West Ada

Housing projects, controversial across the Valley, erupt into a recall vote in Star

Two years is too long to wait, say detractors of Star Mayor Chad Bell and City Councilman Kevin Nielsen.

So they’re pushing to remove both men from office this year instead of waiting until the 2019 election, when their seats will be in play.

“After two years of looking at their performance and everything, we’re afraid of what they could do in the next two years,” said Gary Smith, a business consultant and former councilman who’s a leading figure in the attempt to recall the pair.

The recall effort has urgency and new faces. But listen close and you’ll hear echoes of an old conflict in Star, with roots in a contentious term Smith spent on the City Council.

Apartment projects are the newest front in this dispute. Both Nielsen and Bell voted in April to approve a large apartment complex. Councilman David Hershey voted with them; his seat is up for re-election the same day the recall election takes place.

Recall petitions claim Bell and Nielsen have repeatedly ignored “the will of the electors” in supporting “high-density growth and housing that is not harmonious with the city of Star.” Several Facebook pages on the recall offer their own versions of events. Comments on them reflect a long-festering sore in this city of about 9,000.

Bell said the pro-recall crowd is exaggerating his role in residential housing projects. “I’ve never, ever once gone out and tried to find somebody to bring apartments to Star,” he said.

His supporters say Smith is spreading lies to recruit supporters, motivated by a desire to retaliate against Bell for imagined political slights. Dana Partridge, the girlfriend of former Councilman Tom Erlebach, blames Smith for dividing the town.

“He relishes in having people fighting. He picks fights with people and he seems to like it,” Partridge said. “I’m not speaking to two of my family members because of this. I know neighbors that aren’t speaking to each other. It’s horrible.”

Smith said retaliation has nothing to do with it; Bell and Nielsen have only themselves to blame. Both men, he said, have shown disdain for residents’ wishes on housing projects, the budget and other issues — including former Mayor Nathan Mitchell’s questionable spending of taxpayer money.

GENESIS

Star’s recall movement was born in Heron River, an upscale neighborhood south of Highway 44 in the southeast corner of town.

Late last year, as plans for a project called Crystal Springs worked their way through City Hall, a group of Heron River homeowners met with Smith to talk about resisting the project, said Ron Thompson, a resident of the neighborhood.

If built as planned, Crystal Springs will have 196 apartments southwest of the corner of Idaho 44 and Idaho 16 — due east of Heron River. People who live in Heron River worry all those new homes will lead to snarled traffic on the already busy Idaho 44. They believe many drivers will cut through Heron River on their way to or from Crystal Springs.

Smith has the kind of resume Thompson and his neighbors were looking for. He served on the City Council between 2010 and 2014, so he knows how City Hall works. He runs Star Community Updates, a Facebook group with more than 2,000 followers that weighs in on issues facing Star. He’s shown the ability to mobilize big groups of people who share his concerns.

Most relevant, he led a loud resistance to Moon Valley, a 37-apartment project originally planned for the south side of Idaho 44 — an area the comprehensive plan reserves for commercial development. After the council rejected that plan, developer Chance Hobbs moved Moon Valley farther south and east.

Bell told the Idaho Statesman that Moon Valley offers a housing type that’s scarce in Star — affordable multi-family rental homes. As Star grows, Bell said, it will need more diversity of housing, and apartment projects help address that need.

As with Crystal Springs, Smith and his supporters worried Moon Valley would increase traffic in Star and balloon enrollment at the local schools, though on a much smaller scale. Smith also believes low-income renters will bring more crime to Star.

‘DISTURBANCE IN THE AUDIENCE’

On April 4, the city approved Crystal Springs. The approval included a height variance that allows buildings up to 55 feet — 20 feet higher than the city’s normal regulations would allow.

Nielsen and fellow councilman David Hershey voted to approve the project. Councilmen Richard Lockett and Trevor Chadwick voted against it. That left the decision up to Bell, who only votes to break ties.

A disruption broke out as Bell explained his decision. Star resident Dave Hansen, who was in attendance, said Smith had marshaled a large and unruly crowd to the meeting. Smith’s followers were speaking out of turn, applauding people they agreed with and generally disregarding decorum, Hansen said.

Smith said he interrupted Bell, shouting at him to let Star’s voters decide the Crystal Springs matter. Smith later told the Statesman he shouldn’t have done that.

“Due to a disturbance in the audience, (Police Chief Jake Vogt) was asked to escort Gary Smith out of the building,” minutes from the April 4 meeting read. “Mayor Bell voted aye. Motion carried.”

‘RED BADGE OF COURAGE’

This was one of many times Smith has tangled with Bell and City Hall.

In December 2011, when Bell and Smith served on the council together, Smith’s three fellow council members passed a resolution of no confidence and asked him to resign.

