BOISE — The campaign season’s first mayoral forum centered around conservation and climate change, and nearly every candidates’ answers circled back to Boise’s explosive growth.
On Wednesday, four of the five candidates chasing the highest office in Idaho’s capital answered questions from Conservation Voters for Idaho and made their case to a packed room. In attendance was incumbent Mayor Dave Bieter, City Council President Lauren McLean, Adriel Martinez and Cortney Nielsen. Wayne Richey, who filed for office earlier this week, was unable to be present because he entered the campaign later than others, according to event organizers.
Martinez is a U.S. Army veteran who currently works for FedEx and Nielsen works in sales.
As each candidate rolled through the questions related to open space preservation, climate change and resources, most of the discussion came back to the necessity of public transit to make Boise’s increasing population sustainable.
Bieter leaned heavily on his 16-year record as mayor of Boise and the city’s progress on sustainability and fighting for dense development under his tenure. McLean advocated for more aggressive goals on climate change and a different strategy on local option taxing authority to pay for improvements. Martinez expressed deep concern for the planet several times and pushed for more local action. Nielsen decided to focus on the positives Boise city staff and its residents are already doing to keep the city clean.
Although there were no interpersonal conflicts during the forum, McLean and Bieter split on several key issues of how to address the city’s environmental issues. Earlier this year, Boise City Council set a goal to power the city exclusively through renewable energy by 2035, instead of the original 2040 as initially proposed, which McLean has said she was the driving force behind. If elected, McLean said she would push even harder to achieve that goal by 2030 and push for a solid plan to cut natural gas usage by 2021.
Bieter did not directly confront differences he might have with McLean, instead he emphasized the city’s goal to make its energy plans not burden taxpayers, while still making the city more sustainable over time.
“If we had a billion dollars we could be 100% sustainable by tomorrow,” he said, “but we don’t have a billion dollars and people are stretched as it is.”
They also split on local option taxing authority, which would allow localities to ask voters if they would like to approve a sales tax for specific projects or initiatives. Currently this is not allowed in the vast majority of Idaho cities, but Bieter has advocated time and time again for the state legislature to change the law so the city can fund its own public transit system. However, McLean said fighting tooth and nail for this might not be the right move.
“We have to have solutions around transportation,” she said. “Not by chasing a tool that we want but by having a vision so we can talk about the value of moving our people between places.”
Instead she thinks the city should strike agreements with cities across the valley, as well as the Ada County Highway District, to put together a valleywide vision, and then pursue a campaign to get local option taxing authority in the Treasure Valley.
Although development might not seem directly connected to conservation, it was another common theme throughout the evening. Both Bieter and McLean advocated for dense development that gives residents open space, while making the city more compact.
Bieter called suburban sprawl a “poison” that he has fought repeatedly. He touted the city’s recent push for mixed-use development under his administration, like Bown Crossing, where all kinds of uses are located together.
“It really is kind of a back to the future thing where your job and your store and your entertainment and your home are all located together, and we’ve had real success in building that model all around the city and our city services enhance that. All of that goes to where you don’t have to drive ideally, but if you do it’s short distances.”
McLean said as Boise officials design the city of the future, they should push developers to create dense developments that still include small open spaces for residents to use, as well as paths that connect different neighborhoods citywide to make even an increasingly denser city still feel open.
Martinez said he supported many of Bieter and the city council’s recent moves on conservation, including the energy goals and other policies to increase public transportation. However, he said the city should be more aggressive and set an example for the rest of Idaho, which he said is not as progressive.
“I believe that conservation is important because I’m a millennial and I don’t know how much longer this world is going to sustain what we’re doing right now,” he said. “We’re destroying the world, slowly. We can start at a city level because it starts at a local level and works its way up nationally.”
Nielsen said she still needed to do more research on some of the issues discussed at the forum and encouraged the audience members to share their ideas with her. One item she disagreed with the other candidates was the city’s renewable energy goal, which she said was not helpful to conservation efforts.
“I believe in the best of things and that we’ve done great and there’s even more greatness to come,” she said. “We have everything we know now and all of these committees working for clean air and clean water and better energy that I don’t believe a goal is necessary because it’s premeditated resentment.”