BOISE — In the halls of some local governments, petty fights dominate headlines, and monthslong budget battles rage. Not in Boise.
Despite rising frustration about the city’s rapid growth and pushback from activists about some of Boise’s policies and projects, little of that divisiveness makes it to Boise City Council’s votes as compared to neighboring cities.
An analysis by the Idaho Press found that during a nine-month period, council had meetings where all votes were unanimous 75 percent of the time.
Between early May 2018 and early March of this year, the council held 33 meetings, and only eight of them had a single vote where council members disagreed.
This stands in sharp contrast to Nampa, where council members had meetings where they cast every vote unanimously only 24 percent of the time in the same period. Meridian City Council’s voting record was 33 percent in the same analysis.
When asked about the trend, all six of Boise’s council members said they do not plan their votes together beforehand and often find consensus during meetings after hearing well-researched information from city staff, as opposed to deliberating out of the public eye.
“I think the insinuation is that we decide ahead of time, and that’s what I used to hear when I was a constituent, but that’s just not how it works,” said Boise City Councilwoman Lisa Sánchez, elected in 2017. “I think sometimes when you’re on the outside, it’s easy to create a false narrative based on the information you have. But once you’re on the other side and you see how things are done, it’s just not true.”
Despite the frequent unanimous votes, the council members have a broad range of political ideologies. Sánchez describes herself as a progressive to the left of the Democratic party; Councilman Scot Ludwig is a Republican; Council President Lauren McLean and Councilwoman Holli Woodings are Democrats; and Councilman TJ Thomson describes himself as an independent. Thomson has been a vocal supporter of Joe Biden's presidential campaign on social media and formerly ran for Ada County Commissioner as a Democrat in 2016. City Council President Pro Tem Elaine Clegg said she has been affiliated with the Democratic party "on and off."
When asked about the political climate in the city as compared to the voting record of City Council, Ludwig said he thinks Boise is not as divided as social media or news reports might make it seem.
“I think the press plays up the minority’s voices because that’s who gets heard (the loudest),” he said. “I think the city has a significant number of patrons who are very satisfied with the leadership and enjoy what the city has become, which is top 10 in almost any category.”
Clegg said a big factor contributing to the council’s record of agreeing with each other is a lack of ideologues on the dais. Instead of members who are uncompromising on political ideals and aiming to make statements with opposing votes, Clegg said council members set aside their parties and vote purely on what is best for the city.
“I think the Boise City Council is really focused on solutions and not on political statements, and so we’re typically trying to find the best way forward and not trying to find a way to poke something else in the eye,” she said.
Michael Overton, an assistant professor of political science at University of Idaho, said this is not uncommon for city councils. Because local governments are often dealing with issues that aren’t as driven by party and are instead looking for the best policies, there is less grandstanding for political gain.
“If the federal government (doesn't) want to deal with a problem, they kick it down to a state government. And if they don’t want to deal with (the problem), gets kicked down to a local government. And if the local government doesn’t want to deal with a problem, it just doesn’t get fixed,” Overton said. “It’s a thankless job because all of the little things that no one else wants to deal with get left in the hands of these city council members, but it often leads to practical solutions.”
All six of Boise’s council members are elected at-large, meaning they represent the entire city instead of districts. Of the council, McLean and Clegg own homes in the North End, while Sánchez rents in the area. Ludwig and Woodings live in East Boise, and Thomson lives in West Boise.
Richard Llewellyn, an advocate in Northwest Boise and a frequent member of the audience at Boise City Council, said he has noticed the high rate of unanimous votes coming from city hall. He believes a big reason for this is the lack of representation from neighborhoods citywide on the council.
"I think (the number of unanimous votes) reflects the fact that almost all of the council members are from a small area, either from the North End or the East End," he said. "The voting doesn't reflect the natural tendency for different areas of the city to have different concerns and different needs."
Vanishing Boise, a Facebook page devoted to growth in Boise, is a regular critic of City Council and Mayor Dave Bieter.
Group member Lori Dicaire said she is frustrated that council does not always appear to take into consideration testimony they hear from residents when making decisions.
"I've heard some really compelling, well-researched and intelligent testimony from folks who tell their personal stories, and it seems like sometimes it falls on deaf ears," she said.
Not always unanimous
Just because unanimous votes are common, it doesn’t mean there isn’t disagreement on council.
During the period analyzed by the Idaho Press, the council split on several contentious issues, including the transfer of the Grove Plaza to the city with controversial terms, changes to the St. Luke's campus ahead of the hospital's expansion, and the approval of Ludwig's development project in the Central Addition.
