Things have changed in the Nampa City Council chambers this year.
Theres much more questioning and debate. Tempers are more likely to flare. Often, the four-member panel seems divided in outlook and opinion.
So far this year, the council has deadlocked six times, forcing Mayor Tom Dale to break five 2-2 ties.
Each time, Martin Thorne and Pam White were on one side of the tie, with Stephen Kren and Bob Henry on the other. Each time, Dale sided with Thorne and White.
A common thread in the ties found Kren and Henry balking at proposals to spend city money or trade city property.
During the same period last year, only one issue was decided by a mayoral tie-breaker.
What changed? Bob Henry, a longtime Nampa insurance company owner and former school board member who had run unsuccessfully for City Council twice before, took office in January. The shift in dynamic was part of his plan.
VOTING FOR CHANGE
When Henry launched his third council campaign last year, he said he wanted to shake up a council that, in his view, was too often in lockstep with the mayor and seemed more concerned with keeping the city government healthy than addressing the concerns of tax-weary residents and businesses. He thought voters were ready for a change.
From what I had seen, there was never a lot of discussion relative to money issues, Henry said. If the mayor wanted it and the department wanted it, they pretty much got it.
Only one member of the presumed majority, Curtis Homer, was up for election last November, and Henry was among three challengers gunning for his seat. All three said they set their sights on the popular former police chief at least in part because the other incumbent on the ballot, Kren, seemed more likely to buck the majority. Kren, owner of Stephens Electric, is now in his fifth term and is the longest-serving member of the council.
With one opponent in November, Kren campaigned as the dissenting voice and joined forces with Henry. Both won. Henry toppled Homer with nearly 49 percent to Homers 35 percent.
Mayor Dale, a teacher and musician who served on the City Council before he was elected mayor in 2002, says the notion that the previous council voted as a bloc is unfair to the individuals involved.
Those are four independent, thinking individuals who work through things, Dale said.
Although the members of the pre-Henry council often agreed, there were times when each of the members cast a dissenting vote on one issue or another. Thats still true this year, Dale said, noting that each of the four present council members has been the 1 in a 3-1 vote at least once.
Councilwoman Pam White, a five-year council veteran who previously served on the planning commission, rejected Henrys implication that she follows the mayors lead.
I totally disagree with that. I use my own mind, she said, noting that Henry made similar allegations when he ran against her in 2007. He said that I was in Tom Dales pocket. I think everyone who knows me knows that is the furthest thing and I think Councilman Henry knows that about me now, too.
Council ties the only occasions when a mayor can vote are still relatively uncommon, Dale said, although there have been more this year than in the past.
AN UNNATURAL RHYTHM
Differences of opinion and vigorous debate are healthy and productive, public policy expert Jim Weatherby said, but steady division on a local government board can throw off the balance.
Its not really dysfunctional because the city still moves forward, he said, but when moving ahead requires a vote from the mayor, it blurs the distinct functions of governing board and government head.
There is a separation of power in the mayor-council form of government, said Weatherby, a Boise State University emeritus professor and former executive director of the Association of Idaho Cities. The mayor is the head of administration, and the council is the policy-making body.
Frequent ties place the mayor in the role of policy-maker, he said, noting that the system works best when a tie-breaker is needed only in extraordinary circumstances.
When the council deadlocks frequently, he said, it gives the mayor more clout.
Henry, who came into the council saying the mayor had too much influence, said that breaking ties doesnt so much increase mayoral power as bring it into the light.
It makes the mayor declare himself break the ties, have to make his statements, Henry said.
CHANGE OF TONE
A different palette of personalities has changed the tone of discourse on the council, White said, saying it tends to be more challenging and aggressive than in the past.
I have found my own self raising my voice in council meetings, and I had never done that before, she said.
Testy exchanges between Nampas three-term mayor and newest council member included a February skirmish during a special council meeting discussion about how to fund the citys stormwater program without dangerously depleting the fund balance the city carries to handle unexpected expenses.
When Dale said a $4.4 million loan the city made to its urban renewal agency as seed money still counts in our fund balance because its coming back, Henry called it smoke and mirrors.
No, it is not, Dale replied. I strongly disagree with the characterization of smoke and mirrors, because that implies dishonesty.
