Three Pocatello City Council candidates who campaigned together and haven’t spared criticism of the current city leadership all won their respective races in Tuesday’s election.
Councilman Roger Bray won his bid for re-election. He campaigned with Claudia Ortega and Christine Stevens, both of whom also won City Council seats.
Ortega led an effort that fell short to recall all three Bannock County Commissioners and the county assessor, before succeeding in winning her own bid for an elected office.
Ortega beat out a field in seat No. 2 that included Lance Kolbet, a former chairman of the county’s Republican Party who is also a registered employee benefits consultant, and artist Colton Peterson. The seat was vacated when Councilwoman Beena Mannan opted against seeking re-election.
Ortega received 3,705 votes, or 55.65 percent of the vote. Kolbet received 2,196 votes, or 32.98 percent of the votes cast. Peterson received 757 votes, or 11.37 percent of the votes cast.
Ortega, who is originally from Argentina and recently moved to Idaho from California, works as an interpreter for the federal courts. Her campaign focused mostly on the need for improved transparency and budgetary reform at City Hall.
Ortega said she became aware of problems within the city government when she started gathering signatures in support of her effort to recall the four county leaders, prompted by sizable increases in property values during the recent countywide assessment. She was also concerned about conflicting information county leaders offered those who sought to appeal their appraised values.
“I started the recall because of the lack of information available to the voters and the total mismanagement of the property assessments and the lack of accountability,” Ortega said. “While I was doing that, I started learning more and more about the things that are not being done right at the city. I kept saying, ‘Something needs to change.’ You can’t just say that. At some point, you have to say, ‘I’ll try to do something.’”
Through her petition gathering, Ortega said she learned the public is fed up with city leadership and doesn’t trust them.
“We need to reestablish that trust. We need to do that by being open and accountable and accessible,” Ortega said.
Ortega said one of her first orders of business in office will be to have an accounting conducted of the city’s departments to identify opportunities for savings and duplication of services.
“They’re spending other people’s money, so it doesn’t have any value to them. You have to be doubly careful when spending other people’s money,” Ortega said.
Bray, the pastor of Central Christian Church, retained seat No. 3 against a field of four challengers. He ran against Ethan Ennis, who owns his own insurance agency; Don Zebe, a commercial developer; Arlen Walker, a retired teacher and businessman; and Idaho Lorax, who is an environmental activist.
Bray won with 3,173 votes, or 46.72 percent of the votes cast. Zebe had 1,313 votes, or 19.33 percent of the votes cast. Ennis had 1,265 votes, or 18.63 percent of the votes cast. Walker received 887 votes, or 13.06 percent of the votes cast.
Bray joined the council in 2006 and lost his bid for re-election in 2013. He won back a City Council seat and started a new term in January 2016.
Bray has often been the lone voice of opposition during city votes, especially on budgetary issues. For example, he was the sole council member to vote against controversial pay raises for both the City Council and the mayor.
Bray argues the city’s tax burden is too hefty for many local residents living in poverty, and he views himself as the advocate for locals who struggle to get by.
“You can’t solve any problem by denying it. We have a large degree of poverty, and we have a large degree of people that are struggling,” Bray said.
Bray said the city should create incentives that reward businesses for adding good-paying jobs, or incentivize small businesses for expanding their work forces.
“In order to earn your abatement, you have to have some performance,” Bray said. “We seem to have forgotten using that as leverage.”
Bray said he’s always looking to make certain any solution that is proposed is the best option for the city. He doesn’t believe the city has always done its due diligence prior to making decisions. For example, he believes the city should have worked with Idaho State University to study the possible impacts on existing city residents and taxpayers prior to creating a tax increment financing district to serve the Northgate development. In his next term, Bray said he’ll prioritize making certain compensation packages for city workers are adequate to retain them.
Stevens, a retired school principal, unseated City Council President Jim Johnston.
Stevens emphasized the importance of improving transparency in local government during her campaign.
In winning election for seat No. 1 on the council, Stevens also beat out Dale Spencer, who is a nuclear safety instructor; and Paul Schmidtlein, who is a delivery driver.
Stevens won with 3,737 votes, or 55.06 percent of the votes cast. Johnston received 2,208 votes, or 32.53 percent of the votes cast. Spencer received 590 votes, or 8.69 percent of the votes cast. Schmidtlein received 252 votes, or 3.71 percent of the votes cast.
Early in her term, she intends to advocate for regular town hall meetings, during which citizens will have the opportunity to voice their concerns and learn about city issues. She also hopes to use the mayor’s newsletter to preview upcoming meetings and to include explanations from council members justifying their positions on various issues and votes.
“I believe we need way more transparency and communication,” Stevens said. “I believe there needs to be a whole lot more accountability so that people and their decisions cannot hide. They need to own the decisions they make.”
Stevens supports having a “deep impartial dive” into the city’s budget to identify opportunities to save money and reduce the large tax burden on local residents. She said she will also make certain the budget is explained to the public “in plain English.”
Johnston, a local real estate agent, was appointed to fill a council vacancy in September 2011. During his campaign, Johnston raised the issue of putting a merger of Pocatello and Chubbuck up for a public vote as a means of achieving savings and reducing the local tax burden. Throughout his time in office, he’s been among Pocatello’s greatest cheerleaders. He noted new flights should be added at the Pocatello Regional Airport to accommodate the expansion of the FBI center.
Johnston was diagnosed with cancer last winter. He said he’s on the mend and gaining weight. He’s gained back about 30 pounds.
“If everybody with cancer had somebody like my wife Karen to help heal someone, they’d all get better,” Johnston said.