TWIN FALLS • Two Twin Falls county commissioners are facing challengers in this year’s Republican primary.
George Urie, who was elected county commissioner in 2006 and was a city councilman and mayor in Hansen before that, is facing a primary challenge from Jack Johnson, a longtime Jerome County sheriff’s deputy and Murtaugh resident who ran for Twin Falls County Sheriff in 2012. And Leon Mills, who was first elected in 2010, is facing a challenge from Don Hall, a longtime Twin Falls city councilman who has also served two terms as mayor.
Urie represents District 3, which covers a piece of the city of Twin Falls, and the Kimberly, Hansen and Murtaugh areas, and Mills represents District 2, which includes most of the city of Twin Falls. Commissioners are elected at-large, though — registered Republicans throughout the county can vote in both races in the primary, and the whole county will vote on both in the general election.
Mills said his philosophy is to “leave it better than I found it,” a view that has guided his volunteer work — among other efforts over the years, he put up the fence at Baxter’s Park, the city-run dog park that opened in 2014, and was active in the Rock Creek Brigade, which built the walking path in Rock Creek canyon — and also to his work as a county commissioner.
“I think I’m doing a good job and people recognize it,” Mills said.
In interviews with the Times-News editorial board, Mills and Urie both said the county is in good shape financially, and pointed to improvements made in county facilities during their time in office — especially moving most county offices to County West on Addison Avenue, freeing up space in the courthouse for law enforcement and buying the former Twin Falls Highway District building on Highland Avenue East for the Parks and Waterways department and the Weed Bureau. Most recently, commissioners moved the Treatment and Recovery Clinic to County West, freeing up that building downtown for the public defender’s office and freeing up the current public defender’s building for office space for misdemeanor probation.
Hall said his extensive public service experience — in city government, as a Forest Service firefighter, as a Twin Falls police officer and as a U.S. Marine — has qualified him for the position. He said he is running because he cares about the community.
“I honestly want to make a difference while I’m on this earth, and we’re not on this earth that long,” he said.
Hall has been on the City Council for about a decade, and says it might be time for someone else to do that job and for him to do something else.
“It is time for maybe someone else to come in with a freshness and a different perspective,” he said.
Johnson said he started to seriously consider running after being approached by some district residents a year-and-a-half ago, and that he made up his mind after reaching out to people and getting a positive response. Johnson said Urie isn’t visible enough in the district, and that if he wins, he will make a point of reaching out to his constituents, such as by holding town hall meetings throughout the county.
“I feel that we work for the citizens of Twin Falls County and we should represent our citizens,” Johnson said.
Another priority, Johnson said, would be increasing the transparency of county government, such as by making the minutes and agendas posted on the county website more current and detailed.
Urie said he has an open-door policy at the county.
“We’re very available because we’re full-time,” he said.
Many of the complaints he gets, Urie said, are about offices such as the sheriff’s office or the county clerk’s office, which have their own elected heads. County commissioners, Urie said, control their budgets but don’t have direct control over their day-to-day operations.
“I don’t think we get a lot of complaints about our office specifically,” he said.
Planning for the area’s growing economy and population and planning for the future of the county jail and court system, both of which are getting close to their maximum capacity, were on the minds of all of the candidates.
Hall said he was shocked to find out the county doesn’t have a strategic plan, and that the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which was adopted in 2008, is in need of an update. Overall, Hall said growth in and around the city of Twin Falls benefits the entire county, even if there is some lag time before the effects ripple out to the smaller towns in the county.
“I think a high tide floats all boats,” he said.
Hall said he would like to see the county play a more active role in encouraging economic development, while taking into account the needs of the agricultural sector that provides the basis for the local economy.
“I believe that farms are a small business, and we need to keep an eye on our farming community,” he said.
Mills also said he views growth as a positive, but that the county needs to make sure it has the resources, such as water, to accommodate it.
“I just think managed growth is really the way to go,” he said.
Johnson said planning for growth and working with the cities, elected officials and other stakeholders to draft a county strategic plan would be one of his priorities, noting that, by 2025, Twin Falls County is projected to have 20,000 more residents than it has now. He also said he would want to work with the smaller cities in the county on ways to draw more businesses there and improve their economies.
“I think we need to balance our economic development and growth with our agricultural needs,” he said.
The candidates agreed that, with a growing population and more cases, the county is going to need to expand its court facilities soon, as well as expanding the jail or possibly building a new one.
“It’s time to really look at this seriously,” Hall said.
“Our court system is just piled up,” Urie said. Urie views the overcrowding in the courts as more immediately pressing than the jail, and said the county should start work now since just the planning and design for new courtrooms would take a year.