Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hall met grocery applicant in Seattle

Ketchum paid for mayor’s trip for private meeting

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall speaks at a meeting. Photo by Mountain Express

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall confirmed in an interview Monday that he flew to Seattle on Nov. 15 to meet with grocer Vern Howard, who until last week was requesting a zoning amendment allowing grocery stores in the city's light-industrial area, where he owns property.

Hall's trip took place two days after a City Council meeting in which he was forced to break a tie vote on whether to acknowledge the first reading of the proposed zone change. Hall voted to accept the first reading and move the proposal forward.

Hall revealed his trip at the council's Dec. 6 meeting in the middle of his argument against a motion on the floor to deny Howard's request.

"I went to Seattle," Hall said at the meeting. "I met with the applicant. We tried to come up with other ways we could try to reduce the emotion in the community."

That was all the information revealed until Hall's interview with the Idaho Mountain Express. Hall said Howard didn't pay for the roundtrip airfare or even Hall's lunch. Hall and Lisa Enurado, the city administrator's assistant, said the city paid the $400 total cost of the plane travel and expenses.

Howard has developed plans to build a large grocery store and pharmacy at the former site of Stock Building Supply, north of downtown. However, grocery stores aren't permitted at the site.

Ketchum's attorney, Stephanie Bonney, asserted in a phone interview that Hall didn't do anything wrong by meeting Howard in Seattle because the matter at hand, the zoning amendment, wouldn't affect just Howard's property but the entire zoning district, known as LI-2. She said that if the action being considered would only affect Howard, Hall could still meet with Howard but must publicly disclose that, explaining exactly what happened during the meeting and swearing that it would not affect his judgment. Failure to disclose the meeting in this case could result in someone's filing a petition for judicial review against the city. The district court could then reverse any decisions on the subject made by the city.

Bonney said the fact that Howard is the one requesting the zoning amendment doesn't make the meeting legally suspect, either. She said code changes are "almost always" brought forth by private parties, not by the city.

"That's what we're struggling with here," she said, adding that it's not wrong for someone to request a change to a zone that includes their own land. "Most cities only have the money to be reactive."

Even though the city paid for Hall's trip, Bonney said, the applicant usually foots the bill, which is entirely legal as long as everything the applicant pays for relates to the business meeting and Hall doesn't receive any personal benefit. Bonney said the city didn't even get a free lunch out of it.

Bonney said the city didn't ask Howard to reimburse the cost of Hall's trip because the topic is so controversial. She said Ketchum wants to avoid any "appearance of bias" or speculation that Howard is "buying" the zoning amendment.

Hall said that was the only time he went to Seattle to meet with Howard. He said the face-to-face meeting was needed because he heard from Howard's local representative, Ketchum attorney Jim Laski, that he was no longer soliciting support for the zoning change. Laski has spoken for Howard at almost every city meeting since the application was first filed early this year. Howard has been present at a few meetings but has remained silent.

Hall said he wanted to have "frank words" face to face with Howard and learn of his plan. Hall said it was revealed during the Seattle meeting that Howard has no plan to build next summer, even if he obtains the zoning change and other necessary approvals. Hall said he then told Howard there's no point in "cramming a vote down the community's throat," and advised him to wait until the city rewrites its economic-development plan, which will include determining the desired future of the LI-2 zone and changes that need to be made there.

"I didn't want to polarize the community if the project isn't going to be built this summer. This was my motivation," Hall said, adding that he has "no particular fondness" for Howard.

As a result of the meeting, Howard requested that the city table his requested zoning change until it rewrites its economic-development plan. Discussion by City Council members about tabling the zoning change during a meeting on Dec. 6 quickly turned to consideration of a motion to simply deny it. At that point, Laski withdrew the zoning request.

Trevon Milliard:

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