A peculiar procurement by INL

By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

The Idaho National Laboratory is accepting new projects at the advanced test reactor complex in part because of an item purchased on Amazon.com.


The INL ordered a cable that’s a critical part of a neutron level meter. The meter is essential for judging reactor power. Neutrons are a key parameter, because the neutrons and the power are directly proportional.

Location of the drive cable.jpg

It is the B channel in the log meter, meaning it is the fail-safe for the A channel that performs the same function. It’s necessary to comply with regulations placed on this nuclear reactor. There is also an additional meter on top of the A and B channels. That additional meter displays the current power but it does not record the trend, and knowing if the reactor is trending up or down is important for the operation.

The example Sean O’Kelly Associate Laboratory Director for the INL Advanced Test Reactor used was of a car’s speedometer. “Seatbelts are safety functions you can’t operate your car without them,” he said. “You can get by without a speedometer but if the law requires you to have one you must have one.”

And the car analogy also works for why they went on Amazon to find the part. “It’s like an old car, and finding parts just isn’t as easy as it used to be,” O’Kelly said. The part is no longer manufactured, and building one internally would be expensive, so they went online.

“It’s not typical. It’s a non-traditional supply source,” he said. “But in this case, I’ll give the engineer credit for being very resourceful and innovative in finding a product that saved us money and saved the taxpayer money and got us back into operation very quickly.”


There are two reactors in the ATR complex: One is small, one is large. This part comes from the small reactor, a place they use to test measurements and parameters before placing experiments in the big reactor. “Before we put anything into the big reactor (ATR) we put it into ATRC and verify their performance is as expected,” O’Kelly said.

Without the ATRC, some work could still be done. Experiments that have already taken place in the past or are almost identical could continue, but it would curtail new experiments or significant modifications to old experiments.

And those new experiments are vital. In a recent report by the National Energy Advisory Committee INL Director Mark Peters highlighted the need.

“INL clearly needs to be an engineering laboratory in the modern sense, one that values the synergies between science and engineering,” he wrote. “The danger is that INL be pigeon-holed as a place where work is done rather than a true innovator. It is critically important that INL build up its scientific credentials without sacrificing its unique identity.”

The report pointed to collaboration with private and public institutions on research as critical for the INL’s future — research that has a good chance of going through the ATRC.


Presentations dating back more than a decade have highlighted the ATRC control console, and this log count rate meter specifically, for replacement and modernization. “I think in the next couple of years we will replace the whole system that the cable fits into, that paper chart recorder is 1960 1957 technology,” O’Kelly said. “We’re going to be replacing that technology with something modern and brand new.”

But in the meantime, the engineers are doing what they can to keep the 50-year-old complex up and running, and they’re doing it up to code and as cost effectively as possible. O’Kelly added parts have to be “evaluated and physically examined and verified that it would meet its performance requirements before it was installed.”

And $12.75 sounds like an incredibly efficient use of funds to keep a nuclear reactor up and running, but Idaho Reports, being the fiscal watchdogs that we are, would like to point out they could have saved an additional $7.48 on shipping if they were Amazon Prime members… something to think about for the future.


Idaho Reports web extras: Extended education interviews

There’s a whole lot of news this week, and we ran out of time on the show.

But our interviewees Rep. Sally Toone, Sen. Dean Mortimer, and Rep. Julie VanOrden all had interesting things to say. If you’re interested, here are the extended interviews.

Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, on her teacher’s perspective in the legislature:


Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, on science standards, school funding, and teacher insurance:


Rep. Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, on science standards, rural schools, and more:


Preview of an insurrection

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports


It’s 2013 all over again.

In a Thursday interview with Idaho Reports, Senate Education Committee chairman Dean Mortimer said at this time, he won’t rule out voting against the public education budget over an insurance funding dispute.

“If I were voting today on that specific portion of the K-12 budget, I would be voting against it,” Mortimer said.

Mortimer is also a member of the legislature’s joint budget committee. On Monday, the committee voted against a $15.2 million line item to address rising health care premiums, opting instead to put nearly $16 million in discretionary funding. That appropriation is coupled with intent language directing school districts to spend the money on health care costs. (Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News has a run-down of the details and debate.)

Does this debate sound familiar? In 2013, Mortimer helped lead an insurrection on the Senate floor that ultimately killed the public education budget. The issue: Intent language directing how money should be spent.

Mortimer said on Thursday he’s not sure if he has the backing of the majority of the Senate, as he did in 2013. But if Monday’s debate offers any clues, it might be close: Of the six JFAC members who supported Mortimer’s plan, all were senators. (Read more at Betsy Russell’s Eye on Boise blog.)

We’ll have much more with Sen. Mortimer on our Friday show. In the meantime, here’s a brief clip of the conversation.


Are some Land Board transactions unconstitutional? A quick look at a complex issue

As with any issue involving the Idaho Land Board and endowment land, nothing is ever easy to understand or explain.

