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Antigovernment Groups Struggle to Rule Idaho’s Bonner County

In Sandpoint, Idaho, antigovernment politics have changed a small town's way of life.

SANDPOINT, Idaho -- Just beneath the surface of this quiet resort town, antigovernment "Patriots" are battling for control of government, and critics say the conflict looks less like small-town politics than a full-blown insurgency.

Red Riebe, the former county road supervisor, was forced off the road into mud holes by unidentified attackers. Scott Hancock, a building contractor who formed a coalition to oppose the Patriots, received telephone threats. And so did a local writer, who picked up his phone to hear a warning: "You're a dead man!"

The scene is lakeside Sandpoint, seat of Idaho's idyllic Bonner County. The protagonists are politicians at least loosely connected to Patriot groups, and who, for the time being, have gained control of county government through elected office.

The fallout? Unchecked development, rising costs and general confusion as county departments are abolished, buildings and roads go uninspected, county insurance rates double and lawsuits pile up in the courthouse.

Bonner County is a leading example of a worrisome phenomenon — Patriots or their antigovernment allies moving to seize control of local government. While these movements often result in backlashes, they also can produce near chaos.

In New Mexico's Catron County, antigovernment ideologues took control of government for a time several years ago, passing 21 ordinances attempting to supersede federal authority on public lands, a county land use plan calling federal agents "a clear and present danger," and a resolution urging every household head to own a firearm.

Similar political movements have taken place in Douglas, Snohomish and Stevens counties in Washington, in Nye County, Nev., and in other places. Patriot-linked sheriffs and legislators have been elected in California, Colorado, Idaho and elsewhere. Just this spring, two militia-linked men filed to run for Morgan County, Ind., offices.

In addition, strident property rights advocates have confronted local authorities in four states over such matters as blight and zoning ordinances, demanding that the laws be rescinded. In Michigan, for instance, activists have reportedly confronted, and in many cases intimidated, officials in at least 10 counties since last September.

They have tried to recall officials who oppose them or pack meetings to win votes.

'Shoot the President'
In Catron County, where taxpayers eventually rebelled after the county's coffers were emptied, a New Mexico official quips: "Catron County kids say that when they grow up they want to shoot the president, not be the president."

In Bonner County, the insurgency has taken hold.

Patriot sympathizers here, Riebe says, "have the isolationist mentality of separatist groups, and they've figured out the right way to do it — take over small government. The frightening thing is that from there, they're in position to go for state office."

Adds Hancock: "People in Sandpoint just don't want to see that these militia wackos are in control."

The conflict began in the early 1990s, when isolated, relatively underdeveloped Sandpoint began to take on the trappings of most modern American communities. Building, planning and sanitation departments were created or beefed up to handle increasingly heavy tourism and population growth.

Meanwhile, antigovernment Patriot groups — many of them influenced by the "county supremacy" movement which opposes almost all government regulation — were gaining steam throughout America, particularly in the Northwest.

In Idaho, a group calling itself the Idaho Citizens Awareness Network (ICAN) began organizing heavily in Sandpoint. ICAN's co-founder is Dave Barley, a Sandpoint pastor of the anti-Semitic, racist and antigovernment Christian Identity religion.

Other nearby Identity leaders include Richard Butler, aging patriarch of the Aryan Nations compound in Hayden Lake, and John Trochmann, leader of the Militia of Montana, in Noxon, Mont.

Some Bonner County politicians, linked to ICAN through meetings and ideological opposition to government, began lobbying against what they saw as newly intrusive government. During that period, the early 1990s, Riebe, a longtime road development supervisor, came to Bonner County to fix its rutted dirt lanes and potholed highways.

His reception couldn't have been more hostile. "The first day I got here, my wife and I were in a restaurant and people called us slobs, county A-holes," Riebe remembers.

Still, Riebe set about his job with a fury. He says he built 40 miles of new roads yearly, fixed four bridges and got $1.5 million in federal funding for special projects. But, he claims, he also disrupted the local order by cracking down on the use of county buildings and equipment for private work.

