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In Wilder, Idaho’s first all-Latino government faces reality of governing

Wilder, Idaho Mayor Alicia Almazan on family and being the boss - except at home

She holds the city's top political position and sometimes her kids play the "mayor card," but Alicia Almazan's grandkids tease her that she's not the boss at home.
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She holds the city's top political position and sometimes her kids play the "mayor card," but Alicia Almazan's grandkids tease her that she's not the boss at home.

Ethnicity isn’t as big of a deal for Wilder’s all-Latino mayor and City Council as it is to the outside world; even though they’re minorities in Idaho, they’re part of a firm majority inside city limits.

According to the U.S. Census, nearly 76 percent of Wilder’s 1,533 residents were Latinos in 2010. If the numbers have changed since then, it’s not by much. The same census put the percentage of whites in the United States at 72.4 and Latinos at 16.3.

Lupe Garcia, one of the newcomers to the four-member City Council, said he didn’t even realize last year’s election gave Wilder the first all-Latino government in Idaho until people started talking about it.

“I don’t pay attention to that stuff. To me, people are people,” he said. “I consider myself an American.”

Like majority-white governments across the country, Wilder’s leaders are free to focus on the problems of municipal governance instead of contemplating their place in history. And like any city, there are plenty of problems.

The irrigation system is deteriorating. City employees wanted a raise but didn’t get one in next year’s budget. The sewer system will need an upgrade soon. Some of the sidewalks are in bad shape or don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many of the businesses that once thrived are gone, and few new ones have opened. There isn’t even a bar in town anymore.

New Mayor Alicia Almazan said she’s trying to find businesses that will fill Wilder’s vacant buildings.

Jerry Norris, who runs Jerry’s Barber Shop on Avenue A between 3rd and 4th streets, has no confidence that the city government will rejuvenate Wilder’s business climate. As Norris sees it, City Hall’s job is simple: Bring in more businesses and fix basic infrastructure problems. But the mayor, especially, and council simply don’t have the expertise or inclination to accomplish either, he said.

“It’s an all-Spanish assembly and nothing’s going to get done,” Norris said.

Norris believes City Hall is prejudiced against whites in the town. That’s simply not true, said Alice Reyes, a white woman whose late husband was of Mexican descent.

“I don’t believe they’re biased. I believe they’re for the people,” said Reyes, a former city councilwoman who said she’s lived in town since the 1960s. “I know the new people that came on certainly were not running on a Latino campaign.”

THE SHINE WEARS OFF

Within a month of last year’s election, news outlets all over the country reported that Wilder had Idaho’s first all-Latino government.

It was heralded as a milestone in a state known for being dominated by white conservatives. The cameras and reporters have vanished since then, and some of the shine has worn off as the realities of governing sets in.

Almazan has found that crisis is never very far away. Pipes belonging to the city’s irrigation system broke and caused flooding in a woman’s house. Repairs to the system cost $6,000. In Boise, whose general fund is more than $200 million, that would be a drop in the bucket. In Wilder, it’s a big splash.

Wilder’s general fund is less than $600,000. The city has just eight full-time employees, three of them police officers.

I have never felt discriminated (against) as an individual. ... I don’t feel like only Hispanics voted for me. I think I got 50-50.

Wilder Mayor Alicia Almazan

Troubles arose inside City Hall, too. Almazan said Robert Rivera, a councilman she defeated for the mayor’s chair by getting 83 votes to his 54, acted chilly toward her at first. Rivera has since told her he appreciates some of the things she’s doing, such as keeping council members in the loop on issues that crop up, Almazan said.

Efforts to contact Rivera for comment were unsuccessful.

Almazan’s tenure at City Hall started in 2013, when City Clerk Wendy Burrows-Severy hired her to work in the city office. Now she’s Burrows-Severy’s boss and Wilder’s mediator-in-chief.

“She’s, like, everything,” Burrows-Severy said. “She’s one of the hardest workers I know.”

As it was before she was elected, Almazan often serves as a translator between English-speaking city staffers and residents who speak only Spanish. On Sept. 1, a Spanish-speaking man whose car was stolen came to City Hall to speak to the chief of police. The man wanted information on how to deal with charges stemming from the car being impounded, Almazan said, and the police chief doesn’t speak Spanish. Almazan jumped in and worked out the communication between the two.

