Printed on: July 26, 2013

Cheers & Jeers

JEERS to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. As reported by the Idaho Spokesman-Review's Betsy Z. Russell, Luna signed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar, sole-source contract for a Tennessee-based firm to set up Wi-Fi networks in every Idaho high school.

News of that contract has been received with indignation from members of the Idaho Legislature, who say Luna had no authority to sign a deal that could last as long as 15 years and cost taxpayers $33.75 million.

Budget Committee Co-chairman Dean Cameron, a Republican from Rupert, called Luna's claim that last year's public school appropriation bill granted him authority to sign the deal "certainly a stretch and perhaps borderline on a lack of honesty, because there was no provision in SB 1200 that addressed it."

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, told the Idaho Press Tribune, "Something doesn't smell right to me."

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, reacted to news of the contract with this: "My word -- how can they? That doesn't sound like the budget I set every year, which dies, positively dies out of money on the 30th of June."

Senate Bill 1200 did not grant Luna specific authority to sign a multiyear deal. It certainly did not say he could -- or should -- commit the state to spending public monies in future years.

SB 1200 did mandate Luna spend $2.25 million to install wireless technology in every Idaho high school. Luna's argument is that the only feasible way to meet that mandate is through a multiyear contract.

Essentially, lawmakers handed Luna an inch.

Not surprisingly, he took a mile.

In doing so, Luna showed that he learned nothing from the defeat of his Students Come First education reform package in 2011 and that he remains committed to the kind of crony politics that dominate Idaho's state government.

The vendor Luna selected, Education Networks of America, will own all the equipment installed in our schools, reminiscent of the deal with Hewlett-Packard that voters shot down two years ago.

If the contract is canceled for any reason -- including the Legislature not funding it in future years -- the equipment would be removed and the wireless access lost. So, we'll have spent millions for nothing. As Senate President Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told Russell, "That just doesn't seem like a prudent way to do it."

Also, it's telling that Luna selected a Tennessee-based company ahead of the two other finalists, both Idaho-based firms. It probably helped its cause that Education Networks of America contributed $6,000 to Luna's campaigns and hired one of his former staffers, Gerry Lough, as its point man in Idaho.

Finally, Luna's argument that this kind of multiyear contract is standard practice doesn't hold water. The administrator of the state Purchasing Division of the Department of Administration told Russell it doesn't pursue multiyear deals until it can certify the money will be available.

Certainly lawmakers did Luna no favors with the way SB 1200 was worded. But, ever the opportunist, Luna saw his chance and pounced. In doing so, he reminded us once again why no statewide elected official in Idaho is trusted less.

CHEERS to Andrea Lee, a former 20-year veteran of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. You might remember that a cellphone being used by Sheriff Blair Olsen's wife was registered in Lee's name. When asked by the Jefferson Star about the phone, Lee said she had no idea why it was listed under her name.

The Star reported earlier this month that Lee will file a tort claim against the county, alleging that Olsen and the county commissioners did nothing to prevent a hostile work environment.

The paper's July 17 story detailed allegations made by Lee, essentially that her superiors made her life miserable after she dared to tell the truth about the cellphone registered in her name. Lee has also filed a complaint with the Idaho Human Rights Commission.

Good for her. The truth appears to be a foreign language in Jefferson County. Perhaps a lawsuit and investigation by a state agency will shed some light. But Lee isn't the only person shaking up the establishment in JefCo.

CHEERS to Shelly Allred. A longtime employee of Jefferson County Prosecutor Robin Dunn, Allred went before the county commissioners this week to detail her experience. Allred alleged that she was paid by taxpayers to do work for Dunn's private law practice.

Not surprisingly, commissioners heard Allred's claims in executive session. Unlike a prior meeting with another disgruntled citizen, Chairman Jerald Raymond didn't tell Allred she would come "under penalty of law" if she talked about the conversation. That's because no such law exists. So, Allred shared with the media, in great detail, the allegations she made to the commissioners.

But Allred and Lee have company.

CHEERS to Mud Lake Mayor Sherry Locascio. In a July 24 letter to the Jefferson Star, Locascio detailed her own issues with the power base in JefCo, including problems with the landfill west of Mud Lake, Allred's lawsuit and the recent revelation that county vehicles were crushed in the landfill and not placed at public auction as required by law.

At some point, you knew this was going to happen. The emperors in Jefferson County, with a few notable exceptions, including Commissioner Brian Farnsworth, have been running around with no clothes on for far too long. County residents ignored the nakedness for far too long. No longer. As another July 24 letter writer to the Star, Rigby's Irven Hill, correctly pointed out: "There is honor in telling the truth: something those without honor fear most."

JEERS to Stephen Weeg, chairman of the board overseeing Idaho's new health insurance exchange. You know many Idahoans are inclined not to trust the board because of its ties to Obamacare. And yet, Weeg this week announced his intention to lead the board in a nearly four-hour closed meeting in Boise on Thursday, almost twice as long as the public portion of the gathering.

Yes, the board is within its rights to go behind closed doors. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea to do so.

Corey Taule