Boise propositions would send strong message to City Hall, but language is troubling

The Statesman editorial board struggled mightily with the two propositions on the ballot that Boise city voters are being asked to decide.

On the one hand, we could encourage voters to vote “yes” on both propositions on the grounds that more voter input is needed. In other words, “Yes, we want the public involved.”

A “yes” vote sends a strong message to city officials that you don’t feel residents have been involved in the process. A “yes” vote means “yes” to asking the voters what they want, “yes” to getting voter approval, “yes” to getting feedback, involvement and buy-in.

Voters who fall in this camp feel as though we woke up one day to spectacular renderings of a massive shiny new library building designed by architect Moshe Safdie that would cost as much as $100 million, and The Cabin literary center would need to be moved. We’re not really sure when the public was consulted or asked about the design, the cost or The Cabin.

Similarly, details about the stadium have been scant, but drawings have been released and possible locations have been discussed. Again, voters haven’t been asked about it or even asked whether they want taxpayer dollars used for it.

People who vote “yes” on both propositions as they appear on the ballot want the public to have a say in both of these projects.

On the other hand, we could encourage voters to vote “no” on the grounds that the language of the initiatives is confusing and would open a Pandora’s box of legal challenges if approved.

For example, we are concerned about language in the second proposition, or the stadium proposition, that seems to suggest that the city of Boise could not spend any staff time or support services on a stadium proposal without prior voter approval, even if the stadium were funded completely with private dollars. The initiative calls for “prohibiting Boise City from appropriating or spending funds ... for any aspect of a stadium facility” and later defines “expenses” as “monetary payments, in kind assistance, the value of employee time, the value of land exchanges, direct or indirect payments to third parties and any other consideration which promotes or enhances the development of a stadium facility.”

To us, that sounds like the city clerk couldn’t even process the permit application without getting voter approval first. Even if that’s an over-reading of the language, it strikes us as enough to open the door to lengthy litigation for anyone who opposes a stadium for whatever reason.

Similarly, with the first proposition, or library proposition, we are concerned about language requiring a public vote for simple spending of funds that are in the city budget, even if it doesn’t involve issuing bonds or otherwise incurring debt.

One can speculate as to why the language in these propositions is so confusing and overly broad, and whether that plays into the city’s hands. The fact remains that’s the language that made it on the ballot.

Someone who votes “no” is voting “no” to opening this process to the voters, “no” to adopting this language that sets forth the parameters for approving these projects.

We have heard arguments that if voters approve these propositions, City Council members could still amend or even wholesale repeal the propositions as approved by voters, similar to the “sideboards” that state legislators placed on the voter-approved Medicaid expansion.

We indeed hope that’s the case and that City Council members would be able to clean up the language. It troubles us to approve something that could spend years in litigation. If it is the case that the language could be amended, then this simply becomes an advisory vote, a referendum on the library and a referendum on the stadium.

You might notice that neither of these arguments is an indictment of or support for the merits of either project. Neither position is an expression of approval or rejection of either the library or the stadium.

However, we do recognize that most voters likely will enter the ballot box prepared to cast their vote in one spirit or another: “Yes” if you are against the library project, “yes” if you are against the stadium, and “no” if you support the library as proposed, “no” if you support the stadium.

We hope that this is clear as voters cast their ballots.

In the end, one thing is perfectly clear: Boise city officials bungled the public input process. They have said there were as many as 30 public meetings, but we question when and under what context. Were some of these public meetings two years ago during a library board meeting at which a very broad conceptual idea of a new main library was discussed? Was there a discussion or public input taken on the design? The cost?

The bottom line is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If there had been vigorous and adequate public input, we wouldn’t be here now, with a reasonable, measured citizens group feeling compelled to collect 7,000 signatures in two months to get a ballot on the measure to force the city to listen to them. With big projects like this, the city has an obligation to educate, inform and involve the public all along the way. It’s clear that didn’t happen, and unfortunately, we now have a divisive, contentious issue before the voters when it should be a celebratory, affirming, unifying experience.

Voting “yes” on the propositions sends a strong, clear signal to the city that they screwed up this process and puts them on notice that they need to do a much better job of involving the public.

But voters who check “yes” should be aware that the language in the propositions pose potential problems down the line.

However voters decide these initiatives, we hope city officials get the message.

Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board.
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