A referendum on the Tuesday, Nov. 8, ballot in Ketchum will give voters the chance to adopt a new form of government at City Hall and, in the process, completely overhaul the City Council.
The controversial ballot measure could shift Ketchum away from an elected mayor calling the shots to a city manager hired by the City Council, something the Wood River Economic Partnership opposes. In the past three years, WREP has become a highly visible political interest group in the Wood River Valley, sending out policy-driven e-newsletters while raising funds for select candidates and happily furnishing cookies at public forums on the issue.
On the same ballot, among the 13 candidates running for Ketchum City Council, seven men and women have lined up in favor of the change but four of the five incumbents are clinging tightly to the status quo.
At an Oct. 5 public forum on the measure, incumbent Council Member Larry Helzel looked down gravely at his complimentary chocolate chip cookie and told his constituents that they should be afraid, very afraid.
"I'm downright scared," said Helzel. "And you should be, too."
His words hung heavily in the sunny conference room of the Wood River Community YMCA.
Should voters turn thumbs down on the measure, nothing would change, and not a single seat on the council would be contested until a special election in May 2012. But if the referendum does pass, all five seats on the council will become simultaneously up for grabs, and aside from Helzel, four other incumbents will look to protect their positions: Mayor Randy Hall, architect Curtis Kemp, ski-shop owner Baird Gourlay, and restaurateur and first-term councilwoman Nina Jonas.
Jonas, who is both the only woman and the youngest member of the council by roughly 20 years, is the lone elected official to support the change, despite the fact that she could lose her seat in the process. Prior to Helzel's gloomy warnings, Jonas said that the initiative "has elements that need to be discussed aside from fear-mongering about economic growth."
The Wood River Valley's economy is hurting: "shriveled up like testicles in a cold lake," said one long-term Ketchum resident and businessman, who asked that his name not be printed. Incumbents who support the status quo said a change could cause further economic fallout.
The current system is "already set up to deal with problems," said Kemp.
Gourlay complained about a lack of appropriate discussion prior to such an important vote.
"A couple of forums do not represent serious, thoughtful discourse," said Gourlay at an Oct. 12 forum.
Hall said that Ketchum's current system has "worked for the history of the town," and that the change would "hurt the hotel process," a reference to his administration's tireless attempts to lure five-star hotels to town. Noting that adopting a city manager would do away with all but the most ceremonial duties of the mayor, Hall added that the entire discussion is "a little awkward, because this is all about me."
What is also awkward for Hall is the fact that two years ago he was the initial and central proponent of the policy that he now staunchly opposes. In April 2009, the Idaho Mountain Express reported that Hall had "floated the idea of looking into a city manager form of government." The Express reported that Hall had, in fact, spoken out repeatedly in the measure's favor, citing more efficient day-to-day management and more operational continuity.
In an April 2009 statement penned by Hall, the mayor suggested that current city administrator Gary Marks could do the job.
"With Gary's skill set, now might be the appropriate time to research a city manager form of government," wrote Hall.
As BW was going to press, Hall had yet to return calls to comment on his turnaround.
A passed initiative could stand as a rebuke to Hall and his fellow incumbents and bring a quick end to the days of free cookies.