In April, a political action committee handed out flyers encouraging Boise voters not to sign a petition on the proposed new main library because, in the words of the flyer, “outside organizations are trying to influence local government decisions.”
Protect Our Libraries, as the PAC was called, didn’t want the petition on the proposed library to succeed, calling its proposed election on the library “bad governance.” The PAC was formed after “specific donors” wanted to educate voters on why the library petition was a bad idea.
One of those donors was the campaign of Mayor David Bieter, which gave $1,000 to Protect Our Libraries. As first reported by the Idaho Press, Bieter was a founding member of the PAC.
Robert West, then the PAC’s campaign manager and now manager of Bieter’s re-election campaign, confirmed Bieter’s donation in a phone interview this week. West told the Idaho Statesman in April that no city employees were part of the PAC, but he declined to share a donor list. At the time, he said the group had raised $15,000 and told the Statesman that people “should be trusting our government to make decisions.”
The citizens group that started the signature drive, Boise Working Together, eventually reached its signature goal. The initiative, as well as one like it on the sports park proposed for the city’s West End, will now appear on the November ballot.
The measures are proposed ordinances that, if passed, would become city law. They would require subsequent citywide elections before the city could spend money on any library costing more than $25 million or any stadium costing more than $5 million. The proposed library would cost an estimated $85 million and the stadium an estimated $50 million.
Boise Working Together members say the idea that the mayor was using his campaign funds to oppose them was a slap in the face.
“If the mayor thought there was ‘misinformation,’ he should have spoken up, offered clear and accurate facts, and made an effort to correct what he thought were errors, rather than hiring an operative to badmouth our grassroots efforts,” Adelia Simplot, board chair of Boise Working Together, said in a news release.
West told the Statesman that Protect Our Libraries is now dormant. He declined to say how much money was raised or who else was a part of the group, saying only that no other donors were current political candidates. To find out the specifics, West referred a reporter to the PAC’s campaign finance reports, which have not been filed and are not due until October.
Asked why he had said no city employees were on the list when the mayor’s campaign was a donor, West said that the mayor was an elected official, not a city employee, even though Bieter receives a city salary. Asked if any other elected officials were on the list, West said the Statesman would have to wait until October to see.
He said the PAC was just trying to educate the public because the petitions circulated by Boise Working Together “weren’t great petitions.”
“We’re seeing that now,” West said. “The council is confused. People are confused. It’s not clear if they’re legal or how they’ll be instituted, but they weren’t drafted well.”
Several members of Boise City Council have said that they did not believe the ordinances were constitutional as Boise Working Together wrote them. Elaine Clegg, council president pro tem, said they infringe on the budgetary and administrative authority of the council.
Bieter was not available for an interview, West said. He told the Statesman that the mayor “loves civic participation,” but that he didn’t agree with the petitions.
Bieter told the Statesman in June that a “vote for a vote,” as proposed by the Boise Working Together initiative, was confusing, but he ultimately endorsed the group’s call for the City Council to adopt the ordinances, which would have pre-empted the November elections on them. The council did not adopt them. Instead, it approved an ordinance proposed by Elaine Clegg, council president pro tem, that would put a competing measure about the library on the November ballot.
That measure would be advisory. It won’t go on the ballot unless the City Council decides to, after a public hearing. That hearing is expected in late August.
No such ordinance has been proposed for the stadium. The developer, Greenstone Properties, has yet to file a proposal to build it with the city.
“The mayor is a great supporter of participating, and he is always going to be a supporter of citizens involved in government,” West said. “For us, the PAC was just trying to educate.”
Brian Ertz, the legal counsel for Boise Working Together, has said that the language of the initiatives is sound and that claims to the contrary are a political scare tactic.
West told the Statesman that there was no overlap between his time as the Protect Our Libraries campaign manager and his current role as Bieter’s campaign manager. The mayor was familiar with West’s work at the end of the Protect Our Libraries campaign, and West said he fit well into the work of Bieter’s campaign.
Meanwhile, Boise Working Together said it would form a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which is a tax-exempt “social welfare” designation. According to the IRS, a 501(c)(4) organization may not directly or indirectly participate in political campaigns or on the behalf of any candidate, but it can engage in political activities“ so long as that is not its primary activity.
In its news release, Boise Working Together said the decision to made was “to continue acting on behalf of citizens who want transparency in government.” Right now, Boise Working Together is simply classified as a nonprofit, a spokesman said. The paperwork to make the change has been submitted to the IRS.
“Filing that way shows that Boise Working Together intends to persist,” Ertz said in a phone interview. “It’s not a flash in the pan. In other situations, an organization can file as a PAC and open and close in an ephemeral way. Organizing as a 501(c)(4) indicates that Boise Working Together is looking to be an ongoing voice and player.”