchase agreement to construct a new juvenile detention facility and a work-release center. Rich was on the board when that proposal was advancing.
Nielsen maintained in one of the emails that the prior commission reduced the sheriff’s salary prior to Wheeler taking office as payback for interfering with the board’s plan to develop a new juvenile lockup and work-release center.
Tension between Rich and Nielsen were been scarcely evident at board meetings until they took up the budget and sought proposals for a new health insurance brokers.
Rich opposed adoption of the $57.2 million budget because he felt it unfairly favored sheriff’s personnel. The budget increased the sheriff’s salary and pay for commissioned deputies.
Nielsen believed the board was united on budget and Rich’s opposition put his fellow conservatives on the board in an awkward position of supporting a budget that effectively increased taxes.
“This was self-serving claptrap by Lewis so Cornel and I would take the political heat from fiscal conservatives,” Nielsen said in one of the emails released to employees.
Some Republicans lauded Rich for his stance, but Nielsen chided Rich for voting against something after it became clear it would be passed by the board.
The county’s search for a new insurance broker also became a political battleground.
Nielsen accused Rich of being biased toward the county’s longtime broker Taylor Insurance and sabotaging the bid process by feeding Taylor proprietary information submitted by a rival bidder.
“This is the type of skullduggery and cronyism that has plagued Bonner County for years, which must be exposed and eliminated,” Nielsen wrote in an email.
Nielsen, meanwhile, was accused of unfairly favoring broker PacificSource provider Wells Fargo Insurance Services. Both Nielsen and Rich denied being biased or having personal connections to the various companies.
On Tuesday, Rich said he would seek legal advice because he insisted his differences with Nielsen never intruded on his role as chairman.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever let my personal issues with Mr. Nielsen ever jeopardize the way I ran the meetings,” said Rich.
Rasor has largely sidestepped the tensions between Rich and Nielsen, although he has at times acted as something of a referee during some of the more contentious discussions.
Rasor said he does not have issues with either of his colleagues, but proposed mediation because it has proven successful in resolving scores of other disputes the county has encountered.
Brian Noble, a certified conciliator and pastor at Sandpoint Assembly of God, has been selected to mediate. The board initially considered using tax dollars to pay for mediation, but is now considering paying the costs out of their own pockets.
“We’re not going to be using public money,” Rasor said.