"Absolutely appropriate" were the words used by Ketchum City Councilmen Larry Helzel and Curtis Kemp in defending the mayor's Seattle trip to meet with grocer Vern Howard, who until two weeks ago was requesting a zoning amendment to allow grocery stores in the city's light-industrial area, where he owns property.
The councilmen defended Mayor Randy Hall at Monday's council meeting in response to negative feedback following the Idaho Mountain Express' Dec. 15 story "Hall met grocery applicant in Seattle."
City Attorney Stephanie Bonney has asserted that the $400 one-day trip, paid for by the city and unannounced beforehand, is legally permissible since the zoning change would affect many property owners, not just Hall. Nonetheless, the mayor has been receiving some criticism for the private meeting, which took place days after the Nov. 15 council meeting when he had to break the council's 2-2 tie to acknowledge the zoning amendment's first reading. Hall voted to move the amendment forward.
Hall has been an outspoken proponent for the zoning change to the light-industrial zone, calling grocery stores pseudo-industrial. He first publicly mentioned the Seattle trip at a Dec. 6 council meeting midway through his attempt to prevent a vote on the floor to deny the zoning amendment. Councilwoman Nina Jonas said she was unaware of Hall's Seattle trip until afterward, when he told all the council members prior to the Dec. 6 meeting.
Howard's attorney, Jim Laski, suggested during that meeting that the proposed amendment be tabled for a few months so the city could come back to it after studying the light-industrial area as a whole. However, faced with an imminent denial of the amendment, Laski ended up withdrawing it to keep it alive.
Helzel, who said he's in favor of a grocery store on Howard's land but that the zoning change needed work, argued that Hall's Seattle trip was warranted because the city was in dire need of answers, and Howard was usually not present at council meetings to provide any. Helzel said Laski spoke for Howard and shocked the council on Nov. 15 by saying Howard was no longer soliciting support for his amendment.
"They were passive to the point of being quite benign," Helzel said, adding that such behavior is unusual when someone is trying to get something passed. "I think that the mayor's outreach was absolutely appropriate."
Two days later, Hall was on a plane to Seattle, claiming a face-to-face meeting was needed to clear up Howard's intentions. Hall said that during his lunch meeting with Howard, he discovered that Howard had no plan to build next summer even if he obtained the zoning change and other necessary approvals. Hall said he then told Howard that there was no point in "cramming a vote down the community's throat" on an emotional and controversial issue. Hall said he advised Howard 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 should be made there.
Howard took Hall's advice and pursued a course to have the amendment tabled.
Helzel called the meeting a "valued service," but others have said the trip raises questions.
"Why couldn't he pick up the phone or Skype?" asked 31-year resident Pat Higgins in an interview. Skype is an Internet service allowing conversations with an audio and video connection. "And why has he [Hall] been so adamant about making this thing pass?"
Higgins has opposed Howard's zoning amendment in a letter to the city as well as a letter to the editor in the Express' Dec. 1 edition.
She and others assert that the trip—which Hall said is the only time he met with Howard since Howard bought the Stock Building Supply property last year—creates the appearance of unethical, ulterior motives.
Dave Theobald, another resident who has been outspoken in opposition to the proposed zoning amendment, said he believes Hall's trip was justified.
"I think it was a good move," he said, claiming he believes Hall's story of what happened at the meeting is all that happened. "He really wanted to try and work this out."
Trevon Milliard: firstname.lastname@example.org