A public records request by the Idaho Conservation League revealed hundreds of state land transactions dating back to the 1890s that appear to violate an obscure provision of Idaho constitution relating to how much state land can be sold off to one individual or business. Though the Idaho Department of Lands is ordering an audit of the records, director Tom Schultz says the land transactions are more complicated than the ICL’s database indicates.

Here’s the jist: The state of Idaho regularly auctions off and sells endowment land. The Idaho constitution limits individuals and corporations to purchasing 320 acres of public school land and 160 acres of University of Idaho land.

Since statehood, the Land Board — composed of the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state superintendent, and controller — may have allowed individuals or corporation to purchase far more than the 320 acres. In total, more than 200,000 acres of land sold by the state were sold to people or entities that had surpassed the 320 cap, said Jonathan Oppenheimer, government affairs director for the ICL. What’s more, the primary beneficiaries were some of Idaho’s most politically connected families and corporations.

Two important notes: Some of these violations occurred more than one hundred years ago, meaning the current land board, chaired by Gov. Butch Otter, isn’t responsible for the vast majority of those issues. (The most recent questionable transaction, which was initiated in 1975, was finalized in 2015. Today’s board hasn’t initiated any questionable transactions, according to the documents.)

Also, though many prominent ranching families, like the Littles, the Newcombs, the Bracketts, the Ricks, and the Bedkes, appear in the database, no current state elected officials or lawmakers appear to be listed in the transactions. (And, as Lt. Gov. Brad Little quipped to Idaho Reports, the statute of limitations on his grandfather’s land purchases passed long ago.)

But the database doesn’t tell the whole story.

“The Supreme Court said the state’s obligation to track this issue is to the person they had the initial contract with,” Schultz said. “Who that person may have sold that contract to or what was done subsequent to them getting the deed, was not the obligation of the state to track that in perpetuity.”

How might someone’s name legitimately appear on multiple records exceeding 320 acres? Some transactions took place over 30 or more years. If a David Smith bought 320 acres, then bought an additional 320 acres from John Doe in the middle of his contract with the state, David Smith’s name would show up on the final deed. That would be a legal transaction.

In other cases, multiple family members may all buy separate parcels of land. That was the case with Little’s parents, he said. His mother bought 320 acres and his father bought 320 acres.

There are other possibilities, including human error. Many of these records have been transcribed multiple times, decades before we could look at this on Excel spreadsheets.

But Oppenheimer said he’s concerned that there’s nothing stopping the Land Board from violating the constitution in the future. Because some in state government are asking for transfer of federal lands to state control, the discussion has a new urgency, Oppenheimer said.

“Even if something is written in the constitution, if no one is watching, it might not matter,” Oppenheimer said.

Idaho Reports will have much more on this on our Feb. 24, 2017 episode. In the meantime, here’s a clip of Schultz explaining how complex some of these Land Board issues are:



Six Idaho officials on their vision for Idaho

In a year of uncertainty — about the economy, about floods and fires, about how changes in DC will affect existing policy, lawmakers have two choices: Wait and see, or forge ahead and shape a new path.

We sat down with six Idaho officials to see what their visions are for Idaho’s future. We asked them to share their best case scenarios, worst case scenarios, and what they think will actually happen.

The result: Six interesting conversations with wide-ranging ideas, including improving the economy, more state control, making education more flexible for local needs, and artificial intelligence.

We didn’t have enough time in the show to put everything in, but we wanted to make the conversations available here. For more, including the pundits’ discussion on where leadership is coming from in Idaho, watch the Feb. 10 episode of Idaho Reports, available at idahoptv.org/idreports.






Is Brent Hill running for lieutenant governor?

As we’ve said on Idaho Reports before, the most exciting part of the 2016 election season was speculating about the upcoming 2018 races.

One rumor we’ve repeatedly heard: Will Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, run for lieutenant governor?

In a Wednesday interview with Idaho Reports producer Seth Ogilvie, Hill gave us his answer. For more with Hill and other lawmakers on their five-year vision for Idaho, watch the Feb. 10 episode of Idaho reports.



Court record system roll-out delayed in 10 counties


Idaho Supreme Court. Photo by Nishant Mohan, Idaho Reports

By Nishant Mohan, Melissa Davlin and Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

The Idaho Supreme Court has delayed implementation of a new court records system in Idaho after hearing concerns from counties across the state.

The delay comes in the wake of revenue shortfalls for the courts and unexpected costs for the two counties, Ada and Twin Falls, which already have the system.

The roll out of Odyssey, which is replacing the discontinued iStars system, was initially scheduled for April for ten counties. That has now been moved to October. Sara Thomas, administrative director for the Idaho Supreme Court, said in an e-mail to county clerks that the state plans to improve business processes and implement enhanced features of the technology that will make roll-out more effective.

“We know all of you have been working hard and were ready to launch in a few months,” Thomas wrote in the e-mail to counties. “However, we feel it is important to intensify our efforts in Twin Falls County and Ada County to address high impact areas and improve the efficiencies of the court case management system prior to bringing on additional counties.”

