Meridian Chamber of Commerce fired her. Now she is running to be the city’s mayor

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-day series profiling the four most prominent candidates for mayor of Meridian in the Nov. 5 election.

Politics runs in Anne Little Roberts’ blood.

Her father, Walter Little, served in the Legislature alongside David Little, father of Gov. Brad Little. All three were longtime politicians (and in Brad Little’s case, still is).

But she hates that word, politician.

“I kind of cringe ... because I don’t think any of us have ever felt like we’re politicians,” she said in an interview. “They were really all for public services and how to help their communities — and I think that’s the philosophy we really grew up with.”

She can remember riding in parades in New Plymouth, where she grew up, and passing out campaign cards for her dad. Each one listed the different county license plate codes on the back — a reason to hang onto the cards.

Now, Roberts, who is running to become Meridian’s next mayor, has her own cards that she hands out wherever she goes — though not with the county codes — but always with a smile and attentive eye contact.

Roberts, the entrepreneur

Roberts, 58, didn’t originally follow her family into politics. From her family’s ranch, she went to the University of Idaho and then to Boise State University, where she graduated with a degree in business, focusing on human resources.

“I decided I liked the people better than the numbers,” she said.

After graduation, Roberts moved to San Diego, where she became the head of catering at a hotel. She stayed in California for three years before returning to Idaho, where she worked in sales at the Red Lion Hotel Boise Downtowner and later became a meeting planner, and after that, a hotel general manager.

In Boise, she met her husband, Doug Roberts. They have a 20-year-old son, Nick, who is now in college.

From 2004 to 2006, she ran Fundsy, a Boise nonprofit that helps raise money for charities’ capital improvement projects — “my biggest transition out of the hospitality industry,” Roberts said.

Roberts helped her husband start several businesses in Meridian, including a gym called Koko FitCluband an RV parts manufacturer called Roberts Manufacturing.

In 2008, when the Great Recession hit, the two small-business owners struggled to stay afloat. “Everything we did was recreational and dependent on discretionary income, and people didn’t have much discretionary income during the recession,” she said.

A warehouse building they’d bought in Caldwell for nearly $1 million sank in value to $400,000. Membership at the gym fell. Both businesses were failing.

“We even cashed out our 401Ks,” Roberts said. “We tried to get past it.”

In 2012, the couple felt they had no choice but to file for bankruptcy. The businesses closed. “We weren’t alone,” Roberts said. “We couldn’t have done anything differently.”

Anne Little Roberts, left, walks with long-time friend Bibiana Nertney down a street in South Meridian. When voters asked why she was running, she told them that she appreciated longtime Mayor Tammy de Weerd’s leadership but believed that her vision for the city could use a “tweak.” Kate Talerico ktalerico@idahostatesman.com

Leading Meridian’s business community

Roberts found another job in 2011 as executive director of the Meridian Chamber of Commerce.

“I ended up with what was, at that point, my dream job,” she said. The chamber, too, was struggling to hang on. Many members, trying to save money, had ended their memberships. As the economy began to rebound, Roberts was tasked with bringing them back.

She also helped to set up a year-long program that helped high-schoolers create their own startups. “I loved giving younger people a head start on entrepreneurship,” Roberts said.

During her time at the Chamber, the city of Meridian and the Ada County Highway District had started on a construction project that reshaped the traffic coming through downtown. The new street configuration rerouted northbound through traffic off Main Street and onto Meridian Road, one block west. That left the heart of downtown free to accommodate reduced traffic from cars headed to stores and restaurants, not just passing through. The goal was to make downtown a destination — a place you choose to go.

“I was joined at the hip with the ACHD project manager,” Adam Zaragoza, Roberts said. She, Zaragoza and Brenda Sherwood, who was then Meridian’s economic development director, hosted regular meetings with the downtown businesses, making sure they knew how the changes would affect their business and when.

“We had 42 businesses that we considered critically impacted,” Roberts said. “We, unfortunately, lost one. Our goal was to lose none.”

