BOISE — City leadership is wrestling with the implementation of a new state law requiring the Boise City Council to be elected by district.
HB 413, signed by Gov. Brad Little earlier this year, requires cities with a population over 100,000 to elect councils by district. A cache of emails, memos and texts from the city of Boise obtained via a public records request by the Idaho Press show Boise leaders frustrated with the legislation, and then scratching their heads at how best to put it in practice.
Meridian also has a population above 100,000, and Nampa is estimated to have surpassed that threshold.
A memo from Boise city legal staff to Mayor Lauren McLean and city council members outlining questions with the legislation says the city will be researching potential grounds for a legal challenge.
City spokeswoman Karen Boe gave few details about the redistricting bill Wednesday.
“We are working with the City of Boise legal department on a plan to implement this legislation,” she said in an email.
The May 18 memo, marked as “confidential attorney-client privilege,” outlines a series of questions left unanswered by the legislation, including the timing for redistricting, how the districts will be drawn and how it will impact already sitting council members.
The legislation requires districts drawn based on the most recent census results, but they will likely not be available in time for the boundaries to be drawn in time for the fall election. This means the city will likely have to draw districts once for the 2021 election, and again for the rest of the decade once the new count is available.
Boise elects its six city council members on a staggered basis, with three members up for election every two years. The next election is set for the fall of 2021, with City Council President Pro Tem Holli Woodings and City Council Members Lisa Sánchez and TJ Thomson. All of the current city council members except Thomson live in either the North End or the East End, posing challenges of how the transition from an at-large system to districts would be navigated.
The tail end of the memo also has initial ideas on how the law could be challenged in court, but there is no direct indication the city is moving toward a suit. The memo said the law could not be challenged on the ground that it singles out Boise because it also includes Meridian, and likely Nampa in the coming years.
However, the city legal staff said it could possibly be challenged because it endangers sitting city council members’ due process of property interests in their already won seats, and the salary and health coverage that comes with it.
City legal staff also noted in the memo that any districts drawn will likely be criticized and might need to withstand allegations of gerrymandering, or the practice of drawing districts to strategically place voters into districts in a way to benefit a specific party or group. The law requires districts have the same number of people, include at least one election precinct and be contiguously drawn.
In order to draw the districts, the memo said the city could create a commission to draw the boundaries or hire an outside consultant. Attached to the memo was correspondence with Seattle-based lawyer John Safarli who specializes in guiding cities through redistricting. In his letter, he estimated a price tag of $30,000 to $45,000 in legal fees, plus $20,000 to $35,000 in demographer fees if the city uses his services.
Another issue with the legislation, according to the memo, is it is unclear whether city council members can finish their current terms. The memo pointed to the example of 2016 legislation that requires community college trustees to be elected by zones, which included specific guidance for how to address the question of sitting members, but this legislation does not have similar language.
Depending on if the city is legally allowed to follow the same framework of the transition of community college trustees or not, it could force the city to hold elections for all sitting members of city council with some districts with multiple incumbents running against each other and others with no incumbents at all next year. The memo goes on to note if multiple incumbents all living in the North End all have to run against each other next year, it could prevent the city from following another state law that requires the terms of council members to be staggered.
Several Boise City Council members and McLean were strongly opposed to this bill. Several council members, including Sánchez and City Council Member Patrick Bageant, testified against the legislation at the statehouse. Other members had multiple one-on-one meetings with legislators or sent emails arguing against the legislation, or asking at least for more time to implement a city-developed solution instead.
In a text message from an unidentified individual to City Council President Elaine Clegg about the bill passing, she expressed disappointment.
“Wow, so we get stuck with districts that don’t work for anyone,” she said.