The money factor

The problems with the Odyssey roll out aren’t new. The Idaho Supreme Court is facing a projected $3.7 million shortfall in revenue for Odyssey implementation. The courts initially hoped civil case filing fees and one-time general fund allocations would pay for the roll-out, which was pitched to the Legislature in 2014.

The initial bill that enabled the creation of Odyssey also increased court filing fees. Patti Tobias, Thomas’ predecessor, wrote in the bill’s statement of purpose and fiscal note that the increase in fees would add an estimated $5.4 million in annual revenue for the state’s Court Technology Fund.

That hasn’t happened. The number of civil filings have dropped both in Idaho and nationwide, according to a presentation by Thomas to the joint budget committee in fall 2016.

In addition, there have been other unexpected costs, especially for IT personnel and administrative staff on the state level. According to the presentation, the Idaho Supreme Court has already redirected $7.4 million to iCourt from other activities in response, and reduced the scope of a video conferencing project to save resources.

There were also unanticipated costs on the county level. Twin Falls County, which received the new software in 2015, is paying $163,430 annually for four employees the clerk’s office hired to handle continuing strains put on their system by Odyssey.

Anticipating the change

The other 42 counties are set to launch over the next two years. Thomas said in the e-mail that counties can still expect to be on the system by the end of 2018.

“(The delay) confirms that there’s issues with the rollout,” said Pam Eckhardt, Bingham County Clerk. Eckhardt’s office is not scheduled to launch with the program until October 2018. Still, the issues affect everyone, she said.

“What it means in the meantime is that the state is operating on two different systems,” Eckhardt said. “Right now, we have limited support for iStars. You’ve got IT people for the state trying to support two systems.”

Karen Volbrecht, lead clerk in Bear Lake County, which is set to roll out with Bingham County, said she would have liked to have the program sooner.

“We would like to be in the same position as the rest of the state,” Volbrecht said. “Though one nice thing is I expect they’ll have a lot of the bugs worked out by then.”

Passing along concerns

As Twin Falls and Ada settled into the new system, the other counties looked to them to see what to expect.

By replacing more than just the record keeping, judges and litigants have access to their documents from anywhere. However, problems with the switch include more than transition costs – the new program is having lasting effects as well.

“The previous system was more structured to serve the clerks,” said Phil McGrane, Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk. “The clerks are the wheels and the cogs and the new system has proven to be very inefficient for them.”

McGrane said it was good for Ada County to be one of the first; As a large county, Ada handles cases of every kind. If it works there, it should work everywhere else.

“Many people are welcoming the change,” McGrane said. “But it’s safe to say it’s been more challenging than we anticipated. Our court system is way more complicated than we ever gave it credit for.”

Thomas, who was hired as the administrative director in 2016, said she recognizes the ISC administration misses issues. Before the delay announcement, Thomas and others at the Supreme Court were working with clerks to address concerns and set up trainings.

“The elected clerks meet twice a year. One of the first things I did when I became the administrative director is I went to one of those meetings,” Thomas said. “And I got an earful.”

Small counties, big problems

Though the two counties are settling into the system, Twin Falls and Ada are still having issues, largely from employees learning new processes.

Their transition stories have spooked county clerks in other areas of the state. Without much other information, those concerns dominate the discussion of the switch.

“The only thing they have to go by is seeing what’s happening in Ada and Twin,” Thomas said.

Kathy Ackerman, Idaho County Clerk and president of the Idaho Association of Clerks and Commissioners, said counties can assign two of their clerks as subject matter expert and onsite coordinator to travel in the months ahead of roll-out to receive training and return to train the rest of the staff.

“When you have a large county, you can take two people away from their desks. Not so in small counties,” Ackerman said. “You can also hire temps. Well guess what? In Grangeville, Idaho, you’re going to have trouble finding a deputy clerk temp.”

Ackerman said much of the system is set up to be job-specific. She said this is fine in large, specialized clerks offices, in which there might be one person whose only job is scheduling arraignments. That person needs to learn only one level of the program.

“I only have four clerks, and they all do everything,” Ackerman said. “That is going to be a problem. My clerks will have to cover all the jobs necessary, and that’s going to require another person at least.”

In contrast, the Ada County Clerks office currently employs about 110 court clerks, McGrane said.

Since Twin Falls went live with Odyssey in 2015, Twin Falls County Clerk Kristina Glascock said she has seen improvements. Glascock created a temporary position in each of her four teams of five to seven clerks to keep on schedule. With those four positions now permanent, the system is now working well.

There are pros and cons to being the first out of the gate, Glascock said. And though the transition was tough at times, it was necessary.

“I would never do it again, just because of how time intensive it is to be the pilot,” Glascock said. “But Idaho is set now. iStars was at the end of its life. The old company didn’t have a lot of the features we needed to add.”