But she’s still proud that they were able to keep so many businesses operating. “Now downtown is beautiful — but that’s a rough transition to go through.”

That knack for collaborating across government agencies and local businesses would serve Roberts well as mayor, said Doreen Compton, who worked with — and sometimes competed against — Roberts in hotel sales.

“In a business development position, you want someone who can gather people together for a common purpose and get deals done and create consensus,” Compton said. “It’s a testimony to what she’ll continue to do.”

Roberts agrees that collaboration is one of her biggest strengths. “I love being the connector, the one that brings everybody together,” she said.

In 2015, then-Meridian Councilman David Zaremba stopped by the chamber office and told Roberts that he was retiring. “If you run for council, I’ll meet you when you file the paperwork and endorse you,” she says he told her.

She ran and won, joining the council in 2016.

“It’s so much about creating that level of trust and openness,” she said.

Anne Little Roberts, who is wrapping up her first term as a Meridian City Councilwoman, said she had spent the last year wondering what was next for her. After Mayor Tammy de Weerd announced that she would retire at the end of this year, Roberts decided to run for the city’s top office. Kate Talerico ktalerico@idahostatesman.com

Departing the Chamber of Commerce

Until August 2017, Anne was both running the chamber and serving on the council. That month, she was called into a meeting with the chamber’s board chairman, Mike Ruffner, president of the Boise operating unit of Food Services of America.

“We need to part ways,” Ruffner told her, the Statesman previously reported.

Roberts was surprised.

“You don’t have the authority to do that,” she said she told Ruffner. “That is a board decision.”

In January 2018, Roberts sued the chamber, alleging a wrongful dismissal. The chamber countersued. It alleged that in December 2015, the chamber had started providing an extra $350 per month to its employees, including Roberts, to offset rising health insurance premiums for employees who did not otherwise have health insurance through another source. The Chamber at the time did not offer health insurance.

As a City Council member, Roberts received a salary and health benefits. The suit alleges that she continued to accept the $350 per month once her council term began and failed to inform the chamber of her new healthcare insurance.

Roberts told the Statesman that she paid about $380 per month for her city-provided insurance and had “tried to decline the $350.”

In March, Roberts and the Chamber reached a settlement that prevents either party from disclosing its terms and conditions. Ruffner did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Current chamber Chairman Jeffrey Hall said he could not comment on Roberts’ dismissal either. “We wish her well in her future endeavors,” he said.

Roberts said she still maintains a good relationship with the chamber. “I don’t know that I would be where I am and have run for mayor if I’d still been at the chamber,” she said. “I loved it so much, and it would have been hard to make that transition.”

Announcing her run for mayor

In February, after Mayor Tammy de Weerd announced in her State of the City address that she would retire, Roberts decided to run. That night, Roberts tweeted out her announcement.

Roberts raised for her campaign $21,425 through Sept. 30, about a fifth of what Robert Simison, De Weerd’s chief of staff, raised. In her campaign, Roberts has hosted meetings with several business owners and neighborhood associations, as well as door-knocking a few weeknights each week.

Roberts hits about 10 houses per hour during door-knocking — she moves slow, talking at length with nearly every person who comes to the door. On a Monday night in late September, most of those conversations involved animated play-by-plays of people’s commutes and the traffic jams they run into along the way, with Roberts nodding along as chilly fall air blew in.

Even when people start to complain of the growth, Roberts kept the message positive. “We’ve created a great place to live,” she said. “We’re going to keep growing.”

She tells people that she’s happy with how De Weerd has handled the city’s direction — she just wants a “tweak.”

“I have an ability to collaborate and bring people in,” Roberts said. “Let’s be looking at the Valley as a whole, you know? Caldwell, Nampa Boise, Eagle, Star — let’s get us all together and talk about what our Valley is going to look like.”

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Kate reports on West Ada and Canyon County for the Idaho Statesman. She previously wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Providence Business News. She has been published in The Atlantic and BuzzFeed News. Kate graduated from Brown University with a degree in urban studies.