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  • Last modified 191 days ago (April 12, 2018)

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Distance makes

I’m willing to bet you finished that one before your eyes ever moved down to this paragraph: Distance makes the heart grow fonder.

If that’s truly the case, then we should soon see a gradual warming trend between county commissioners Dianne Novak and Randy Dallke.

Few who’ve attended commission meetings or followed them through our articles would disagree with the characterization of their working relationship as “contentious.” They seem to butt heads more often than a pair of cantankerous mountain goats.

However, the distance I’m referring to this time is physical.

It’s been a while since I covered a commission meeting, but I sat in for a couple hours Monday. What I saw behind the commissioners’ table was just downright rib-tickling to this long-ago preschool teacher.

Dallke was so far down at one end of the table that he looked like he’d been put in time-out, and perhaps he had.

Down toward the other end of the table, appearing to sit closer together than they really were thanks to their distance from Dallke, were Novak and Kent Becker. A definite pair, at least in appearance. Adding in the dialogue, it felt much like watching a grade school girl trying to get a grade school boy to notice her.

With prom week upon us for four of five county schools, I couldn’t prevent a vision from popping into my head of chauffeur Dallke driving a young couple to their senior promenade. If anyone caught me grinning for apparently no reason, they didn’t let on.

That gap was big enough that if Jesse Hamm could have gotten a county dump truck up the courthouse steps and through the door of the commission room, he could have parked it there at the table without worry of hitting anyone in the process.

All joking aside, that gap was a physical manifestation of the apparent rift between Dallke and Novak, and that doesn’t bode well for effective governance.

I don’t have any problem at all with differing opinions about how something should be done. If managed effectively, disagreements can lead to better decisions than ones made quickly and unanimously.

However, as we’ve seen at the federal and state levels, legislators who dig in their heels and refuse to move from their extreme viewpoints can bring government to a grinding halt. They can ram through one-sided decisions that often lead to unforeseen problems because other viewpoints weren’t thoughtfully considered. Democrats, think health care. Republicans, think tax cuts.

In Monday’s commission discussion about employee health insurance, Dallke’s primary concern was employees making less than $15 an hour. He didn’t want to see employee contributions go so high as to be a hardship, and proposed a small increase that died for lack of a second.

Novak’s main theme, responsibility to taxpayers, hasn’t wavered from what got her elected. Speaking smoothly and confidently, she took health insurance out of its isolated pigeon hole and put it in the broader context of responsible budgetary choices, property tax implications, and even economic development. It was, in that moment, quite refreshing to hear a “big picture” viewpoint that’s often lacking as commissioners tackle things department by department.

In the end, neither Dallke or Novak got what they wanted, although it was closer to Dallke’s earlier proposal that the option Novak preferred. Individual employees will pay more, families will pay a little less. Novak dissented, and reaffirmed that the deal wasn’t the best for taxpayers.

While Dallke has a great edge in experience and Novak wields the gavel, the gap essentially puts Becker in the driver’s seat. Whoever is able to win Becker to their side wins the day on a 2-1 vote. Among the three, Becker has been the one most amenable to considering compromise on contentious issues. If it won’t happen with two, it can certainly happen with one.

Differing opinions are fine, personal differences not so much. Opinions are more easily changed, while personal differences work at odds to that.

We’re not saying all decisions made by this commission are fraught with error because of divisiveness. They’re not. But there’s little doubt the commission could function better if the distance between commissioners would decrease.

I don’t expect “fond” will ever be a word readily used to describe working relationships among this particular commission, but it would be nice if “respectful” were.

Maybe that begins simply by resetting the chairs at the table. The former preschool teacher knows from study and practice that time-out is never as effective as positive reinforcement. There’s nothing positive about that gap.

— david colburn

Last modified April 12, 2018

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