Writings and observations

Chain of command

gwartney

Mike Gwartney (left) and Butch Otter at a check presentation/Office of the Governor

The hottest person of controversy in Idaho right now may be not the governor, C.L. “Butch” Otter, but the director of the Department of Administration, Mike Gwartney. Though many of Gwartney’s critics evidently are missing the point: If Gwartney is rightfully controversial, then that controversy has to land at Otter’s doorstep.

As director of administration, even if only for a dollar a year (as the reports say), Gwartney reports directly to Otter. Otter can overrule anything he does. He serves at “the pleasure of” the governor – the governor can fire him at any time, for any reason or none. Whatever he does, good or bad, isn’t his own alone; the buck stops with Otter.

Witness here part of the problem that arises with hiring friends, even friends with good reputations. When your scribe started reporting on the Idaho Legislature in the mid-70s, Gwartney was among the members of the House (Otter had just left that chamber), and he was among the more highly-regarded of legislators. He often showed up in reporter lists of the better legislators.

He’s been away from all that for quite a while, though. A speculation: In his years in business at Boise Boise Cascade and the Farmers and Merchants Bank, and no doubt through lots of talks with the libertarian Otter, he may have come to think that government could work better if it were run much as those businesses were. But government doesn’t run like business, and that’s a good thing. They’re different animals. They function in different ways.

So you get quotes like one from Senator Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, as budget committee chair no stranger to dealing with many sorts of state executives, complaining about “the imperialistic attitude Mr. Gwartney brings to a lot of the projects he does.”

You get a whole string of battles on a wide range of fronts, poor legislative relations and at least one major lawsuit, all in areas where Gwartney has been directly involved. And a Gwartney now seemingly holed up in his office while a clamor for his resignation has been starting to kick in outside.

That falls to Otter, Gwartney’s boss as well as his friend, as the governor launches his bid for re-election. Damage to Otter is being done; however much some Republican office holders may want to point a finger at Gwartney, it has to come back around to Otter. What we will see soon is what Otter and Gwartney decide to do about it within the confines of friendship, and of politics. And of governing a state.

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