Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Merger turmoil travels to Capitol

Opponents' tempers flare despite legislative win

Express Staff Writer

The debate over the proposed consolidation between Ketchum and Sun Valley brought its tension from Blaine County to the state Capitol, where Idaho lawmakers got an earful and eyeful of the acrimony surrounding the issue.

Opponents rejoiced after keeping a hurdle in front of the merger effort, but that news was overshadowed by a scuffle that required Capitol security officers to separate Sun Valley Resort General Manager Wally Huffman from an Associated Press reporter.

Officials from Sun Valley Company declined to comment when contacted by the Idaho Mountain Express.

On Friday morning, the State Senate Affairs Committee heard impassioned testimony from both sides of the issue while considering a bill that would amend state code to resolve one of the proposed merger's most significant stumbling blocks.

The bill died after the committee voted against it 5-3, following a failed 4-4 motion to amend the bill.

As currently written, Idaho Code requires the name of the more populous city to be adopted in the case of a consolidation. The law has been held up by opposition forces as one of their arguments against consolidation, which was proposed by Ketchum Councilman Charles Conn and Sun Valley Councilman Dave Chase, both acting as spokesmen for the group One Community, One Town.

Both Chase and Conn have maintained that retaining the name Sun Valley would be an important part of the consolidation because of the name's international brand recognition.

Senate Bill 1157, introduced by Sen. Jon Thorson, D-Ketchum, could have done that by amending Idaho Code to allow voters to choose the name of a new city in the case of a consolidation. Thorson is taking the place of Sen. Clint Stennett, who is recovering from cancer treatments.

Not wanting to give the merger effort any help, Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich, Sun Valley City Council President Nils Ribi and Sun Valley resort General Manager Wally Huffman offered legislators their opinions on why the measure should not pass.

"We spoke against it because it was a thinly disguised layer of grease for the consolidation, and we're opposed to anything that could help it," Willich said after the meeting. "And (state lawmakers) aren't supposed to be crafting legislation that pinpoints one particular place in Idaho."

Sun Valley City Councilwoman Joan Lamb spoke in favor of the bill.


Huffman argued against the bill on the grounds that consolidation could harm the resort because it would change the development ordinances.

Afterward, Thorson expressed dismay that Huffman anticipated problems with Ketchum's development laws, especially since Sun Valley Co. is in the initial phases of bringing a large-scale project to its property at River Run, which is in Ketchum.

"It was divisive. I was embarrassed by his comments," Thorson said. "He must have written his response when he was sitting at home in his cups."

Other state lawmakers were surprised by the level of vitriol that the hearing produced.

"It was a very contentious issue," said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. "If you look at the e-mail we get, in the last three weeks, probably the most e-mail I've gotten was on the midwifery bill. This was the second."

Davis was in the midst of the action, both in the legislative chamber and right outside its doors when a confrontation ensued between Huffman, his wife and Willich.

AP reporter John Miller wrote that Willich commented shortly after the hearing that there are "certain City Council members from Ketchum that aren't welcome in my city."

Willich said in a later interview that Huffman's wife stepped in between Miller and himself after Willich said he was not going to talk with Miller and began to walk down the hallway.

According to a report in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, "as (Miller) was attempting to leave the hallway, Huffman's wife called him 'evil,' and the reporter responded with a retort about being insulted."

Davis described the scene as a "shouting match" that included physical contact.

This contact led Davis to step between Huffman and Miller, and call for the assistance of a Capitol Annex security guard to help separate the parties.

Willich said that despite the fracas, the real result of the day was to keep the consolidation effort from moving forward.

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