Sunset, Sunrise in the Foothills

The Open Spaces levy passed, but now a committee is needed to manage it


Nearly 33,000 Boiseans voted Nov. 3 on the Open Spaces Clean Water levy. Of them, 24,516—a landslide 74 percent—voted for the $10 million two-year measure that promises to protect and preserve open spaces in the foothills, along the Boise River and the greater Treasure Valley.

"The biggest threat is people saying, 'Of course that should happen,' then not voting," said Conservation Voters for Idaho Deputy Director Kate Thorpe before Election Day. "We have the support numbers. We just have to get people to turn out at the polls."

Turn out, they did. Key districts in Boise saw turnouts as high as 40 percent of registered voters. Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane called the turnout "remarkable."

"I still can't totally wrap my head around it," he told Boise Weekly earlier this month. "I can't think of anything quite like this for a city election, and I've been here since 2005."

Tucked away in the levy's ballot language is a single sentence voters might not have realized is a sore point for some in the oversight process.

"[T]he fund will be subject to review by a citizens' committee," the ballot language stated.

The first foothills levy, which passed in 2001, had a similar stipulation. A group of 12 citizens—attorneys, business executives, a judge, conservation advocates and foothills users—were responsible for guiding Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and the Boise City Council toward land purchases and day-to-day management practices of the foothills.

The last item on the Foothills Conservation Advisory Committee agenda for Sept. 5, 2012 was to schedule the next meeting, set for Oct. 3, 2012. That meeting never happened—even with more than $1.5 million still in the levy fund.

"It just started with someone saying, 'Oh, we're not going to meet this month.' Then same with the next month, and the next. 'We're not going to meet, we're not going to meet,'" said Ester Ceja, who served on the committee before it disbanded. "Finally, I was like, 'Well, what's going on?'"

Ceja grew more frustrated as time went on and wrote a letter to Bieter.

"I said, 'Even though the committee is essentially nonexistent, I am officially withdrawing myself from any activities,'" she said. "I wanted to participate and give back to the community, and there was no activity. I also asked if they could delete my name as a member on the website and provide more information on the status of the committee."

It became official: the sun set on the Foothills Conservation Advisory Committee in the fall of 2012 and its responsibilities transferred to the Boise Parks and Recreation Commission.

The following year, Ceja went to a meeting on the Open Space Matters management plan and took it as an opportunity to ask Doug Holloway, director of the Boise Parks and Recreation Department, about the lack of citizen oversight on the foothills levy funds.

"He told me the mayor didn't think it was appropriate at the time, that they discussed it with their attorneys and the attorneys said it was fine, so any items related to the foothills would be vetted through the Parks and Recreation Commission," Ceja said. "If you look at the Parks Commission's roles, it's cemeteries and parks. Cemeteries and parks are very different than open space. We're not talking about green pastures and we're not talking about burial grounds. The uses are so different."

Holloway confirmed the advisory committee did sunset in 2012.

"The council decided that the funds came down far enough that they decided to assume the responsibility," Holloway said. "In the end, they felt like the function of the committee had reached its conclusion and felt like they could make the decisions moving forward."

As seen in the ballot language, the new levy promises yet another citizen advisory committee.

Holloway said his department is still in the process of working with the city's legal team to draft a chartering document for a committee, which will then be reviewed by the mayor. With his stamp of approval, it will go to the City Council to look over and, if all goes well, the mayor can start appointing members to the committee.

The structure of the chartering document is still being hammered out, including details such as how many people will sit on the committee, what their responsibilities will entail and whether it will have a similar timeline to the old committee and eventually sunset.

Holloway said the mayor might even decide to keep the Parks and Recreation Commission in charge of levy funds oversight, but he's leaning toward creating a new committee. He expects to have some of these questions answered and passed to the mayor's office within the next month.

"The last advisory committee was instrumental in guiding our staff and making recommendations to the mayor and council for acquisitions," Holloway said. "They also helped negotiate some of the purchase prices and terms of some of those acquisitions. They were instrumental in the success of the previous levy."

Ceja remains skeptical of the city's transparency after the dissolution of the first Foothills Conservation Advisory Committee.

"I want to support the future levy," Ceja said before the election, "but if the city can't be honest and transparent with those funds, I don't think I can support that."