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Meeting Mr. Mayor

Citizen ranting could lead to code crackdowns

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Two hours had passed in Boise Mayor David Bieter's open-door "Saturday Office Hours," when he got his earful from former community college instructor Jim Rambo.

"I got the biggest goddamn bulldozer you've ever seen," Rambo said. "I'll put a 20-foot berm in the middle of that alley." Rambo, who is not a large man, was visibly angry.

His problem? Rambo was fed up with local traffic damaging the alley behind his house on 35th Street, and seemed prepared to install a traffic-calming measure of his own design. At the heart of Rambo's complaint was the recent addition of six "shotgun" houses on his block. The new infill construction dramatically increased the vehicle traffic in and out of the unpaved alley, one he and his neighbors had invested money into for grading and storm drains.

To further complicate matters, the alley was a dead end, creating a bottleneck for the new neighbors.

"Oh, man," Bieter said ruefully. "We always want connectivity."

He received another irate response when he asked if there was a way to punch the alley through the block.

"Not anymore you can't. Those shotgun houses blocked it up," Rambo said.

Bieter pledged to have his Planning Division liaison work with the Ada County Highway District to ensure the alley was graded. He also promised to drive out and take a look himself, adding, "I gotta take a look at this. It helps to see it."

Jade Riley, Bieter's chief of staff--his official title is assistant to the mayor for administration--escorted Rambo out, and returned quickly with the next visitor, a pattern that repeated itself throughout the morning.

The meetings expose a side of the mayor that most constituents don't see during his press conferences and public appearances. Bieter was visibly exhausted after his regular work week, and stifled occasional yawns throughout the morning. Although he remained engaged as 17 people filed through his office door with various complaints and petitions, he nonetheless did appear to drift off whenever the occasional constituent began to repeat the same theme.

Bieter frequently relied on Riley, who seemed to possess a strong memory for the minutiae of day-to-day city operations.

But Riley's presence also appears to serve a second function. Any time someone attempted to buttonhole the mayor on a contentious point, or push him down a path he wasn't prepared to travel, Riley would interject, steering the conversation back to safer ground.

Bieter said later that he had to walk a fine line while trying to address citizen complaints.

"The difficult thing is trying to resolve the issues you hear without over-promising," Bieter said.

In all, 17 people took advantage of the mayor's Saturday Office Hours program on June 3. It was Bieter's 12th session since taking office in 2004. Openings for a meeting with the mayor are on a first-come, first-served basis and do not require an appointment. In theory, each person or group is limited to 10 minutes, but enforcement of the time limit was less than strict this month. On this particular morning, Bieter met with residents concerned about declining neighborhoods, developers seeking to cut through red tape and neighbors concerned about look-alike infill construction sprouting up like noxious weeds with no natural grazing predators.

Between visitors, Riley said the concerns expressed that day were standard fare.

"By and large, it's very nuts and bolts," Riley said. "It's mostly people coming in and talking about neighborhood issues."

Code enforcement--cracking down on errant homeowners or contractors--was a common thread among the visitors to City Hall. A few were upset with their neighbors' display of "junk" for all to see, and others expressed concerns about less-than-picturebook-quality neighborhoods adding to crime rates.

Bieter had obviously heard these complaints before, and had a ready response for many of them.

"More carrot and more stick" was a phrase used throughout the morning, referring to city efforts to roll out updates to code enforcement in the early fall. The "more stick" bit referred to the possibility of increased criminal prosecution, an idea not yet finalized by the city. Bieter's spokesman Michael Zuzel said the city was not yet ready to talk specifics about this possibility.

"The mayor feels strongly that some of these code issues are a tremendously negative influence on neighborhoods," Zuzel said. "They're affecting quality of life and they're affecting property values. If it means we have to get tough, we will."

Zuzel added, "We're always going to be looking at the carrot first."

The decision to hold one-on-one meetings originated with Bieter's assistant, Shauneen Grange. Grange heard about the idea while attending a conference geared towards city leaders, and thought it would be an opportunity for the mayor to reach out to residents. Bieter said he was reluctant at first, but Grange prevailed.

"We opened the door very tentatively the first week," Bieter said. "But it's been one of the best things I've done."

Bieter's efforts drew praise from Boise City Councilor Vern Bisterfeldt, who was responsible for steering some of the participants to Bieter's office that morning.

"I've worked with several mayors since 1959, and I've never heard of any of them opening their doors on the weekends and giving up their free time like that," Bisterfeldt said. "There's a lot of people who never get to look a politician in the eye like that, one on one, ask them a question face to face, and see what their reaction is."

Most of the mayor's guests that morning seemed satisfied (or at least mollified) by Bieter's responses, an impression confirmed by Bisterfeldt who said he talked to a few people the following week.

One person, however, wasn't impressed by the pace of the city's response time.

Rambo said he hadn't heard from the city as of last Friday, and was irritated by the lack of follow-up.

"If any of the powers that be would walk out here, they could see the idiocy of what they've done in a heartbeat," he said.

Zuzel said the lag time wasn't necessarily a cause for concern.

"Sometimes there's a delay while we gather information," Zuzel said. "They'll be in touch as soon as they have a better fix on the issue."

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