Friday, October 15, 2010

Bellevue candidates speak out on issues

Airport relocation, box stores and Big Wood River flows discussed

Express Staff Writer

From the top: Maria Anta, Sara Burns, Nola Kacalek, Randy Leighton, Barb Patterson, Larry Plott.

Bellevue will soon see some new faces in city government.

Six Bellevue residents are running for three City Council seats in the November election. The candidates range widely in age and experience, from inspired beginners to seasoned veterans.

The newcomers will have steep learning curves as they weigh in on important decisions for a town caught in troubling economic times.

The candidates spoke out on a number of issues facing the city at a Pizza and Politics forum Wednesday evening at Bellevue Elementary School, hosted by the Idaho Mountain Express.

Two council members, Shaun Mahoney and Tammy Schofield, will step down in January. Maria Anta, Sara Burns, Nola Kacalek, Randy Leighton, Barb Patterson and Larry Plott are competing for those two seats, as well as a seat held by Burns. Burns has been in office for about two months, after being appointed to fill a seat left vacant by Chris Koch. Koch left the council to become mayor when Mayor Jon Anderson stepped down in June.

Koch is now running unopposed for mayor.

Only Plott is a longtime council veteran, having served five and a half years, but not consecutively. Burns has been on the council since August.

All candidates said the distressed state of the local economy is their primary concern. But what they said they intend to do about it is a mixed bag.

Plott and Patterson said the city would benefit from attracting box stores like Walmart and Home Depot to town. Leighton and Anta were opposed to the idea.

"I'd like a Home Depot, where I could go in and actually find what I'm looking for," Plott said.

Anta emphasized the importance of shopping locally, but said the box store option was "too drastic." She called instead for smaller businesses, on the scale of Chateau Drug in Ketchum.

Bellevue was approached by box store developers several years ago, but the City Council at that time turned them away. Both Kacalek and Burns seemed to be on the fence over this issue. Burns said she would trust in the expertise of consultants, such as those hired by Sustain Blaine, to judge the appropriateness of large-scale commercial developments in Bellevue.

Burns, a software developer, also recommended that the city partner with economic development organizations in the valley to find solutions to economic problems.

Kacalek, a retired postmaster, came to Bellevue in the 1940s and has lived in town since 1965.

She and Randy Leighton, an electrical contractor, said several times they are in the race "to help out" but offered little detail on how they would help turn things around.

"I would have to learn because I'm new at this game," Kacalek said. "I'm a follower."

Leighton said he was "inexperienced" at local politics and had only been to one City Council meeting, but was impressed by the spirit of volunteerism espoused by departing Councilwoman Schofield.

"I'm concerned about future growth," Leighton said. "Things will turn around," and the city should be ready.

Anta, who owns a house-cleaning business, moved to Bellevue only a year ago from Ketchum. A native of the state of Michoacan in central Mexico, she said she would like to involve the Hispanic community in government.

"My children go to school here. I want to be involved."

All candidates supported the relocation of Friedman Memorial Airport to a site south of the Wood River Valley, saying that would improve economic conditions and live-ability in Bellevue.

"This would be of the greatest benefit to Bellevue," Plott said. "We would then have the quietness that should be here."

Patterson, a lifelong valley resident, said that when the airport is relocated, "Bellevue would no longer be missed by people going up the valley."

A possible consolidation of fire departments and emergency services in the south valley drew a measured response form the candidates, yet all were in support of a from of consolidation that would save the city money.

"We have a pretty good Fire Department already, and few fires," said Plott, who has extensive experience managing and training police officers. "I think we should look at possible expenses the city could incur with consolidation."

Patterson said she would like to see businesses and homes and empty buildings on Main Street filled in the next five years.

"I'd like to see the lights on and signs in the windows, and dry lawns turned green again."

Anta said she would also like to see those who have left town during the recession come back to Bellevue. She said one of her priorities is spending on education over park maintenance, when it comes to the choice of cutting city services.

Plott said he would like to see a chamber of commerce active in the city.

Burns said the town would benefit from a year-round arts center.

"I think Bellevue is a pretty darn good place to live as it is," Kacalek said.

Patterson and Plott recommended restoring city staff to a full-time pay status after salaries were cut two years ago at the start of the recession.

"I'd hate to lose the good workforce we have in Bellevue," Patterson said.

Keeping water in the Big Wood River all summer long was an issue that all candidates rallied around.

The Idaho Department of Water Resources made a ruling this spring that enforces a minimum stream flow of 189 cubic feet per second in the Big Wood River at Hailey.

Bellevue has seen the river go dry during drought years, due to heavy demands for irrigation. Under the new ruling, water rights transferred upstream would be subordinated to the minimum stream flow.

"I remember swimming holes that have become less and less," said Kacalek. "We should keep the river here and not give it north in any part."

Plott agreed, saying water rights transfers for "ponds in the upper valley" were not as important as keeping water in the Big Wood in the south valley.

The City Council approved a letter this summer to the department congratulating it on the decision, but a court hearing is expected soon to hear from water rights holders and municipalities who may step forward to dispute the ruling.

The election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 2, at the at Bellevue Elementary School.

Absentee voting is at Blaine County Courthouse in Hailey.

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