Boise & Garden City

Boise wants to change how residents weigh in on pricey projects. What that means for you.

Ada County clerk to Boise City Council: You can’t change these ordinances

Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane tells the Boise City Council on June 18 that they cannot revise citizen-initiative ordinances on a proposed new main library and a stadium before adopting them and still keep them from going before voters in November.
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Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane tells the Boise City Council on June 18 that they cannot revise citizen-initiative ordinances on a proposed new main library and a stadium before adopting them and still keep them from going before voters in November.

Come November, Boiseans are set to vote on whether they would like future votes on the library and stadium projects.

But it might not be the only ballot issue related to the projects.

The Boise City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to not adopt two ordinances proposed by initiative group Boise Working Together. One ordinance would require a vote on library projects costing more than $25 million while the other would require a vote on stadium projects costing more than $5 million in public or private money.

Members of Boise Working Together gathered more than 7,000 signatures for each ordinance when the petitions were submitted to the Boise City Clerk in April, and the Ada County Clerk’s office verified in May that more than 5,000 signatures on each petition came from registered Boise voters, above the 4,962 required to get an initiative in front of voters.

Those initiatives are both set to appear on the November ballot because the council opted not to adopt them, leading Boiseans to now be in a place where they must “vote for a vote,” as several officials have called the measures.

Those initiatives potentially could be joined on the ballot by a proposed ordinance from Council Pro Tem Elaine Clegg. She brought forth drafted language that would amend city code to authorize the city to put “special city questions” to a vote.

A second ordinance would amend city code to include a section on “city capital projects.” If enacted, it would require public hearings on capital projects “where the city is reasonably expected to expend” $25 million or more in city general funds. It would also allow “any qualified voter dissatisfied with the outcome” of such projects to request that the council take the topic up as a special city question that would be put on a ballot for public vote.

The City Council voted unanimously to direct the city’s legal staff to work with city administration to find a constitutional way forward for such amendments to the city code.

After a discussion with Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane a week prior about what the council’s options were for the ordinances, it was made clear that even if the council passed an amended version of Boise Working Together’s proposed measures, the originals would still be on the ballot.

Idaho grants cities relatively narrow authority and no power that is not explicitly given by the Legislature, McGrane told the Statesman last week. 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. Idaho law dictates that if any of the ordinances were to pass, those measures become law. But there is no requirement that initiatives, such as Boise Working Together’s, be legally and constitutionally sound.

Clegg said that asking questions of McGrane helped to clarify many things, including that citizens don’t have more power in the initiative process than city officials do. She wanted to honor the spirit of the initiatives while still making strong laws for the city.

“The citizens of Boise felt like they needed to have a process that gave them more voice in projects in general and also an opportunity to vote on projects they felt were worthy of that,” Clegg said after the meeting.

Council member Scot Ludwig said he felt the Boise Working Together ordinances were counter to the Idaho constitution because they included language that would dictate how private property could be used and how private money could be spent.

Potentially unconstitutional ballot issues can be challenged and removed from the ballot, councilors said during Tuesday’s meeting. Brian Ertz, the legal counsel for Boise Working Together, said he felt that statement was more of a political scare tactic than anything else.

“The ordinances will survive any potential legal challenge,” he said after the meeting. “The language is sound. If you’re looking for problems, you’re going to find them, and the council was looking for problems.”

Ertz argued that by introducing a potential secondary vote on the library and stadium projects, the City Council was making the issue even more complicated, saying “the idea of confusion is the city’s own making.”

The Boise City Council made the decision to move forward with Clegg’s draft and to not enact the ordinances after hearing four hours of testimony from people on all sides of the issue. Some loved the library proposal while others felt the projects were too expensive and that the $85 million allocated for the library could go to other priorities.

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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.