Drive to put dissolution of Elmore County taxing district to voters stalls; petitioners say county staff misled them

The Elmore County clerk says a group pushing to put the dissolution of the district to voters failed to turn in the signatures in time for the November election, but the petitioners say they were given the wrong date.

Wendy Mastroeni, who is leading the group called “ Stop the Madness Now!” said she believes the deadline snafu was part of a broader effort by county staff to thwart the drive. The group now plans to get the issue on the May ballot.

“I think they withheld information, or gave inaccurate information, and it was not because they don’t know their job,” Mastroeni said.

Elmore County Clerk Barbara Steele said her staff has done everything required by law and said there was a “big misunderstanding” by the petitioners.

“We’ve advised them to seek (legal) counsel,” she said.

Mastroeni and others want voters to decide whether the Western Elmore County Recreation District should be dissolved. It has been a divisive issue in Mountain Home.

The recreation district, formed in 2001, has collected about $5 million from taxpayers but hasn’t built a long-promised recreational facility.

A recreation district official told the Statesman in June that they want to complete a $850,000 capital campaign drive before breaking ground on the facility. They hope to begin construction this year.

Mastroeni said those seeking to get the issue on the ballot in November were told by county staff that the deadline for ballot questions and getting the signatures of 20 percent of registered voters (more than 1,400 people) was Sept. 14. The Mountain Home News published that date in a June 10 article.

But the deadline for the signatures was actually Aug. 14 because Idaho code allows for 30 days for the clerk’s offices to verify signatures, county officials said.

“I did tell them that Sept. 14 was the final day, that we had to have the entire process 100 percent completed — signatures gathered, turned in, verified, presented to commissioners,” said Vivian Garcia, elections specialist for Elmore County.

Did she mention that the signatures were due a month earlier?

“No, I did not, because they did not ask,” she said. “I only answered the specific questions they asked.”

She said county staff knew that the petitioners were unaware of the real Aug. 14 deadline.

“We were trying to find a way that we could let them know because we didn’t want to surprise them on Sept. 14, but that’s not something I can discuss,” Garcia said.

Mastroeni said she heard through the grapevine that the deadline was incorrect and contacted the clerk’s office to verify. Steele confirmed that Mastroeni called her office Aug. 12.

Garcia said she told the petitioners that the signatures had to be notarized, which is not correct.

“That was a mistake on my part because I didn’t know it was possible to circulate petitions that you didn’t have notarized,” she said.

Art Nelson, one of the petitioners, said they heard a rumor that verbiage on the petition made it invalid. They sought assistance from county staff and were told to get a lawyer.

“They kept asking us, ‘What do we need to have in the petition?’ ” Elmore County Prosecutor Kristina Schindele said. “We gave them the statute. We gave them the election deadline. They were given a whole bunch of deadlines.”

At an Aug. 14 meeting with the county commissioners, the petitioners found out that they might have to pay $1,600 for election costs.

“Wait a second, this is the first we’ve heard of it,” Mastroeni said of her reaction.

Schindele said she’s still researching that. She said the petitioners who wish to create a taxing district have to pay for the election.

A spokesman for the Idaho Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the matter.

Tim Hurst, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said the responsibility of clerk’s offices across the state is to run elections and help people through the process. He said talking to the public about what state statutes say is not akin to giving legal advice.

“They may not always know specific statutes for forming or dissolving a special district,” Hurst said. “The clerk may flat-out not know it. If they haven’t had enough time, or depending on how sophisticated the clerk’s office is, they may not have the answer for them.”