Questions raised over process to replace Trujillo


Several people are objecting to how local Republicans nominated the candidates to replace Rep. Janet Trujillo, saying it violated party rules because the legislative district’s vice chairman, not the chairman, called the meeting.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said Wednesday he is appointing Idaho Falls City Councilwoman Barbara Ehardt to Trujillo’s state House seat. Otter recently named Trujillo to the Tax Commission.

Otter’s chief of staff David Hensley, who is a lawyer, reviewed the issue, talking to Republican Party leaders and officials from the attorney general’s and secretary of state’s offices before he and Otter “concluded that meeting his statutory deadline of Dec. 30 to make the appointment was preferable to delaying the process while the issues were resolved,” said Otter spokesman Mark Warbis.

On Wednesday, shortly after Otter announced Ehardt’s appointment, Republican Legislative District 33 Chairman Stafford Smith told Otter’s special assistant Pete Katsilometes that he is still the chairman but is out of the country, so he had Vice Chairman Tony Potts direct the selection process. Warbis said this “seems to have addressed the concerns that were expressed.”

State law and the rules of the party to which a former legislator belonged lay out the procedure to fill a vacancy. Parties have district committees for each of the state’s legislative districts, and state law says these committees are to recommend three candidates to the governor, who then makes the decision. State GOP rules further task the district chairman with calling the meeting at which the candidates are chosen, and the rules don’t say whether the chairman can delegate this task.

Nathan Olsen, an Idaho Falls lawyer and one of five people who contacted the governor’s office all raising similar concerns about the process, said he is weighing whether to file an injunction to block Ehardt’s appointment but seemed to be leaning against it. He said he views it as “more of an issue for the upcoming campaign, and whether it’s important enough for an elected official to uphold the rules.”

Ehardt will be the state legislator for the rest of Trujillo’s term but would have to run in and win the May primary and November general election if she wishes to keep the seat after 2018.

“It’s my position that these rules should be strictly adhered to, because we’re picking someone to represent the district in the Legislature,” Olsen said. “They’re going to be making laws; they’re going to be deciding what we’re going to do with our money. It needs to be done right.”

Olsen also said the notice of the meeting was given improperly since it is supposed to come from the legislative district committee. The notice has Potts as the person calling the meeting, identifying him as the “assistant legislative district chairman,” but it was sent out via a party central committee email address.

Potts, whom Otter recently appointed to the state Senate, said he thinks people were confused about his position in the local party due to his recent Senate appointment.

“They didn’t realize that was my role,” he said.

Party rules say the vice chairman takes over the chairman’s duties if the office becomes vacant. In this case, though, the office isn’t vacant because Smith remains the chairman.

State GOP Chairman Jonathan Parker said the party would discuss at its winter meeting whether to change the rules to spell out what is supposed to happen in similar instances.

“We are looking into tightening up the rules to clarify how the process for a situation like this (works), that moving forward it’s absolutely clear what the procedure is,” he said.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757.