Writings and observations

We’ve been hesitant to get into the strange criminal case of Christopher Pentico just because there’s always the possibility in cases like this that some other as-yet-unreported fact could change its coloration significantly. If there is such, please let us know; but most of the gray areas do seem filled in by way of today’s Wayne Hoffman column in the Idaho Statesman.

Pentico, a Republican precinct committeeman, has had an interest in funding of student clubs at Boise State University with student fees (his concern evidently having to do with disparities in funding for religious clubs). He appears to have questioned whether the state level would be looking impartially at the question because of marriage ties between an Board of Education attorney and a dean at BSU. Pursuing his point further, he stopped by the legislature, and later (on something like five or six occasions) by the office of the governor.

Of concern here is not the merits of his concern, but what happened to him when he tried bringing his concerns to state officials. After his visit to the interim legislative offices in March 2008, a state trooper approached him and told him he had made some legislators “uncomfortable” and to stay away from the building. Then, Hoffman writes, “On March 25, 2008, two Capitol security officers blocked Pentico’s entry to the Legislative Annex and told Pentico not to enter the annex, the third and fourth floors of the Borah Post Office (the temporary home of the governor’s suite of offices), and the state Department of Education.” These are, of course, all public buildings – the public ordinarily has free access to them. Pentico had been accused of no crime or other wrongdoing (other than, apparently, making some legislators “uncomfortable”). There is some dispute about whether he was told by the officer he was formally banned from these areas (apparently by order of the state police), or whether he was simply unwelcome; nothing on the subject was preserved on paper from that time.

The non-legislative offices seem to have been added to the off-limits list because Pentico had been persistently visiting them. Hoffman quotes Otter staffer Clete Edmunson as saying, “He just kept coming back to us.” Asked if he was belligerent, Edmunson said, “I wouldn’t say belligerent. Obstinate might be the right word for it.”

He has not, evidently, threatened or harmed anyone.

On April 2, 2008, Pentico swung by the governor’s office to drop off a written complaint about how state troopers had told him not to venture into the forbidden public buildings. On the way out of the building – the visit was without incident – he was arrested by state police for trespassing. Last month he was convicted of the charge; this week he is to be sentenced.

To be clear: A person presenting a danger, or even threatening behavior, can reasonably be blocked from places where people might be at risk, as happens often with restraining orders. But that seems not to be the case here: Instead, this was a case of people working in government offices who had gotten tired and disgusted with dealing with a constituent, who seems to have become to them a nuisance. The power of the state was then unleashed on the nuisance . . . (Hoffman: “a very small number of government employees proclaimed three public buildings off-limits and then compelled Pentico to obey – not because they were afraid of him, but because they were tired of dealing with him. They alone determined the point at which a diligent constituent became an obstinate one. And they alone determined that Pentico’s obstinance had crossed an imaginary line requiring their action.”)

But what difference is there, really, between what Pentico was doing and what any citizen petitioning the government – for that matter, any normally aggressive lobbyist – might do? Pentico may have been an intense personality (to judge by the descriptions), but so what? At what point does redress or grievances and petitioning one’s government turn into a case of trespassing, of arrest and conviction?

Until we see that bright line, we’re all at risk if we choose to approach our governing officials with whatever’s on our minds. Unless there’s more to the story, Pentico’s case sounds like scary precedent for anyone interested in open government or the simple freedom to speak one’s mind.

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The 2009 Idaho Legislature is done, barely in time – one day ahead of tying the all-time record for longest legislative session, a record no one there wanted to reach.

They did it by reaching agreement, of sorts, on transportation funding, that being the big issue that has kept the session alive the last few weeks. The “of sorts” part is significant.

Last this space said the session will continue until “you get either a compromise out of the governor and the House (the governor has offered such in recent days), or a cave from one of them.” So what happened in this case? The spin will run all over the place, but after looking at the packages and comparing to what was demanded, a reasonable conclusion seems to be: A little compromise from the Idaho House, a much larger given from Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter – more a cave on his side than theirs.

