News

ACHD Election: Changing Lanes?

Highway district contest gains steam, rancor, interest

by

No, his name is not on the ballot, but anyone who doubts Boise Mayor Dave Bieter's reach into this year's election isn't paying attention. Bieter has another full year in his current, record-setting term, but holds considerable political sway in this year's election of commissioners to the Ada County Highway District board.

"Elections matter, absolutely," Bieter told Boise Weekly when asked about the ACHD vs. Boise City Hall tug-of-war. And get this: Bieter said that in early summer (BW, News, "Why ACHD Elections Matter," June 11, 2014), long before anyone had filed to run for the two ACHD seats that are up for grabs Tuesday, Nov. 4.

In previous years, ACHD elections have come and gone without much attention—voter participation hovered somewhere around 20,000 in the 2010 and 2012 campaigns. Fast-forward to 2014 and it's nearly impossible to keep ACHD shenanigans off the front page, given the highway district's laundry list of spats with Bieter. Bike lanes, parking meters, roundabouts and even the very existence of ACHD have all been thorns in Bieter's side, and the mayor has had enough. He has openly offered his political support to anyone who agrees that ACHD should be swept clean.

It was met with little surprise, then, when another of those thorns in the mayor's side, ACHD Commissioner Rebecca Arnold, dropped her own "Bieter bomb" into an Oct. 16 ACHD candidate forum (for the record, Arnold isn't up for re-election herself). In particular, Arnold quizzed the candidates if any of them had cut a sweetheart deal with Bieter in exchange for a promise to kick ACHD Director Bruce Wong to the curb.

The short answer to Arnold's accusation was that none of the candidates made such a promise. But Arnold, who is waging her own campaign to become an Idaho 4th District judge, had stirred the political pot in the ACHD race, while claiming a bit of the limelight for herself—the Idaho Statesman put Arnold on the front page of the next morning's paper.

By design, Arnold had attempted to divert the ACHD conversation from the bigger issue of why it can't constructively engage with City Hall.

"It's a broken agency," said candidate Kent Goldthorpe, coming out out swinging in his challenge to ACHD incumbent Commissioner Mitch Jaurena. "ACHD is defined by pettiness and political infighting."

Jaurena, a close ally of Arnold, spent the better part of the candidate forum defending his hardline stance on Boise and bike lanes.

"Sure, we've had our differences with Boise and other cities," said Jaurena, "but collaboration doesn't mean surrender."

Even though Jaurena is running to hold onto his ACHD seat, he has yet to be elected to anything. In fact, the last time Jaurena tried to run for ACHD commissioner was 2010, when he came in a distant third place to winner Dave Case. It wasn't until 2012, when Case resigned to become an Ada County commissioner, that Jaurena was appointed to the ACHD board.

"Yes, ACHD needs strong leadership, but without being a lapdog to anyone," Jaurena told the packed candidate forum.

Two citizens, both identifying themselves as residents of Boise's Collister neighborhood, had heard enough. When they had a chance to confront the candidates, the women described what they called ACHD's shabby treatment of the public. Jaurena remained silent as the pair said they had accumulated hundreds of petition signatures to weigh in on ACHD plans for intersection changes to the corner of State Street and Collister Drive.

"We were treated very poorly when we approached the ACHD," said Nadene Kranz. "First, ACHD commissioners told us that we were jumping the gun on the issue, but the next thing we know, ACHD staff was telling us that everything was a foregone conclusion. It was a terrible experience."

One by one, each of the ACHD candidates either apologized to the citizens for ACHD's behavior or expressed outrage or disappointment over the incident. There was one exception. Jaurena remained silent.

"Making important decisions with less public input makes my skin crawl," said Paul Woods, former Ada County commissioner and one of five candidates to fill an open seat on the ACHD board, vacated by retiring Commissioner John Franden.

Another contender for the open seat, John Seidl, the current chairman of the Ada County Planning and Zoning Commission, had even harsher words for ACHD's status quo.

"Have you ever been to ACHD? They have a closed-door policy; it's a siege policy," he said. "A lot of people don't feel as if they're being heard, and that ACHD meetings are mere window-dressing."

When it came time to debate one of the most robust issues in recent memory—bike lanes in Boise's downtown—most of the candidates championed the Treasure Valley's cyclist community.

"I love bikes," said J.J. Howard, a civil engineer and land surveyor.

"Boise is a bike town. Embrace it," said web and software developer Brock Frazier.

"Bike lanes are critically important," said Woods.

Only Jaurena pushed back against what he claimed was an overblown constituency.

"Even a city like Seattle only has about 5 percent of its people riding bikes," he said.

Jaurena may want to check those numbers. Recent census counts indicate that Seattle's cycling community is closer to 20 percent. It's possible that Jaurena was confusing people who commute exclusively via bicycle with the overall cycling population, which is easily in the double digits, but Jaurena insisted on sticking with his 5 percent figure.

"ACHD's primary responsibility is to provide for the 95 percent of the people, and that's what we're going to do," he added.

Given his stance on issues like bike lanes, Jaurena shouldn't be terribly surprised to learn that Conservation Voters for Idaho wants him out of office.

"You've read the news. Many of these ACHD disputes are knee-jerk fights that never make it to a policy-making conversation," said CVI Executive Director John Reuter. "Supporting [Jaurena opponent] Kent Goldthorpe was an easy decision for us. And we think it's pretty interesting that we're endorsing a longtime Republican like Goldthorpe [current GOP chair of Idaho Legislative District No. 22] and a longtime Democrat like Paul Woods for the other ACHD seat."

"People are just tired of the infighting," said Reuter. "We sense that voters correctly understand that ACHD leadership has to help our community solve quality-of-life issues."

Boise Weekly checked with officials at the Ada County elections office, who reported that a near-record level of absentee ballots and a healthy turnout of early voters bodes well for a better-than-average turnout for this year's election—certainly more than 20,000.