“I explained to him that he can’t just come in here and just yell at a police officer in his language,” she said.

GOVERNING GRIND

As it is with every government, Wilder’s leaders constantly weigh expenditures, trying to discern the line between penny-pinching and penny-wise, pound-foolish. Opinions differ.

Ismael Fernandez, a new councilman who won’t turn 20 until Oct. 5, wants the city to consider forming a regional sewer system with neighbors such as the city of Greenleaf instead of seeking short-term solutions to regulatory problems.

I can remember him when he was 15 years old, coming to City Council. ... And I remember mentioning to him way back then, I said, ‘When you’re 18, run for City Council, and you can get involved.’

Wilder City Clerk Wendy Burrows-Severy, talking about 20-year-old City Councilman Ismael Fernandez

“Now, it might not be the cheapest,” Fernandez said. “But my general philosophy is: The cheapest option isn’t always the best option, and the cheapest option usually ends up being the most expensive option in the end.”

On the other hand, Fernandez opposed joining the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He said any benefits were too uncertain to be worth the yearly $175 membership fee.

“What they came to us with was that there would be networking opportunities — whatever that meant — and advertising opportunities,” Fernandez said. “And the assumption is that if we join the Hispanic chamber, because it’s a business-oriented organization, then we would get business in Wilder.”

The latest disagreement between the council and Almazan centers on next year’s budget, which takes effect in October. Almazan wanted to give city employees a 3 percent raise. The council balked. Furthermore, council members suggested the city workers should contribute something to their insurance policies instead of the city paying 100 percent.

Councilman Garcia, a former Planning and Zoning commissioner, said residents are worried about increases in water and sewer fees, while employees got raises the last two years.

“They’ve got full coverage for medical and everything, and they don’t have to pay a penny,” Garcia said. “The city pays for it. And a lot of people complain about that.”

Meanwhile, the council proposed a budget that would have given themselves and the mayor city-paid insurance and cost Wilder’s taxpayers almost seven times as much as the proposed employee raises. Almazan said she hoped endorsing those benefits would induce council support for employee raises.

It didn’t happen. On Tuesday, facing an angry, standing-room-only crowd, the council backed down and passed a budget with no employee raises and no benefits for the mayor and council members.

“This job has been a wake-up call,” said Fernandez, who said he’ll someday pursue a spot in the Legislature or other higher office. “You see everything that goes on. And you see the bad aspects of it, but there’s so much good involved in government, and there’s so much good involved in public service. And this job is difficult, but it hasn’t dampened any of my future plans.”

PRODUCTIVE DISCORD

Virtually every governing body across the United States encounters problems and disagreements. And there’s nothing wrong with a difference of opinions, Fernandez said. In fact, he said, it’s productive.

“You want to be able to debate and you want to be able to disagree in a civil manner, but at the end of the day, you want to work with each other and work past those differences and compromise with each other,” he said.

Norris, the barber, said he wishes there were more debate. He worries that council members, because they share ethnicity, too often will be of one mind.

“I would have liked to see a mixture in there,” Norris said. “I don’t think they’re going to disagree. They’re going to agree on about everything.”

Norris thinks the city should offer 10-year tax breaks to businesses that open new shops in Wilder. Though Reyes disagrees with Norris’ take on the weight of the Latino influence on City Hall, she also hopes the government takes steps to encourage a more vibrant commercial presence in town.

She said she’s heard good things and seen positive signs that contradict Norris’ accusation that City Hall isn’t listening to Wilder’s residents.

“They’re eager to be informed and they’re eager to make changes, and I think that’s the important part,” Reyes said. “Things get better when they’re talked out. If anybody in this community has an issue with our city government, the best place to go is to our city government and talk to them. And not have a negative attitude when they go in there, but just a willingness to work things out. That’s the way to do it.”

Wilder, Canyon County, Idaho comparisons

Population

(estimate)

Percentage

Hispanic

or Latino

Wilder

1,577

75.9

Canyon County

207,478

24.8

Idaho

1.65 million

12.2

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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