Stalked in Sandpoint
Soon, he was a stalked man.

"At night people would follow me, their lights out, sitting on my bumper, and in the morning, they'd be outside my house," Riebe says. "I got calls from people saying they were going to shoot me."

Then the revitalized building department was pulled into the fray. Employees claimed that by enforcing building codes and conducting inspections, they unintentionally infuriated three of Sandpoint's most powerful antigovernment advocates — Bud Mueller, Larry Allen and Eugene Brown, a former county commissioner.

According to county employees, Mueller allegedly was enraged after he was refused a building permit because his land was too soggy to drain.

The conflict boiled over after Mueller and Allen won two of three county commissioner seats on a platform of ICAN-style promises to cut government. ICAN sent supporters to their rallies and in other ways aided their campaigns.

In interviews, Mueller and Allen confirmed that they attended ICAN meetings. But both denied formal membership in the organization.

Within days of taking office in January 1997, Allen and Mueller hurtled into action.

They abolished the building department, firing all eight employees. Riebe was fired, and so was Bonner County solid waste manager Sid Strauss. Later, the two commissioners passed an ordinance giving amnesty to people who had illegally subdivided their property.

The result was near chaos.

Residents last February stormed into a county meeting to demand that the amnesty, which could have led to free-for-all development, be rescinded.

The fired building department employees who filed an $8.8 million suit against the county for illegal dismissal won a settlement in March — although its terms remain undisclosed. So did Riebe and Strauss, who filed separate law suits.

Still pending is a third lawsuit filed by residents who paid for inspections by the building department but never got them because it closed down. The department had functioned nearly like a nonprofit organization, charging $35 per inspection. Now, residents pay higher rates for private inspectors.

"These people who called us low-life, scum-sucking county employees experienced a net loss when we were closed," said Sam Paris, the county's former chief building inspector.

'Back to the Stone Age'
Since so many suits have been filed, the county's insurance rates have skyrocketed. The annual premium more than doubled to $454,000 in 1997.

And the slow, steady effort to regulate development in an ecologically fragile region has been rolled back.

Nowadays, former county employees say, developers can break ground by slapping down $25 for a simple permit. The depleted departments don't have the resources to make sure people comply with safety and sewage ordinances.

"We just don't have as many eyes out there," says state health inspector Chuck Anselmo. "Even if we find out someone is in violation, there's nothing in the budget for enforcement."

Says Hancock: "You see all these buildings going up illegally, way too close to the water."

Other residents fear that the federal government may deny Bonner County flood insurance because construction on the flood plain is so rampant.

A similar situation occurred in Idaho County, south of Sandpoint, last year. Residents there blasted a proposed flood plain ordinance, saying it was "a blatant attempt to establish dictatorial federal control" and threatening "war" if it passed.

But Idaho County commisioners, warned by federal officials that the ordinance was necessary in order to provide national flood insurance, passed the measure anyway.

The developments in Bonner County come against a backdrop of a state that is 95 percent white, starkly conservative and deeply distrustful of government. Idaho spends less than any state save South Dakota on child welfare, even as it leads the nation by far in its proportion of abused or neglected children. It sends huge numbers of people to prison for offenses most states consider minor.

Idaho's recent wave of immigrants, most experts agree, are mainly whites fleeing racially diverse states.

In Bonner County, the future is uncertain.

The gloss on the ICAN-style, "reduce government" platform has faded. Led by Hancock, builders and homeowners have formed the Coalition for Responsible Government to oppose the antigovernment commissioners and their allies.

Even Allen acknowledges he and Mueller made mistakes: "We did some drastic things that shouldn't have been done so quickly."

Allen's views changed somewhat after he got into a tussle with ICAN, which blasted him in its newspaper for not sticking tightly enough to its program.

Still, antigovernment politicking remains rife in the region, and residents say ICAN is already busy preparing another candidate for the next commissioners' race.

"Before, it was just that less bureaucracy is better, and I agree with that," Hancock said. "Now it's gone to making this county step back into the stone age."