BOISE — Mayor Dave Bieter has been in office for 15 years, and he says he’s far from finished.
Bieter is on the hunt for his fifth term at the helm of Idaho’s largest city. He’s running on his record of expanding the city’s library system, adding parks, building a strong staff at city hall, leading the city out of a recession and helping it grow as an attractive place to live.
“I want to be able to take those successes and run them even further,” he told the Idaho Press Friday.
Despite the long list of improvements he named, Bieter’s administration has not been without its critics. A growing number of community members have expressed frustration with the perception that Bieter’s administration is pursuing large projects, like the $85 million main library project and a public-private partnership with a sports park, and making other decisions without letting the community have their say.
Issues of transparency and hopes for more aggressive strategies to address issues of public transit and affordable housing have brought out three other candidates to challenge Bieter so far, most notably City Council President Lauren McLean. The other two challengers are relative Boise political newcomers: Adriel Martinez and Matt Kilburn.
When asked about McLean’s candidacy, Bieter said challengers are an important function of democracy and he plans to stay on good terms with her throughout the race. He also pointed out that this is not the first time someone on council has challenged him, since he fended off former Ada County Commissioner Jim Tibbs in 2007.
“It was a little bit surprising at first but not totally unexpected,” he said of McLean’s candidacy. “We’ll be professional and I’m hopeful not disagreeable to each other as we go along.”
One of the biggest flashpoints in Boise politics in the last year has been Bieter’s vision for a new main library project designed by world-famous architect Moshe Safdie. Some residents have balked at the design’s $104 million price tag, which city officials and Safdie’s firm are working to bring down to $85 million.
Bieter said although the entire cost of the project is high, once the $18 million philanthropic portion and $15 million for a new parking garage from urban renewal funds is factored in, it would be a much lower cost to the city itself than it initially appears. He also noted the recently qualified ballot initiative to put the main library to a vote has delayed the project, which adds cost as construction prices escalate.
“There’s a ways to go, and all of these factors are going to come together, but I believe we can deliver (the library) within the (budget) range,” Bieter said. “We’re sharpening our pencil and looking at how we meet that, and I do believe that we will. It will take some work, but there’s a ways to go with the process anyway.”
Bieter defended the transparency of his administration, and listed off nearly a dozen organizations he regularly meets with including refugee groups, nonprofits and businesses. He also said he started the Saturday Office Hours event when he first took office to meet with constituents on any topic.
“I’m the most accessible mayor I’ve known,” he said. “We understand that not everybody is going to like everything we do, but we’re going to vet it in the open and have a full discussion, and then we’re going to make decisions of what’s in the long-term best interest of the city.”
Although Boise is in a booming growth period now, rumors of a possible economic slowdown on the horizon have surfaced in recent months. A recent Brookings Institute report first reported by BoiseDev.com found the city’s economic growth is not sustainable into the future. The report pointed to the diminishing concentration of high-tech jobs and a lagging higher education system, which could discourage prospective employers from relocating to Boise.
Bieter said he is worried about the economy, along with a whole host of other things, but said he would focus on things the city can control to attract business. This includes the creation of Trailhead, an organization that supports startups, as well as a robust Planning and Zoning Department to help businesses easily obtain permits and other necessary approvals to start their business in the City of Trees right away.
“The least sexiest thing about economic development is permitting,” Bieter said. “Do you give good service? That’s the thing we have the most control over. It ain’t sexy, but that word gets around and it has gone around. If you come to Boise and you comply with what we said, we’re going to get you to the other end (of the process) faster and easier than any other place.”