Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Council terms spark debate at town hall

City: 4-year terms would increase efficiency

Express Staff Writer

From left, Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, and Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, discuss upcoming legislative issues with Bellevue residents at Oak Street Foods In Bellevue on Saturday. Photo by Willy Cook

Term lengths for city council members became a contentious topic during a legislative town hall meeting in Bellevue on Saturday, as some residents told legislators the system isn't broken and doesn't need to be changed.

The Bellevue City Council voted unanimously earlier this month to ask the Legislature to expand terms for the mayor and council members from the current two years to four. Supporters argue that Bellevue is the only city in Idaho with council terms of two years. Bellevue must petition the state for this change because unlike other cities, it's still governed by territorial charter rather than state code governing municipalities.

Bellevue Mayor Chris Koch told District 25 legislators Saturday that the change would help the city run more efficiently. Under the current term lengths, Bellevue holds elections for half its council members every year, meaning that potentially half the council in any given year is still learning the ropes.

"There is a steep learning curve," Koch said. "The second you get your feet wet, it's time to run for re-election."

Bellevue City Council President Dave Hattula argued that not only does that put stress on the members themselves, but city staffers must help the council get up to speed on city issues. He said that process takes a lot of time and effort.

"High turnover really impedes that process," he said.

City Councilwoman Sara Burns is entering the second year of her first term, and she said she supports the idea of longer terms. However, she argued that she wants the current members' terms to expire on schedule.

"I don't want to see anyone grandfathered in," she said.

But some members of the public bristled at the idea of allowing council members to serve more than two years.

Bellevue resident Cindy Hinojosa said the council has become increasingly "cliquey" in recent years, and longer term limits could contribute to that problem by not allowing voters to boot out members who they feel do not represent their interests.

"This super-team, they just make their decisions and we live under them," she said. "They're not listening to the public."

Current Councilwoman Janet Duffy, who was elected in November, said only about 10 percent of the public comment regarding the issue has been opposed to the change.

Oak Street Foods owner Vicky Walker said that of the opposition she's heard in her shop, most of stems from the idea of keeping the current council in place longer than was expected.

"There must be some way to get around it," she said. "We elected them for two years."

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said amending the city's charter may not be as easy as council members would like, due to several factors.

First, the Legislature is still reeling from Jaquet's 2003 fight against a repeal of a city's ability to set speed limits. The repeal was vehemently opposed by both Jaquet and the city of Bellevue, and was eventually defeated—to some legislators' chagrin.

"There's a little dynamic there," Jaquet said.

She also added that the city itself seems divided on the issue, which would not convince the Legislature to step in and resolve the matter.

"The Legislature does not like to have a community come before it and fight," she said. "It's hard for the Legislature to shove something down someone's throat when there's even a little bit of opposition. I think you have to think a little bit more about what you want to do."

Bellevue resident Ned Burns suggested an advisory ballot this year, through which residents could weigh in on the issue.

Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said an advisory ballot was likely a good idea, as public comment and people in any given meeting are not necessarily representative of the community as a whole.

"You have to be careful," she said.

The legislators also discussed matters such as fracking, highway maintenance and speed limits for large trucks.

Blaine County Road and Bridge Manager Tom Duffy said he would like to see a higher gas tax to support funding for maintaining state roads. Both Jaquet and Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, said the falling gas tax revenues were likely due to increasing use of high-efficiency cars.

"Donna and I both drive Priuses," Jaquet said with a laugh. "We're definitely not contributing our fair share to the gas tax."

Katherine Wutz:

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