An Ada County sheriff’s detective told Pat Rice he’d be looking into accusations that the Greater Boise Auditorium District violated Idaho’s open meeting law in meetings with a developer who wants to build a stadium in Downtown Boise.
Rice, the auditorium district’s executive director, said the detective hadn’t started reviewing evidence in the case.
“We’re cooperating fully, looking forward to the opportunity to discuss the issues and move on,” Rice told the Idaho Statesman on Monday. “Based on what the open meetings law requires and based on what we were doing, I don’t see where we violated anything.”
The investigation is a response to a letter the Ada County prosecutor received last week from a group called Concerned Boise Taxpayers, formed to oppose the stadium. The letter points to several emails from October 2014 in which Rice arranged meetings between members of the district’s board of directors and developer Chris Schoen.
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This spring, Schoen revealed his plan to build a stadium for the Boise Hawks — of which he is managing partner — as well as a professional soccer team and a variety of events such as festivals, concerts and youth sports tournaments. A preliminary outline calls for the auditorium district to put $5 million toward the stadium’s construction, but the district has not received an official proposal.
Schoen’s plan has spawned controversy in Boise, partly because public money would be required to build the stadium.
The city of Boise also would contribute $3 million. Capital City Development Corp., Boise’s urban renewal agency, would borrow money to cover the rest of the stadium’s expected $40 million cost. It would pay that sum back with property taxes from at least $60 million of private development Schoen would build around the stadium.
In his 2014 emails, Rice was careful to make sure no more than two board members attended the meetings with Schoen so that they would not constitute a legal quorum of the five-member board. Most meetings of a government body’s quorum must be public and have official notice.
The Concerned Boise Taxpayers letter accuses the auditorium district of using the less-than-quorum meetings to avoid compliance with Idaho’s open meeting law.
Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Scott Bandy said his office turned the letter over to the sheriff.
“In general terms, we do not disclose if anyone — or any situation — is under investigation until a charge is filed,” sheriff’s spokesman Patrick Orr said Monday in an email.
With a few exceptions, Idaho law requires government meetings to be open to the public. Did the board members’ 2014 encounters with Schoen qualify as government meetings?
“ ‘Meeting’ means the convening of a governing body of a public agency to make a decision or to deliberate toward a decision on any matter,” the law reads. “ ‘Deliberation’ means the receipt or exchange of information or opinion relating to a decision, but shall not include informal or impromptu discussions of a general nature which do not specifically relate to a matter then pending before the public agency for decision.”
Rice said he wasn’t trying to avoid the law by setting up meetings of no more than two board members at a time: “The intention was to make sure that we didn’t break the law.”
Rice said he’d heard speculation that Schoen would someday ask the auditorium district to put up money for the stadium, but the board had received no official presentation. That’s why he wanted board members to meet Schoen in 2014.
“It was purely meet-and-greet,” he said. “There was no district business discussed. It was simply, ‘If you’re going to talk about the district, then get to know the board members.’ That was it.”
Some of the board members who met with Schoen in 2014 told the Idaho Statesman they discussed stadium-anchored projects that Schoen had worked on in other places, such as Fort Wayne, Ind. They discussed Schoen’s interest in building a new stadium for the Hawks, which his company, Agon Sports and Entertainment, had recently acquired.
But, they said, they didn’t discuss details like where the stadium would be located and what involvement Schoen expected from the auditorium district. They said they didn’t talk to other board members about their meetings with Schoen.
“It was a very 50,000-foot look at what (the stadium) could be,” board chairman Jim Walker said. “But it was nothing that we ever met as a board and discussed.”
At the time, Walker said, the board was mostly focused on an expansion of Boise Centre, an event venue the district owns.
Hy Kloc, another member of the board, had a similar recollection of a dinner meeting with Schoen.
“We didn’t get into anything specific,” Kloc said. “We didn’t really get into what was going to happen in Boise. These were all hypotheticals.”
Whether they discussed details or not, the key point is that they talked about a project that might someday come before the auditorium district, said Betsy Russell, president of the Idaho Press Club and the nonprofit Idahoans for Openness in Government.
“If it actually had absolutely nothing to do with any decision they were ever going to make … then why were they so concerned about avoiding a quorum?” Russell said. “We feel like there’s a reason that we have an open meetings law and our government agencies shouldn’t be going to elaborate means to avoid it. They should just comply with it.”