Boise & Garden City

Another obstacle could prevent election on library, stadium sought by citizens group

Even if the Boise City Council adopts two ordinances proposed by a citizen group, elections to approve spending on the library and stadium may never happen.

In April, Boise Working Together submitted more than 7,000 signatures each on two ballot initiatives. One is an ordinance to require a citywide election on any library project that costs the city more than $25 million. The other is an ordinance to require an election on any stadium project that costs the city more than $5 million.

The petition drive was a response to the city’s plans to build an $85 million new main library and a developer’s proposal to build a $50 million baseball and soccer stadium that would be publicly owned.

The Ada County Clerk’s Office verified that enough signatures were valid to put the measures on the November city ballot. Under Idaho law, when voters pass ordinances, they become law. If passed, the ordinances would require voters to vote again on each project.

But the same law gives city councils the option to adopt the ordinances first and render an election on them unnecessary. If that happens, one or both of the elections on the proposed projects could be on the ballot as soon as November.

It also might not be that easy.

Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane told the council Tuesday that he must first be shown that Boise has the legal right to put the two spending questions before voters.

Idaho grants cities relatively narrow authority and no power that is not explicitly given by the Legislature, McGrane told the Statesman on Wednesday. The state lays out what a city can put on a ballot, and it’s not clear if a vote for spending is one of those things, he said.

“I know there’s a bunch of people researching these questions trying to figure out what they can and can’t do, but it’s not clear yet,” McGrane said.

That puts the council in a quandary. Council members expressed hesitancy to adopt the ordinances because of the uncertainty of what would happen next. The City Council is holding a public hearing on the ordinances at 6 p.m. next Tuesday, June 25, at City Hall.

What McGrane was able to confirm was that the council’s options are either to adopt the ordinances as-is or not adopt them at all. Adopting an amended version of the ordinance, including one that might better grant Boise the authority to put something on the ballot, would still push the original Boise Working Together language to the November ballot.

“I think one thing that’s become really clear to all of us, and maybe I’m more speaking for myself, is that people want to vote on the library project,” council member Holli Woodings said. “I would like to get the spirit of that and find a path forward on that vote, and I’m not totally sure if we can do that under the initiative.”

Petition groups do not need to consult with the county clerk. Boise Working Together consulted with the city attorney’s office to help craft the language of the group’s ordinances, as state law requires. After a city attorney in December called the group’s proposed ordinances unconstitutional, Boise Working Together revised them.

McGrane told the council that even when a petition group receives legal advice on an initiative’s language, it is not required to take it. He said he had seen that happen “numerous times” but didn’t know what advice Boise Working Together accepted. It’s possible a court could overturn either or both Boise Working Together ordinances.

“Just like the city council is able to pass an ordinance that may otherwise be unlawful, so is a petition process,” McGrane said.

Critics the stadium and library projects cite their cost and other issues. Some dislike the use of public money for a sports park that, while owned by the city, could benefit a private business.

Adelia Simplot, president of Boise Working Together, told the Statesman in March that she got involved in the group after the city announced plans to relocate The Cabin, the historic log building just south of the main library on Capitol Boulevard, to make space for the new, larger replacement library there. She also said she was concerned about the traffic a stadium would bring, especially as Boise continues to struggle with the rapid growth it has faced in the past few years.

After the meeting, Klinger said he hoped next week’s hearing addressed the actual “issue before us,” arguing that his group thinks “mega-projects must have mega-accountability.”

“We think our language is very tightly written and very specific, and it did not single out any particular projects,” Klinger said. “We did not have the authority and we would not want the authority to say the existing library project must stop at this point or the existing baseball stadium project must stop. That would be an administrative action interfering with the council’s prerogative.”

Klinger said Boise Working Together met with Mayor David Bieter on Monday for a “cordial and brief” conversation to hear what the group was thinking. The group requested to be considered as an applicant during the hearing, a move that would grant it extra time to speak.

Mike Journee, spokesman for the mayor, said nothing had been decided as the council was still “wrapping their heads around” Tuesday’s meeting.

The whole process is “clear as mud,” Council President Pro Tem Elaine Clegg joked at the council’s meeting Tuesday.

This story has been revised. A sentence in an earlier version incorrectly said the proposed baseball and soccer stadium would be privately owned.

Related stories from Idaho Statesman

Hayley covers local government for the Idaho Statesman with a primary focus on Boise. Previously, she worked for the Salisbury Daily Times, the Hartford Courant, the Denver Post and McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. Hayley graduated from Ohio University with degrees in journalism and political science.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.