Claudia Ortega made political waves when she orchestrated an effort to recall Bannock County Assessor Sheri Davies and all three of the county’s commissioners.
The recall effort — launched based on her concerns about significant increases in assessed valuations of county properties and mixed messages locals encountered upon filing appeals — ultimately came up short in all four cases. But Ortega is forging ahead with her quest for local reform as a candidate for Pocatello’s City Council seat No. 2.
Lance Kolbet, a former chairman of the county’s Republican party who is also a registered employee benefits consultant, and artist Colton Peterson are also running for the seat, which was vacated when Councilwoman Beena Mannan opted against seeking re-election.
Kolbet believes his background would prove useful in helping the city find creative ways to cut costs and relieve a hefty burden on local taxpayers. Kolbet noted wages and benefits represent the city’s major expense, and he has the knowledge to implement plans to achieve personnel savings.
“I don’t see anyone on the council with that skillset specifically,” Kolbet said. “When I look at the benefits and compensation, that’s growing faster than what we’re allowed to increase taxes by, so we have a really big problem.”
Kolbet also supports using health savings accounts for employee medical expenses and creating an onsite primary care clinic for the city.
“The city definitely has the scale to do a primary care clinic,” Kolbet said, adding the city stands to achieve a considerable savings by starting its own clinic, as many large companies in the private sector have done.
Peterson makes resin art and ballistic gel, which gun enthusiasts use to simulate human flesh. Peterson said his major reason for running is to “bring the community together,” and he vows he would be a better listener than the council’s current members.
“The City Council, they let people talk, but do they actually listen?” Peterson asked.
Ortega is originally from Argentina and moved to Pocatello from California more than three years ago so her husband, who works in federal law enforcement, could take a job here. She works as an interpreter in federal court.
Ortega is concerned about high local taxes, which she believes result from wasteful spending. She’s also attacked the city’s leadership for a lack of transparency and “ramrodding” issues through the process without public input.
“There’s as little transparency as they can possibly get away with,” Ortega said.
She believes she would bring an opposing viewpoint to the council that would force a needed debate.
“Companies are going to have a hard time bringing employees if the tax burden is so high that people can’t afford to live here,” Ortega said. “I think the first thing we need to do is control the budget.”
Ortega offered no specific line items in the city’s budget she would cut when asked to defend her position that spending has been wasteful, but said she would support an “efficiency review” of each department.
Ortega also believes the council should partner with Idaho State University to study issues and provide data for basing decisions. For example, she said ISU could help the cities of Pocatello and Chubbuck study whether efficiencies could be achieved by implementing a proposal to merge the two cities.
“It may be a good idea, but I don’t know because there’s no research,” Ortega said, adding she has concerns about the potential for locals to lose their jobs from a merger.
Kolbet believes a merger is a good idea, and he’s confident considerable savings would be achieved. He offers the caveat that steps would have to be taken to achieve efficiencies through attrition and to make certain employees feel safe in their positions. Peterson said he would support a merger if “it’s really what they say it’s going to do and lowers taxes.”
Both Peterson and Ortega agree that crime and public safety are major problems in the city. Peterson would address the problem by approving larger raises for the city’s police and firefighters. He believes local officers are leaving for other departments, and the roughly 6 percent raise the city provided for its police and firefighters in the recent budget cycle was insufficient.
“The crime has gone up a lot. Old Town is notorious for it,” said Peterson, who moved to Pocatello from Utah in 2016.
Peterson would also seek to increase participation in neighborhood watches.
Ortega believes child abuse and drugs are both too prevalent in the city, and she believes more officers should be hired to patrol the streets.
Both Peterson and Ortega oppose the council’s decision to award sizable pay raises for themselves and the mayor.
“You run knowing what the pay is,” Ortega said.