Among other accusations, the resolution stated Smith was “perceived to have participated in attempted blackmail and coercion of a fellow council member.” That refers to a letter Councilman Erlebach, who was running for re-election, received in early October 2011.

Partridge provided the Statesman a copy of the letter. It mentions Erlebach’s criminal record, which includes 11 misdemeanor charges, and several potential steps to publicize it.

“Attached information will be sent to all 2,617 (registered) voters in Star Oct. 10th...Sent to Statesman, Valley Times, Middleton Gazette and The Independent. Posted on Facebook and networking sites...Public disclosure at City Council meetings by concerned citizens,” the letter reads.

“Option: The concerned citizens will not release this information through their channels and network if Tom Erlebach resigns immediately. No later than the end of this week — Oct. 7th.”

Smith said he helped research Erlebach’s past and took part in a decision to write the letter. He rejected the blackmail accusation. He said the letter was meant to notify Erlebach’s campaign that damaging information could come out, not deliver a quit-or-else ultimatum.

Erlebach refused to resign. The letter’s Oct. 7 deadline came and went without an embarrassing publicity onslaught. Erlebach beat his opponent by 30 points that November. He lost to Chadwick in the 2015 election.

Smith also rejected his counterparts’ request to resign, staying on the council until he lost his seat to Lockett in 2013. To this day, he calls their resolution against him his “red badge of courage.”

“They did not want me on the council anymore because I was doing what I’m doing now. I stood up and asked questions,” he said. “I’m not afraid of it. I love it. Because it’s not supported by the community. It was supported by the mayor and his team.”

GROUND GAME

The push to recall Bell and Nielsen picked up speed after the Crystal Springs approval.

Within five weeks, the city received initial petitions requesting their removal. On July 25, recall supporters submitted full petitions to put the matter on the ballot. A total of 693 residents signed the Nielsen petition and 712 signed the Bell petition — in both cases, more than the 681 required by Idaho law.

Smith says the volume of signatures shows deep discontent with City Hall.

“It’s small-town politics, the good-old-boy network that we all read about,” he said.

In a post on Facebook, Nielsen accused Smith of misleading Star residents with “tabloid-style attacks on character and intentions of our leaders.”

“Many who did sign and have since learned the truth have expressed sincere regret and are now supporting Mayor Bell and me,” he said.

Thompson said he was one of the first to sign. He said he’s aware of Smith’s history with Bell and City Hall, but his dissatisfaction with Bell and Nielsen has nothing to do with it.

“Bell and Nielsen may be great people,” Thompson said. “I don’t have anything personal against them. I just think that they’re making decisions that are not appropriate for our community.”

To remove Bell or Nielsen, more than half the ballots cast in each election must be in favor of the recall. Additionally, the number of votes in favor must equal or exceed the number of votes cast for Bell (864) and Nielsen (597) in 2015’s election.

Meanwhile, opponents of Crystal Springs have asked a judge to overturn the city’s approval of the project.

GHOSTS OF 2015

Smith also thinks Bell should be removed for his role in former Mayor Mitchell’s spending of city money, though neither Smith’s proposed ballot language nor the recall petition mention it.

Mitchell served as mayor of Star from 2004 to 2016, leaving office when Bell unseated him. When he was City Council president, Bell was responsible for reviewing Mitchell’s expenses.

In late 2015, investigators interviewed Mitchell, Bell and City Clerk Cathy Ward on suspicion that Mitchell had illegally used the city credit card on personal expenses such as fuel, meals and alcoholic drinks. The Statesman listened to recordings of these interviews.

But Mitchell said he never spent city money on personal items. Many of his food and drink purchases, he said, were a way of promoting the city or showing appreciation, whether it was a round of drinks for a group of teachers or lunch for someone who didn’t charge the city for a service.

“I didn’t feel like he was cheating the system, necessarily,” Bell told investigators, “but I felt like we didn’t really have clear lines where I could really tell that or not.”

Bell said auditors and the city attorney told him Mitchell’s spending habits were problematic but not necessarily criminal. The Idaho Attorney General’s Office agreed and declined to bring charges.

The city has implemented new policies to keep tighter control on its money.

Criminal charges or not, Smith thinks Mitchell was guilty of misusing taxpayer money. Bell was complicit for doing nothing for years to stop it, he said.

WHAT NEXT?

If the recall is successful, the remaining council members will decide who replaces Bell or Nielsen. Smith said he’ll ask them to solicit resumes from the public. He proposed forming a transition committee to help sort through applicants and find the best replacements. He said he neither he nor anyone else who’s organizing the recall should be on that committee.

Bell said he’s trying to focus on his job instead of the recall.

“I know what we’re doing is right. The people that are doing this have misled — grossly misled — the people that they’ve been talking to,” Bell said. “The thing that bothers me the most about this is what it does to our community. Out there, people are choosing sides and it’s divisive.”

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