Bellamy's blowup ends honeymoon
By Tony Ahern
The honeymoon must be over.
Until last week, the Jefferson County Commission was a relatively harmonious threesome. Longtime Commissioner Bill Bellamy had been generally working well with the two freshmen commissioners, Mary Zemke and Walt Ponsford, even though Bellamy had supported their opponents last fall.
Many onlookers wondered how Bellamy, as entrenched as a local politician can be, would respond to two people who ran as joint candidates and were elected because of two main reasons: a huge mandate out of Crooked River Ranch and the perception that they were more open to public input than their opponents. Bellamy passed an initial test when the newcomers announced one of them would be the chair and not the veteran commissioner and former state legislator. Bellamy took it in stride, and others as a sign that things had changed.
No problem, was Bellamy's posture. Let's just get to work running the county.
But these first five months of the new county government have been trying at times. At last week's commission meeting, issues involving the Treasurer's Office restructuring led to frustrations boiling over.
Zemke is home recuperating from a recent auto accident and she joined the meeting via speaker phone. Zemke ranted about the way Bellamy and Ponsford were handling the potential restructuring of the office and duties of the Treasurer (see page 1). She implied that Bellamy and Ponsford were acting in a somewhat conspiratorial way, ignoring the wishes of those who have testified on the issue. She said "that was one of the reasons she was elected," to ensure that the county wouldn't disregard public testimony.
When Zemke finished ranting, Bellamy started raving.
Commissioner Bellamy said, "We know why you were elected ..." leaving it there for others to fill in the blank, I guess. He then said that "in the last three months I have seen more underhanded things" than in his other six years as a commissioner. He mentioned "quasi-illegal" activities and "incorrect" meetings he felt Zemke had undertaken since becoming a commissioner.
Bellamy said both he and Ponsford were enraged by a letter Zemke mailed to the 29 tax districts within the county urging them to fight changes to the Treasurer's office. It went out anonymously, without signature. Bellamy told Zemke he felt the letter was "unconscionable" and was done in secrecy with an undermining spirit. Zemke said she asked Treasurer Bonnie Namenuk for the addresses publicly and that she wasn't trying to hide anything.
Last week's blowups weren't the first time local government officials have been upset with each other, or have thrown sharp words around. At many levels of government, it's standard practice.
Bellamy's blowup, though, calls into focus the mode of operation of his two fellow commissioners.
It makes perfect sense to campaign as a candidate who will vote according to the public wishes, as one who "will represent everyone." But Commissioner Ponsford is overly sensitive to the notion that he public support is required for each decision. That isn't a bad thought, but it's not practical. We elect our commissioners to make government policy decisions, not to be poll-takers. Besides, the most popular decision isn't always the best decision.
This belief that the commissioners should impart policy based solely on public testimony is asinine. Testimony is often a vital part in decision-making. Decision-makers should listen and learn from it. However, their decisions must not be predicated on how many people testified one way or the other. The people who testify on an issue should be commended for taking the time. But often, though certainly not always, those who testify have financial or other reasons for doing so.
The practice of packing a room with those who support your position, then taking that as a public mandate for a decision, is transparent if not audacious. Two episodes within the last five months come to mind -- the Dave White testimony in January and the first Treasurer restructuring meeting this month -- that smell as if they were orchestrated. This needs to stop.
The Dave White firing was a horribly mismanaged fiasco. White was indeed a controversial employee. If they wanted him gone, Zemke and Ponsford had the votes. They could have unceremoniously removed him as a matter of policy, made it an economic move. Instead, one of their first county commission meetings last January was turned into an anti-White circus, with a parade of testimony that involved people said was orchestrated by Zemke.
Instead of a quiet firing and a new direction -- which may have saved payroll and been widely supported -- the county called for a state investigation into some very serious charges that were eventually unproven. Before the state finished its investigation, the county went ahead and fired White as a budget move. Then the state finished its investigation and White was vindicated.
All the testimonial circus and state investigation did was give White a reason to sue the county. This was a horrible start for the county commission.
Last week's exchange between Zemke and Bellamy, in a sense, has ended the "start" for the new commission. The honeymoon is over. Now we'll see if they can build a marriage, work together openly and honestly to the betterment of Jefferson County.