The vote on whether to relocate The Cabin, a literary nonprofit housed in a 1940s log cabin next to the Main Library, initially had a split vote, and eventually all council members voted unanimously to move it to Julia Davis Park.
Although the Grove Plaza transfer from urban renewal to the city initially sailed through council on the consent agenda in August, McLean and Clegg heard in October the deed would require the proceeds from any potential sale of the property to a government entity go toward the construction of a sports park.
Because of the controversial nature of the sports park and the lack of a concrete proposal on the table, they voted to bring the motion back to council and try to broaden what those possible profits could be used for.
The core of the issue at hand was the language of the deed transfer — this was the first time in months any topic relating to the sports park had come before council, aside from the budget discussions to set aside $3 million for the possible partnership.
The sports park has been at the top of Bieter’s wishlist for the city for years now and was a big highlight in his state of the city address, but it has been divisive with residents. Bieter sits on the urban renewal board, which decided on the terms of the transfer, so he was likely aware of the restrictions on the deed language despite it not being included in the staff memo on the topic.
Thomson originally was going to vote with McLean and Clegg to change the terms of the transfer, but after hearing an argument from Woodings that she believed the deed could be altered later, he changed his mind. The measure to accept the transfer, without the changes McLean and Clegg requested, passed 3-2, with Sánchez absent.
Last summer, council had another major sticking point when Ludwig proposed to build two towers connected with a skybridge in the Central Addition. After a recommended denial from Planning & Zoning and two meetings on the topic, council approved the project, 3-2, with McLean and Sánchez opposing.
Sánchez took issue with the lack of affordable housing in the development, while McLean was concerned the neighborhood didn't need the more than 300 parking spaces in the design. She argued if some of the parking were eliminated, the controversial skybridge connecting the two parking decks could be removed.
Another split vote was related to the Bannock Street plaza near St. Luke’s hospital in December. Council voted, 3-2, with McLean and Sánchez against, on a plan to open the park-like area to car traffic in advance of St. Luke’s building a new hospital tower where Jefferson Street currently is.
The East End Neighborhood Association members have been frustrated with the hospital's plans to close Jefferson and limit east-west mobility in the area ever since the hospital unveiled the plan. Through a series of appeals last year, the neighborhood association sparred with the health system over the design, leaving City Council members to make the final determination.
McLean said she was concerned some parts of the design were not clear enough to prevent collisions with patients and medical staff. She also voted against the design because she was not sure the city’s plan to test the new traffic pattern would be extensive enough to find out if it would work before proceeding with construction. Sánchez did not speak during the discussion.
One of the most essential tasks of any local government body is to set the annual budget, which can sometimes be contentious, as council members struggle to narrow their priorities to fit city revenues. Boise is different.
Budget negotiations so far in 2019 have been without controversy, and at the end of the budget approval process in 2018, the proposed $752.8 million budget sailed through council with little discussion or contention. One notable change to the budget was a provision, suggested by McLean, on the $3 million set aside for the proposed sports park. The provision requires council to vote separately on the project once a formal proposal comes forward from the developer before the funds are officially approved.
When asked why the budget process is not so contentious as it may be in other places, all of the council members pointed to a process called “priority-based budgeting,” where items council wants to focus on are selected beforehand. McLean said council works all year to talk with city staff about what they would like to see in the budget long before it is brought before council, eliminating many conflict points.
“The budget process is a much more focused and strategic process where we’re having continual conversations throughout the year to review revenue, talk about programs and services we’re going to provide, and chart forward what we’re going to need,” McLean said.
With Boise’s rapid growth and strong economy in recent years, the city has not been faced with budget shortfalls or forced to make deep cuts and has the freedom to fund big initiatives, such as the city's Grow Our Housing plan or expansions to its parks.
In his studies of local government, Overton, the U of I professor, said Boise’s economic success could be a factor in why budget battles don’t seem to play out on Capitol Boulevard.
“Resource-rich cities are going to have to fund a lot of priorities without having to make tough calls," Overton said. "When we have money and we can spend it, we’re pretty good at that. But if we have to decide between streets over here and schools over here, we can really see conflicts and different interest arise.”
Ludwig pointed out that even though the budget sets tax rates and other priorities for the city, he has often been surprised at how few residents provide input.
“I remember the first year I was on council, and I went to the budget public hearing that was supposed to be a significant discussion from the public, and there was not a soul there,” he said. “I commented that I had put on my helmet, kneepads and elbow pads ready for a discussion, so the only conclusion I could draw was that Boiseans were appreciative of the fiscal responsibility and transparency the city has portrayed in financial matters.”