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UPDATE: After week of confusion, Cassia County to dissolve administration department

BURLEY — After more than a week of confusion for county employees, Cassia County Commissioners have voted to dissolve the county’s administration department by June 1.

The commissioners released a statement after a special meeting Thursday when the board met for an executive session to discuss personnel matters.

The commissioners had meetings Feb. 26 and March 1 where they apparently discussed the decision, and rumors began swirling that the department no longer existed.

Earlier in the week, county offices were in limbo, as employees answering the phones Monday told a Times-News reporter that Cassia County no longer had an administrator’s office and directed a public records request be sent to the county clerk instead. Commissioner Paul Christensen said Monday that was false “at this time,” but declined to comment on why employees believed the department didn’t exist.

The department is led by Cassia County Administrator Kerry McMurray, who did not return multiple calls or an email requesting comment.

“We feel it is imperative that elected officials are the administrative body of the county,” the commission said in its Thursday evening statement. “Mr. Kerry McMurray has served the County well. He will continue to serve the County in the capacity of a deputy prosecuting attorney, under the supervision of the Cassia County Prosecuting Attorney.”

The county administrator has primarily functioned as the planning and zoning administrator and works on special projects for the commission, Kunau said. The department McMurray oversees includes planning and zoning, building and custodial staff.

All other employees in the administrative department will be transferred to other departments in the county offices, the statement said.

During a regular meeting Feb. 26, commissioners Tim Darrington and Bob Kunau had voted to “implement the actions for the County Administrator Department.” Christensen was not present.

When asked earlier this week about what those actions were, County Clerk Joe Larsen said “I don’t have a clue,” and that the commission was not required to divulge personnel actions because those were exempt from public disclosure.

Darrington and Kunau, however, had told the Times-News that they would be restructuring the county administrator job. The vote to eliminate the department came up Thursday after the commission felt pressure to release information because “people thought there were sinister acts happening here,” Kunau said.

Public perception

The main reason for the change, Darrington and Kunau said, was that the public had a perception that McMurray, as administrator, was running the county.

“Over the years, more authority has been put into that position,” Darrington said.

And while the position has existed for close to 30 years, the county has not been following state code correctly, Kunau said. Commissioners were approached by the Idaho Association of Counties and by residents with concerns about the administrator position.

According to Title 31, Chapter 8 of Idaho Statutes, “(1) The board of county commissioners shall be empowered to employ assistants, including administrative assistants, and clerical staff to aid them in fulfilling their duties. (2) The board may appoint a member of the board of county commissioners to act as administrator.”

The perception in Cassia County, Kunau said, was that the head person in the county is not an elected official.

While Kunau and Darrington embraced the change, they said Christensen was not initially in favor of it. Christensen did not return calls for comment on Friday, but the vote on Thursday was unanimous.

“It’s a big step, a big hurdle,” Darrington said. “We want to move forward and we need to be willing to change.”

Allocation of duties

Over the next several weeks, the Cassia County Commission will be tasked with deciding how the planning and zoning, mapping, building and custodial staff will be moved into other departments.

Kunau, who is the commissioner overseeing building maintenance, said the custodial personnel will probably answer directly to him. The building inspector and other positions are likely to be absorbed into the auditor’s department.

There are not expected to be any wage changes or layoffs, he said.

McMurray is an attorney, but doesn’t have a law practice, Kunau said. As the deputy prosecutor, he will help that office, which has at times been shorthanded, he said.

“He’ll be better placed in that office,” Darrington said.

Meanwhile, the county will probably begin advertising for a new planning and zoning administrator, and an IT person, Darrington said.

Under the new actions, Kunau and Darrington hoped commissioners would have more responsibilities to the day-to-day functions of Cassia County.

“We as commissioners should step up and do those things,” Darrington said. “I want us to do our jobs.”

Jerome County sends Eden's proposal to expand area of impact back to the drawing board

EDEN — A petition with 153 signatures landed on Mayor Larry Craig’s desk recently supporting the tiny town’s efforts to expand its impact area. Despite the show of support, Jerome County sent the city back to the drawing board when it presented a proposal to expand its impact area to nearly 12 square miles.

The city isn’t happy about that.

“That was what we proposed to stop any (dairies or other livestock confinement operations) from coming in,” Craig said Thursday.

