Idaho Fish and Game Commission Chairman Jerry Meyers of North Fork is no more of a Republican than most Idahoans.
In fact, as a retired magistrate judge from Lemhi County, he scrupulously kept his partisan leanings — if any — to himself. But Idaho’s closed primary system — which pressures people to formally affiliate as Republican — forced Meyers to choose between preserving his right to vote and his desire to guide the management of Idaho’s wildlife.
After four years, he’s leaving his public post in order to vote in the only election that means anything in ruby red Lemhi County — choosing who will carry the GOP nomination to near-certain election in the fall.
“During the last four years, I realized how important it is to be a part of selecting the candidates that will govern us,” Meyers said in an email to his fellow commissioners. “I cannot give up my voting rights for another four years with an unaffiliated declaration, nor can I say in good conscience that I am a Democrat.”
What made Meyers unique was how he held the Fish and Game Department accountable long before he joined the commission. Back in 2002, while Meyers was serving on the bench, then- Fish and Game Commissioner Roy Moulton of Driggs accompanied professional Montana trapper John Graham on a coyote scouting trip to the Upper Snake River Valley. Although he lacked an Idaho hunting license, Graham killed a coyote.
Even after the story broke, Graham faced no penalty. In fact, he was issued a license after the fact.
Thinking that was unfair, Meyers asked himself how he could pursue a similar case before his court — that of an unlicensed tourist who had been cited for fishing on the main Salmon near North Fork — but not catching anything. Why, Meyers asked, was this individual going to be subjected to harsh treatment when Moulton’s associate escaped unscathed?
When Meyers dismissed the charges against the offending tourist “in the interest of justice,” he set off a minor firestorm. But as far as anyone knows, you’ve not seen even a hint of preferential treatment at Fish and Game ever since.
Just the kind of fellow the ordinary hunter and angler might want watching over the state’s critters, wouldn’t you think?
Here’s the problem: After he left the bench in 2014, Meyers availed himself of the opportunity to vote in the Republican primary. If you think that’s a mere formality, think again. How you vote in that primary is a public record. People are keeping track. In fact some, including Idaho GOP Chairman Raul Labrador and Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman, have weaponized that information.
So even though Meyers followed the law by quickly unaffiliating himself with the GOP after the 2014 primary, it was noted when then-Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter appointed him to Fish and Game. Under the 1938 citizens’s initiative that created the commission, no more than four of its seven seats can be held by Republicans. Ever since 1999, GOP governors have stopped naming Democrats to the remaining seats, choosing instead independents without a paper trail linking them to the GOP.
Senate Democratic Leader Michelle Stennett challenged the practice when Meyers got the nod — although she did not stand in his way after the former magistrate pledged to retain his nonpartisan status throughout the term. He either limited himself to voting on judicial races during primary elections or not at all. That includes the 2018 primary campaign.
Stennett raised the issue again when Lewiston’s Brad Melton was appointed. Like Meyers, Melton had voted in a GOP primary but also dropped his GOP affiliation prior to applying for the post. Melton opted to step down.
Melton’s departure triggered precisely the wrong response from outgoing Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins. He wanted to remove any mention of party affiliation from laws governing Fish and Game appointments, essentially making the commission an all-Republican panel. Here’s betting Meyers’ departure will renew interest in that idea.
Of course, the citizens had other ideas 82 years ago. The whole point of the initiative was to limit partisan interference with the management of Idaho’s wildlife. Over the years, that safeguard has steadily been eroded. Shepherd’s bill would have aggravated the situation further.
None of this would have been an issue had Republicans not gone to court and forced this closed primary on the state. When the primary election was “open,” whether someone voted in a GOP or Democratic primary was between them and their conscience. It took a good deal more — such as serving as a party activist or holding elective office as a Republican — before someone was designated a card-carrying member of the GOP.
All of which is just fine with the activists who want to maximize their influence over Idaho’s political machinery.
But if it means easing a man like Meyers off the Fish and Game Commission prematurely, it’s not doing ordinary Idahoans much good. — M.T.