Otter partisans can point out that he did in fact get something for additional transportation funding. Here is how Otter’s press release puts it:

“If an admittedly stop-gap measure can provide a level of certainty and predictability, this is it,” Governor Otter said. “Our work is just beginning, but this will enable us to meet our most immediate needs – including the interest payments on GARVEE – while planning how best to pay for the maintenance, repair and improvement projects that our $16 billion highway system so badly needs.”

The agreement provides $28 million a year in new revenue in the budget year that begins July 1 by increasing DMV administrative fees and removing the ethanol tax exemption. It provides another $29 million a year in additional new revenue beginning on July 1, 2010, by diverting the state fuel tax allocations now going to the Idaho State Police and the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Bear in mind that a good deal of this $57 million or so is a shift from other budgets. And compare that with what Otter proposed originally in his state of the state speech this year: “My overall plan ultimately will raise more than $174 million a year in new revenue for transportation after five years. Now, I know that’s not the $240 million a year that we all have been talking about. But these are difficult times for many Idahoans. And as I said earlier, it is important that we find ways to do our jobs within their means.”

The majority of the majority caucus in the House, we’d suspect, ended this session happier than Otter did.

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Not typically would you get people from the Idaho backcountry actively cheering something that people in Congress do, but they’re no doubt cheering today.

Some months back, the U.S. Postal Service said it would end air mail delivery (generally weekly, less often in the winter) to the scattered people in Idaho’s remote backcountry. If you’ve not been there or know what life in like in that part of the world, you probably wouldn’t know what a massive smack this was. Regular air trips from McCall or Cascade into the remote places are underwritten in part by the post deliveries, which for 34 years have been done by pilot Ray Arnold (and people working with him), and those flights often bring in food, medical and other supplies as well as the mail. Life without those deliveries would become much, much harder.

When word of the cutback got out, the Idaho congressional delegation got on the case. Representative Walt Minnick seems to have been first up (the territory in question is generally in Idaho’s first, not second, congressional district), but both Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch jumped on as well.

Yesterday, they were able to deliver a joint press release saying “Mail delivery will continue for residents of Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness . . . U.S. Postmaster General John Potter, in separate letters today to Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Representative Walt Minnick, reversed an earlier decision to cancel the contract for backcountry mail delivery. Potter indicated that acceptable service to backcountry customers could not be achieved in any other fashion other than continuing an air mail contract with Arnold Aviation to deliver the mail.”

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Sid Leiken

You have to suspect that the entry in the Oregon 4th of Springfield Mayor Sid Leiken is premised on (a) an open seat or (b) building for the future.

By all accounts – and this is a guy Oregon Republicans have wanted for years to run for higher office – Leiken will be a serious candidate and a real part of a generally limited Republican bench in Oregon. As Roll Call, which broke the announcement (hat tip though to Jeff Mapes at the Oregonian) suggested, “a run against DeFazio may seem like a fool’s errand.”

That would be Peter DeFazio, the Democrat who has held the 4th district seat since 1986, and won in landslides every election in the last 22 years. And that district, which has been described as lean-Republican in the past, now leans Democratic. On rare occasion, a long-time member of Congress will be defeated, but that usually happens upon becoming neglectful of the home district, something DeFazio doesn’t do.

So how would this make sense? We’d suggest, two ways it could.

First is if DeFazio decides to run for governor, opening the seat. He has not ruled out a gubernatorial run and has expressed some interest. If the seat opens, an early-early start by a decent candidate like Leiken could situate him well.

Second consideration is that, after such a long run, DeFazio won’t be there forever, and sometimes an initial run for an office can help pave the way for another one later – or for another major office.

Leiken’s race will, in any event, be worth some attention, more than most Republican candidacies in the 4th have been for some time.

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