The city already has an area of impact including five square miles surrounding the town of 400 people. That’s large enough, county commissioners say.

“I understand and respect what they want to do, but I don’t think this plan is the way to do it,” Commissioner Charlie Howell said Friday.

Impact areas are not intended to be buffer zones from agriculture, according to state land-use planning laws. Rather, the purpose of impact areas is to guide a town’s growth in a structured, logical manner and to stave off urban sprawl.


Eden hasn't given up hope of including Skeleton Butte, seen from Eden Road in July, in its area-of-impact agreement with Jerome County.

Eden has existed without growth or annexation for decades, said Art Brown, planning and zoning administrator for the county. But when word got out that the University of Idaho was considering a site near Skeleton Butte for a world-class agricultural research center that included a 2,000-cow dairy north of Interstate 84, some residents objected — loudly.

“We don’t want a stinking dairy near the freeway,” Eden-area resident Judy Holland told the Times-News. “We are all furious.”

Folks in the area are worried about odors from the dairy, groundwater depletion and damage to roads, Holland said.

Michael Parrella

The 2,000-acre site near Skeleton Butte “was never really considered for the CAFE,” Michael Parrella, dean of the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said Friday. “So the outburst from the community was (premature).”


Mayor Larry Craig shows the proposed impact area on a map Thursday at City Hall in Eden. Jerome County recently denied Eden's initial request for a larger impact area consisting of nearly 12 square miles.

But that hasn’t stopped the town from preparing for the next dairy that might want to move in.

Craig, mayor for 35 years, said the city is talking to its lawyer about an appeal, but Howell said the process hasn’t progressed enough to need an appeal. No public hearing has been held nor a formal denial given.

It is possible to exclude livestock confinement operations from the area surrounding Eden without expanding the impact area, Howell said. But it may involve changing the county’s comprehensive plan to allow rezoning the agriculture zone to AL, or agriculture light.

That would be a better way than burdening the town with an expanded impact area, Brown said. The county would first need to determine whether the current wording in the comprehensive plan would allow the rezoning.

County commissioners, legal counsel and staff would make that decision, he said.

Howell said the county takes responsibility for the apparent disagreement and wants to get both entities on the same page.

“We got off on the wrong foot,” he said. “We — the county commissioners and planning and zoning — did a poor job of educating the city” about how the process works.

“I understand and respect what they want to do, but I don’t think this plan is the way to do it.” Jerome County Commissioner Charlie Howell

If you do one thing

If you do one thing: Magic Valley Youth Orchestra’s winter concert will feature four ensembles at 3 p.m. at the College of Southern Idaho Fine Arts Auditorium, 315 Falls Ave., Twin Falls. Donations are welcome.

Former Jerome County sheriff Doug McFall arraigned on theft charges

JEROME — Former Jerome County Sheriff Doug McFall appeared in court March 8 and was arraigned on four criminal charges.

McFall is charged with grand theft and misuse of public funds, both felonies, and two misdemeanor charges of petit theft.

A judge informed McFall of the charges and his rights, and a preliminary hearing was set for June 28.

A criminal complaint from the Idaho Attorney General’s office says the grand theft charge stems from Dec. 17, 2016. McFall told Jerome County resident Rick Grimes that he would not arrest him for theft if Grimes took horses from another person, the complaint says. Grimes later took horses from the Sugar Loaf Arena and McFall did not arrest him.

The complaint says McFall misused public funds in December 2015, December 2016 and in March 2017 by:

  • Redeeming a Costco Reward Certificate that belonged to Jerome County for his own use and keeping the remaining balance
  • Recycling Jerome County tin and automotive parts and keeping the proceeds for himself
  • Using the Jerome County gas card and the Jerome County credit card to buy fuel while on a personal trip
  • Using the Jerome County credit card for an overnight hotel stay during a personal trip

The petit theft charges come from March 9 and 10 in 2017 when McFall claimed expenses with Jerome County when he was scheduled for an official function but didn’t attend, the complaint says.

In May, McFall asked county commissioners for an attorney to represent him in an investigation by the AG’s office. County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Seib denied the request, saying the request was “premature,” according to the meeting’s minutes.

McFall denied any wrongdoing.