Dale declined to comment on his conflict with Henry except to say Henry entered city government with an adversarial approach. Henry doesnt challenge that characterization.
I came into the City Council thinking I was going to be butting heads with the mayor, Henry said. I knew there would be some gnashing of teeth.
Henrys word choices during debate can be inflammatory, such as when he suggested in February that the citys plans to construct new space for employees who handle city water and sewer billing might be another example of the City of Nampa just growing their own empire at the expense of taxpayers.
He frequently comments in meetings that he is frustrated by the information available to the council or the amount of time available to prepare for crucial decisions.
But on the whole, he said, Im having a great time.
I like to ask the questions, he said. I think its important to ask why.
PLENTY OF QUESTIONS
Henry wanted to see more discussion on the council, and that has certainly happened in the past six months.
Staff reports and seemingly routine requests are regularly peppered with questions.
There are things that would have been no-brainers in the past that are discussions now, Dale said.
Ive been surprised at some of the things that have been dissected, White said, but that doesnt make me right and them wrong. Its a process.
Meetings have been running longer, and theyre more frequent. In addition to its twice-monthly regular meetings, the City Council has held 21 special meetings so far this year up from 10 during the same period last year.
Ive never done so many meetings, ever, said City Clerk Debbie Bishop, who has been with the clerks office since 1989. Some of the extra meetings, she said, were held to help the newest council member get up to speed on issues such as the city budget and possible ways to pay for stormwater-control measures needed to meet the federal Clean Water Act.
The learning curve is steep for a new council member, White said, and its natural and helpful to ask questions and delve into how things work.
I think back five years when it was me (new on the council), she said. I was the same way, but hes bolder than me. I would sort of just sit back and listen.
I have found that I enjoy the discussions that I have with Councilman Henry. I like information, and I like discussion. I dont like a meeting that starts with minds made up.
NOT CAST IN STONE
Henry demonstrated that he can change his mind on fiercely felt issues this month when he changed his vote on a proposed swap of downtown blocks to hasten progress toward a new city library. Hed voted no in June, saying traffic around the proposed library block is a hazard and the city should slow down and consider a different site for the long-awaited new library.
But after hearing public testimony July 2 he voted for the trade, joining White and Thorne, a retired print-shop owner first elected to the council in 1997.
It shows the value of public hearings, Henry said. When that gentleman stood up and said, If you wait for the perfect plan youll never get anything done, I thought on that.
The city made a promise that wed build a library with urban renewal funds, he said, referring to a downtown development plan forged by the city and Nampa Development Corp.
Henry, White and Dale said they dont see that changed vote as a turning point.
And the very next vote on the issue, on July 16, had Henry joining Kren again on the no side. The two blocked an effort to approve the library block-public safety trade on first reading, which requires a suspension of the rules that require councils to hold three separate readings of new ordinances. The law doesnt allow a mayor to vote to suspend the rules, so Dale could not break the tie, and the ordinance will be up for second and third readings in August.
There will likely be more tie votes in Nampas future, Henry said. The ties dont change the policy outcome since a two-plus-Dale vote has the same effect as the three-member votes last year. But bringing opposing views to the forefront is a good thing even if victories are few, he said.
And he counts several victories in his time on the council so far, including a successful effort to drop the citys new stormwater fee, which had sparked lawsuits, and find money in Nampas budget to pay for the program. Henry agreed with lawsuit contentions that the utility fee was really a tax on property owners. Thorne voted with Kren and Henry to drop the fee and refund the nearly $600,000 already collected. White dissented, saying the city should fight the lawsuits.
Henry also believes he helped keep spending expectations lean during the six special council meetings leading up to setting a proposed budget for next year.
I think I slowed down the spending machine a little bit, he said. If the council had remained the way it was, I think youd be looking at a budget increase this year.
White strongly disagreed.
The moneys not there to spend, she said. I think the city has been holding a tight line on spending before Councilman Henry was on the council, and we would have held a tight line this year without him.
Dale said city employees and council members are adjusting well to the new dynamic on the council, and things are smoothing out.
I have sat down with Pam and Martin both and said, I might disagree with you, but its not personal, Henry said.
Theres always going to be bumping heads; there always has been, White said. We still like each other, and we still respect each other.
Kristin Rodine 377-6447