Salt Lake County's plan to buy two Army surplus training helicopters for the sheriff's office to use as patrol craft would be out the window if three Civil Air Patrol cadets were county commissioners.

Although the three were only playing the part of commissioners when they "voted" to buy the county one copter - a much more expensive model than the two Army trainers - their debates took on a real-life air, with a fiscal conservative battling colleagues who said the bigger craft would be a more useful law enforcement tool.The cadets - Christopher Brown, 16, Sandy; Derrel Grappendorf, 13, Riverton; and Carma Ann Tall, 16, West Valley - were participants in the county's Commissioner For A Day program, designed to help students build positive attitudes toward public service and encourage participation in government.

Commissioner For A Day each month selects three local students - ranging from fifth-graders to high school seniors - on the basis of essays they write on "How County Services Affect My Daily Life."

The student-commissioners conduct a regularly scheduled county commission meeting (although the real commissioners do the voting), lunch with their elected commission counterparts and work through a real-life problem-solving experience that gives them a taste of the public policy problems elected officials have to deal with.

During their problem-solving session, designed especially for them by Commissioner For A Day program director Kristi Draper, the CAP cadets acting as "commissioners" opted to purchase a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter instead of the two Army trainers the county is trying to acquire.

A new Jet Ranger costs about $550,000, while a used one can be purchased for abut half that. The county will pay $1,000 each for the two 300C Army trainers.

But purchase cost was just one of many factors the "commissioners" evaluated in making their decision. For the sake of the problem-solving exercise they were told to assume the county could afford to buy a Jet Ranger. The real commissioners have no such option.

As debate raged over which craft or crafts to buy, two clear positions took shape. "Commissioners" Brown and Grappendorf favored the Jet Ranger because it is larger and can fly higher and faster than the Army trainers, making it a versatile aircraft that can perform more functions for the sheriff's office.

"Commissioner" Tall emerged as a fiscal conservative who favored buying the two cheaper copters despite their small size and lack of power, which mostly will limit them to observation and patrol duties.

"You're spending too much money," Tall scolded the other two "commissioners."

In the end, however, she was outvoted 2-1. Although the county will not be purchasing a Jet Ranger as they recommended, all three cadets learned something about how government works.

"If the county commissioners want to do something, they have to justify it. They can't just do it because they want to," Brown said.

Added Grappendorf: "The commissioners won't always agree on things, so they have to compromise on some issues, just like we did."

Those are exactly the kinds of things Commissioner For A Day is trying to teach students, Draper said.

"There was no such thing as a right answer to the problem we set up for them," she said. "We tell them to come up with the best answer they can, but they must be able to justify their decisions.

"We want the problem-solving session to be frustrating and challenging. We want them to come out of it saying, `This must be what it's like to be a commissioner.' "