Small-Town Boy

Mayor Dave Bieter hits the campaign trail


At his core, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter is a small-town kind of guy. Sure, he leads the largest, most powerful city in the state, but his unassuming nature and propensity to do a little rabble-rousing with other governmental agencies makes him the political equivalent of the guy next door.

But as Bieter kicks off his re-election campaign, he's hoping Boise voters will look past his lack of political polish and focus on his grass-roots work.

The campaign will kick off with a party Wednesday on Boise's Basque Block.

Bieter entered office nearly four years ago with a promise to clean up city hall after the Brent Coles scandal left the city with a black eye and voters with a healthy dose of political skepticism. Since then, he has held the city's top post through exploding growth and bitter squabbles with Ada County officials and the Ada County Highway District. It's the kind of politics that have made Boise seem more like the big city it is becoming.

Last time around, Bieter was an unknown. He had state legislative experience but no prior role in city politics. For better or for worse, this time is different.

"It's a referendum on my record and what I see for the future, that's how I see it more than anything," Bieter said of the election.

This time out, Bieter, a Democrat, is also a political target. While the mayor's office is a nonpartisan position, Republican leaders have made it clear they want to reclaim the capital city, to add to their dominance across the state.

"We need to resolve to make a difference in the next election," Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter told the Ada County Republican Central Committee earlier this year (BW Beat, April 25, 2007, "Take Back Ada County"). "We need to take Ada County back because it belongs in the Republican portfolio."

So far, Bieter's only opponent is Boise City Councilman Jim Tibbs, a former Boise Police officer and state drug czar with widespread Republican support.

When asked if he saw Tibbs as a formidable opponent, Bieter laughed at the blunt question, then recovered.

"He's native to Boise. He's been with the city for a long time. Those, I think, alone are attributes that are helpful to a candidate," Bieter said.

But Bieter points out that during his time on the City Council Tibbs has rarely, if ever, disagreed with a decision. "If there are initiatives, I can't think of any, or haven't really seen any," he said.

For his part, Tibbs said he is looking forward to the start of the campaign. "I am pleased that we can begin the discussion about leadership that the people of Boise are ready to have," Tibbs said in a prepared statement. "It's about leadership, collaboration, transparency, public safety, quality of life and the willingness to cooperate in a regional manner that is paramount to the health of Boise. I am ready to demonstrate through our campaign that the voters have a clear choice about the future of Boise."

While Tibbs has attracted household names like Velma Morrison and Patricia Kempthorne to his campaign, Bieter has secured Cecil Andrus and Pete Cenarrusa as his campaign co-chairs.

Bieter said his efforts to reform City Hall are among his best.

"We've been so successful at changing the view of City Hall, people forget what a bad situation I inherited," he said. "The scandal, employee morale, just a feeling that you couldn't trust your city government was pretty widely held."

To combat that impression, he engaged on a charm offensive: He opened his office to the public on occasional Saturdays, and aired City Council meetings on public television. He also ranks the passage of a bond to build four new neighborhood libraries among his top three achievements.

But much of Bieter's focus is on the amorphous idea of "liveability," whether it's adding parks, hiring more police officers and building relationships with neighborhood associations.

It's also the area where Bieter seems to have garnered much of his support.

"I think he's done a wonderful job," said Burnie Clark, president of the North End Neighborhood Association. "From our perspective, what we see happening with all the different departments is extremely responsive."

Bieter's time in office hasn't been without its points of contention. He has picked fights with some of the big boys of Treasure Valley government. When he sparred with ACHD over widening Ustick Road, and one agency spokesman derided City Hall opposition as "Machiavellian."

Bieter went so far as to file a lawsuit against the county, claiming the county-approved Avimor development north of Eagle would push too much traffic onto Boise roads. The case was dismissed.

Small wonder, that Bieter champions the Blueprint for Good Growth. The cooperative agreement between Ada County, ACHD and the cities of Boise, Eagle, Meridian and Garden City establishes a process for dealing with growth across the valley. The meetings on that alone are positive to Bieter.

"It's a watershed event," Bieter said. "We've never had consensus around much at all."

While Bieter said he sees hope for the city's relationship with the county, he's not so optimistic about ACHD.

"When you see $7 million or $8 million dollars a year, over a 10-year period, collected in your city and spent somewhere else, it's my job [to fight]," Bieter said.

John Franden, ACHD Commission president, said he doesn't feel that same level of animosity.

"All in all, I don't see it as much of a problem," Franden said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's over."

Bieter says he'd love to have the city take over maintenance of its own streets. "It's not radical at all," he said. "What's radical is what we have."

Franden said Bieter is mischaracterizing the nature of ACHD's spending. "Look at it this way: Over the next five years roughly $150 million will be raised in Boise, and $220 million will be spent within the city of Boise," Franden said.

But challenges don't just come from outside. The city's relationship with the Police Department has been strained, as contract negotiations with the police union repeatedly collapse.

"Certainly we're disappointed we don't have an agreement, and we have said we have made an offer to keep them the best-paid peace officers in the state of Idaho, not just in the valley," Bieter said. Boise Police union representative Kip Wills did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

The ongoing saga of the Boise Airport has also dogged Bieter for the last year. His contentious relationship with longtime airport director John Anderson contributed to Anderson's eventual resignation last October.

Bieter said it was Anderson's decision to leave, but he admitted the two had several areas of disagreement. The city has so far been unable to hire a new director, and Bieter authorized the hiring of a private firm to seek new candidates.

Still to come, if he makes it through the election: Finding a functional transit system and steering growth, rather than trying to stop it.

For now, Bieter is focusing on the campaign ahead, knowing that a lot can happen between June and a November election.