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Idaho's Warm River in election hot water

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The tiny eastern Idaho fishing village of Warm River, population a couple dozen, waded into hot water recently after getting crossways with state election law.

Back in 2011, Warm River Mayor Lonnie Allen and four City Council members won identical four-year terms in uncontested races to lead this hamlet west of Yellowstone National Park.

But Idaho law requires cities to have staggered council terms, with elections for half the seats every two years, to preserve continuity.

Consequently, Warm River was told by county officials to schedule an election this Nov. 5 for two council seats. Allen has balked, however, promising instead to begin staggering elections come 2015.

She insists there's no need to force Warm River's nine registered voters, nearly all employees of her family's fly fishing resort, back to the polls so soon. After all, her Three Rivers Ranch will be closed by then. Many of the area's summer residents will be gone; along with many of her guides, Allen packs up to fly fish streams around the world.

"It's working for us," Allen said, of her election plan. "After that four-year term, we'll go back to a two-and-two."

Warm River, in a little canyon along U.S. Highway 47 that was once a tourist thoroughfare to Yellowstone, probably wouldn't even be an official city, but for Idaho's quirky 1947 liquor laws that limit licenses to establishments within municipal borders. Allen's grandfather, Fred Lewies, an Estonian immigrant, incorporated that year, so he could legally pour drinks at his dance hall that's become Allen's resort.

Since then, Warm River has had three mayors: Allen, her mother, and her Swiss-born grandmother, Berta. "We've always had women," she said.

The dustup over its Council's terms emerged earlier this year, however, when Fremont County Clerk Abbie Mace, the region's top election official, sent a letter asking Allen to outline Warm River's plans for the upcoming vote. For the longest time, Mace said she heard nothing.

"We didn't receive any response from Warm River after multiple phone calls, e-mails and letters," Mace said.

In the midst of a busy fishing season, Allen finally showed up at the courthouse in Ashton Sept. 6, the final day for candidates to file for municipal offices, seeking to sort out the confusion.

Despite a written promise from Allen pledging to right things in 2015, Mace on Wednesday remained decidedly tepid about Warm River's plan to postpone its election.

"We felt like we've done our due diligence, telling them what they need to do," Mace said. "If somebody wants to question whether they've done things properly, that's not going to come from us. It'll have to come from the public."

Chief Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst in Boise, whose office oversees Idaho elections, is staying out of it, too.

"The counties conduct the elections," he said. "We don't get involved in governing the cities."

Warm River's City Council now includes Allen's son, as well as the resort's shop manager, its cook and one of its fly fishing guides. They typically hold two public meetings - advertised in a local newspaper - during fishing season that runs from May to mid-October.

Big agenda items might include keeping vacation-home development in check, but Allen said it generally stays pretty quiet. She can't remember Warm River's last contested election - or even a divided Council vote.

"We don't have a lot of commotion here," Allen said. "Clear back in my Dad's era, they talked about maybe putting in a dam. I think that became an issue in the late 1950s."

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