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A group like the one now operating in Bonner County has never been seen in Idaho. All-volunteer and strictly advisory, the Bonner County Property Rights Council begins its meetings with an invocation, the Pledge of Allegiance and enshrines a number of libertarian-minded principles under the broad umbrella of "free-market policy." It makes its case using jargon like "public choice theory," "public interest" and "government failure theory"--libertarian ideas that suggest, among many other things, that privatization of public services is usually more beneficial, and funding should more often than not be shifted from tax dollars to user fees.
The council's draft bylaws include a complex process for collecting, researching and advising on property-rights questions, as well as institute a pyramidal structure of certifications that are achieved by completing various levels of training in free-market policymaking.
One of the few membership requirements, other than residency in Bonner County, is that, "Members must commit to focus their efforts principally on promoting and protecting private property rights in the manner set forth in these bylaws."
As it turns out, the "manner set forth in these bylaws" is based on policy research and texts produced or approved by libertarian think tanks The Cato Institute and State Policy Network, the latter being a national partner of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
To earn the PRC "constituent" certification--which is the first of four gradations--members must spend no less than 20 hours completing one of two State Policy Network endorsed books: Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure, produced by The Independent Institute and available online in soft cover for $19.50, and Government Failure, A Primer in Public Choice, a Cato-published work available for free on the organization's website.
Once completed, the prospective constituent must schedule two separate one-hour book discussion interviews to ensure a proper understanding of "public choice theory."
All of this must be completed within three months of the first PRC meeting, followed by attainment of "friend" status--which requires 110 hours of study--within 12 months.
The final levels include "policy analyst," which certifies members to become full-fledged PRC research analysts and "legal policy analyst," qualifying the recipient to integrate legal research with free-market policy.
Who decides when members have sufficient grasp of the concepts? None other than Pam Stout, the grandmotherly leader of the Sandpoint Patriots Tea Party, who became a national figure after the publication of a 2010 New York Times article on the movement and a subsequent appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.
Though not involved solely with the Property Rights Council, Stout was hired by the county prior to the council's establishment to serve as a "paralegal program manager" and help get the council off the ground.
Stout's job, though not a paralegal herself, is to assemble a team of paralegal trainees who can be schooled and farmed out to other departments and groups--including the PRC--to perform legal research. She is paid $25,000 per year--a good wage in Bonner County, especially since her position is listed for just 19 hours per week.
According to documents on the voluminous Property Rights Council page of the Bonner County website, the paralegal program is even open to participation from local schools in the hopes that it will "help immunize students from academic biases favoring government intervention."
For regional watchdog Terry Harris, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, the whole project is nothing more than an attempt by hard-right conservatives to set up some kind of libertarian policy institute under the aegis of Bonner County government.
"These are big national forces at work," he said. "I think it's an ideological thing--that somebody is telling them that land-use regulation is bad and they should go after it. ... I think they think of themselves as a think tank, though I'm not sure how much thinking is going on."
Much Ado About Something
Local reaction to the establishment of the Property Rights Council has been a mix between puzzlement, skepticism, suspicion and boosterism.
Rasor referred to an October Associated Press article on the council as a "hit piece," though added that it had "backfired" by getting other communities around the country interested in setting up similar councils.
The Idaho Attorney General's Office was asked to comment on the legality of the council in a query filed by Sen. Shawn Keough on behalf of a concerned constituent. The response, copies of which were handed out at the Nov. 7 PRC meeting, supported the legal right of the county to establish such a council and called it "an innovative solution to an ever-present tension."
However, the AG warned that it should take care to obey open-meeting and public-records laws and "care should be exercised to ensure that the free market of ideas is not corrupted by requirements to adhere to a single source of information."
Penned by Assistant Chief Deputy Brian Kane, the assessment also raised concern over seeming "loyalty oath" language. The attorney general's recommendations were incorporated into the draft bylaws at the PRC meeting.
According to Keough: "I asked for the AG's opinion on the Property Rights Council because I had a constituent request I do so and I agreed that the questions asked merited an outside legal review. ... As a state senator, I don't have an opinion as to whether the commission should have set up the council or not as it is, again, within their authority to do so."
Finally, earlier this month, Clark Fork-based news magazine The River Journal ran a lengthy, blazing condemnation of the project, saying it "looks much like an amoeba" and casting a critical eye on the partisan nature of those involved.
For Rasor, and county Prosecuting Attorney Scott Bauer, the brouhaha is unwarranted.