The investigation began about the time a former employee with the sheriff’s office was accused of taking money intended for undercover drug buys. Dan Kennedy, a former lieutenant, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of misuse of public funds in September.

McFall began his career in law enforcement in 1984 with the Idaho State Police. He retired in 2008 and ran for sheriff that fall. McFall was re-elected in 2016 to his third term, and he resigned Feb. 28.


US says it will hold N. Korea to its promises ahead of summit

WASHINGTON — The White House tried to swat away criticism Friday that the U.S. is getting nothing in exchange for agreeing to a historic face-to-face summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said North Korea has made promises to denuclearize, stop its nuclear and missile testing and allow joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. But questions remained over exactly what North Korea means by "denuclearize" and what the U.S. might be risking with a highly publicized summit that will build up Kim's stature among world leaders.

"Let's not forget that the North Koreans did promise something," Sanders said, responding to a reporter's question about why Trump agreed to a meeting — unprecedented between leaders of the two nations — without preconditions.

She added: "We are not going to have this meeting take place until we see concrete actions that match the words and the rhetoric of North Korea."

Still, the White House indicated that planning for the meeting was fully on track.

"The deal with North Korea is very much in the making and will be, if completed, a very good one for the World. Time and place to be determined," Trump tweeted late Friday.

The previous night's announcement of the summit marked a dramatic turnaround after a year of escalating tensions and rude insults between the two leaders. A personal meeting would have been all but unthinkable when Trump was being dismissed as a "senile dotard" and the Korean "rocket man" was snapping off weapons tests in his quest for a nuclear arsenal that could threaten the U.S. mainland.

North Korea's capabilities are indeed close to posing a direct atomic threat to the U.S. And the wider world has grown fearful of a resumption of the Korean War that ended in 1953 without a peace treaty.

The prospect of the first U.S.-North Korea summit has allayed those fears somewhat. The European Union, Russia and China — whose leader spoke by phone with Trump on Friday — have all welcomed the move.

North Korea's government has yet to formally comment on its invitation to Trump. South Korea said the president agreed to meet Kim by May, but Sanders said Friday that no time and place had been set.

The "promises" on denuclearization and desisting from weapons tests were relayed to Trump by South Korean officials who had met with Kim on Monday and brought his summit invitation to the White House. Trump discussed the offer with top aides on Thursday. Some expressed their reservations but ultimately supported the president's decision to accept it, according to U.S. officials who were briefed on the talks and requested anonymity to discuss them.

Still, some lawmakers and foreign policy experts voiced skepticism about the wisdom of agreeing to a summit without preparations by lower-level officials, particularly given the lack of trust between the two sides. North Korea is also holding three American citizens for what Washington views as political reasons.

"A presidential visit is really the highest coin in the realm in diplomacy circles," said Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, adding that Trump "seemed to spend it without getting anything in return, not even the release of the three U.S. captives."

Some say Trump could be setting himself up for failure amid doubts over whether Kim has any intention to relinquish a formidable atomic arsenal that he has made central to his personal stature and North Korea's standing in the world. 

Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official experienced in negotiating with North Korea, warned there is a disconnect between how the North and the U.S. describes "denuclearization" of the divided Korean Peninsula. For the U.S. it refers to North Korea giving up its nukes; for North Korea it also means removing the threat of American forces in South Korea and the nuclear deterrent with which the U.S. protects its allies in the region.

"The fundamental definition of denuclearization is quite different between Washington and Pyongyang," Revere said, noting that as recently as Jan. 1, Kim had vigorously reaffirmed the importance of nukes for North Korea's security. He said that misunderstandings at a summit could lead to "recrimination and anger" and even military action if Trump were embarrassed by failure.

"There is good reason to talk, but only if we are talking about something that is worth doing and that could be reasonably verified," said former Defense Secretary William Perry, who dealt with North Korea during President Bill Clinton's administration. "Otherwise we are setting ourselves up for a major diplomatic failure."

The White House maintains that Kim has been compelled to reach out for presidential-level talks because of Trump's policy of "maximum pressure."

"North Korea's desire to meet to discuss denuclearization — while suspending all ballistic missile and nuclear testing — is evidence that President Trump's strategy to isolate the Kim regime is working," Vice President Mike Pence, who has visited the region, said Friday in a written statement.