Where's Mr. Commissioner?

Tillman skips debate; other commission candidates talk growth, openness


Growth, growth more growth and property taxes. Those are the top topics of conversation for wannabe Ada County Commissioners, and a recent candidate forum only reinforced that.

Debates, forums and face-to-face, on-the-street conversations with voters at some point come around to the same questions: What direction do commissioners want to take the Treasure Valley's explosive growth? How should growth be managed? What about those planned communities? And oh, yeah, what to do about those taxes?

"Voters tend to pay more attention to the statewide races rather than the county races unless there's a burning issue," said John Freemuth, political analyst and professor of political science at Boise State. The burning growth issue might be enough to get more voters to pay attention to the Ada County Commission races that have already resulted in the surprise ouster of a long-time commissioner in the primaries, Freemuth said.

The controversial proposal to develop a high-end planned community with amenities including a killer view overlooking basalt cliffs along the Boise River brought Barber Valley and Harris Ranch neighbors to a candidate forum last week that focused on, you guessed it, growth and taxes.

First audience question of the night: In what direction would you like to see growth go? Candidates looked toward downtown, southeast and up, but one candidate's voice remained missing from the debate.

Current Ada County Commissioner, Republican Fred Tilman, who's defending his seat against Democrat Al Ames, opted out of participating in the forum organized by local neighborhood groups. Tilman sent his wife, Geri Tilman, to read from a letter he wrote, to explain that he was unable to attend the meeting because he wasn't at liberty to discuss the Cliffs development because of he would have to make a decision about the development as commissioner. He said he didn't want to appear as though he made a decision about the issue outside of a commissioner's meeting. Tilman's absence--and his wife's explanation of why he went MIA--drew immediate scorn from the audience.

"Oh, jeez," one resident said while Geri Tilman readthe letter.

"That's crap," another said.

"His legal department said, 'This is what you have to do,'" Geri Tilman said. "This has been an extremely hard decision for him to make."

The letter didn't venture near the topic of the proposed Cliffs development, and voters learned little about what Tilman thought about county issues such as traffic congestion or the role of a commission. The question-and-answer format left Geri Tilman saying that she knew little about her husband's positions on many of the issues.

"I'm not at the meetings, I'm at home getting the dinner ready," Geri Tilman said.

Fred Tilman's absence left Ames with the opportunity to voice his frustration with the current commission and propose a makeover of county government that would include replacing three full-time commissioners with seven part-time commissioners and a full-time auditor. He said he also favors consolidated government services; Ames wants to bring the Ada County Highway District--a separate taxing district and governing body--into Ada County government.

Had Fred Tilman attended the forum, Barber Valley neighbors might have heard about Tilman's plans to manage growth while maintaining property rights and how he aims maintain a predictable and controllable property tax system, points he's made outside the forum. Tilman also touts the county's quality of life, by providing services such as a detox center, parks and preserving open space.

Some of Tilman's quality-of-life issues mesh with the platform of Paul Woods, who is favored by political analysts to win the seat vacated by Judy Peavey-Derr. Woods earned a name for himself--and a slew of supporters--from his work preserving the Boise Foothills. Woods recently earned the coveted Boise Chamber of Commerce endorsement, as well as support from leaders from both Republican and Democratic ranks. He said he aims to strengthen government relationships in order to support responsible growth.

Woods faces former Commissioner Sharon Ullman, running as an independent, and Republican political unknown Steven Kimball, who shocked pundits and politicos in the Treasure Valley when he ousted Peavey-Derr in the June Republican primary.

Kimball, an unassuming, aw-shucks kind of guy, said he added his name to the ballot because he wanted to see an end to skyrocketing property taxes. The roofer with a degree in business and pre-law makes no promises, and goes easy on the campaign spin, leafletting and PR efforts that define most campaigns. He doesn't even have a Web site.

"I ran to make a statement," Kimball said. "You can't double my property taxes every five years."

He added, "I don't know how to solve everything. I just put my name in the hat and said, 'Hey, give me a chance.'"

Kimball echoes many of his challengers' sentiments, especially those of Ullman and Woods, when they call for a commission with open doors. Those insinuations follow a term highlighted by what some consider unresponsiveness by the commission, as well as an antagonistic relationship with other local governments--concerns that may have led to Kimball's stunning triumph over Peavey-Derr.

"With Judy Peavey-Derr, she just had a lot of negativity associated with her," said Freemuth. "She's been along for a while and just had a lot of [conflicts] with the city."

Kimball's name has become synonymous with "newcomer" and "unknown" throughout his quirky campaign, but he said he considers his lack of political ties to be an asset in this election.

"It was very humbling to beat Judy, but I think people are tired of experience," he said.

While Kimball touts his clean slate, Ullman highlights her years of experience as a former commissioner and knowledge of the system and local issues. She's also been a regular at Ada County Commission meetings, needling current commissioners with her own research on many issues.

Much of the development in western and southern Ada County was put on the map during her previous term. Ullman said she'd like to see development better managed in the future, with a clearer blueprint for growth. She said that she regrets that there wasn't better vision for growth in the now highly suburbanized tracts of land south of Boise.

"You really set up a recipe for problems down the road," when you approve low-density housing mixed in with agricultural land uses, Ullman said. "You have a farmer who can't farm ... It's not really farmland anymore."