POCATELLO — Incoming City Councilwoman Claudia Ortega sees a clear voter mandate in the result’s of Tuesday’s municipal election.
“The rubber stamping, those days are over,” Ortega said. “Things need to be done with thought, debate and discussion.”
Ortega, who works as a federal court interpreter; Chris Stevens, who is a retired school principal; and Councilman Roger Bray, who is a local pastor; campaigned as a ticket under the name Candidates United for a Better Pocatello. They all won their races convincingly, arguing the city’s leaders should place greater emphasis on public outreach and researching issues before casting votes.
To help relieve local residents of a heavy tax burden, Ortega and Stevens have also suggested the city should soon move forward with “a deep dive” into the city budget and identify opportunities to trim expenses.
“I believe what people have told Claudia and Roger and me is, ‘Yes, we want outreach; yes, we want fiscal responsibility; yes, we want decision-making that is focused on our welfare and the welfare of our families and neighbors,’” Stevens said.
Political opponents have voiced concerns that the trio will vote as a block. Stevens, Ortega and Bray all vow to cast independent decisions based on the facts that are presented.
“We are going to push each other and debate each other and present our side, but in the end, nobody is going to tell me how to vote,” Ortega said.
Councilman Rick Cheatum emphasized he and Bray have occasionally voted together, and he expects to also find some common ground with the two newcomers. For example, Cheatum was the first to raise concerns when the city publicly discussed implementing sizable pay raises for the City Council and mayor. Bray also opposed the raises, and Stevens and Ortega both seized on the pay raises as a campaign issue.
Cheatum advocated for a simple cost-of-living raise for city leaders, in line with what was offered to other employees. Cheatum ultimately voted in favor of the final budget, believing the raises amounted to a few thousand dollars of approximately $120 million in spending and were a moot point by that time.
Cheatum, however, takes exception with the notion that the council isn’t diligent in its research. He also disagrees with criticism by Ortega and Stevens that the city hasn’t been transparent. Cheatum believes both newcomers will learn that in-depth, fact-based discussions already take place during the council’s regular study sessions, all of which are open to the public.
“There’s nothing hidden behind closed doors,” Cheatum said.
Regarding the proposed budgetary “dive,” Cheatum emphasized the Fiscal Year 2020 budget is closed, and the new members will have the opportunity to make sure municipal operations are lean when work on the next budget cycle starts in March.
His advice to Ortega and Stevens is to remember their role as council members.
“The mayor runs the city,” Cheatum explained. “The council has legislative, quasi-judicial and budgeting powers only. They’ve got to stay out of day-to-day (department) operations.”
Bray acknowledges the city follows open meetings law, but he agrees with Stevens and Ortega that lack of transparency has been a problem. In Bray’s opinion, the city’s challenges with transparency pertain to a lack explanation behind the council’s voting.
“This election focused on points of divergence such as taxes, where spending was being directed and the rationales for supporting stances taken,” Bray said. “The voters have said they want us to seek out information from them and other credible sources as we make decisions of far-ranging consequence.”
One area of common ground between the Candidates United for a Better Pocatello and the rest of the city’s leadership is their agreement on the importance of cooperating toward the common goal of helping Pocatello meet its full potential.
“I do believe that people on the council are good people and that they are focused on the people of Pocatello,” Stevens said. “I think the way they are focused on what’s good for Pocatello is different, but I think their underlying desire is similar. The fundamental philosophy of working together is clearly the only functional way to proceed.”
Councilwoman Heidi Adamson singled out the council’s ongoing effort to identify potential beautification projects throughout the city as a prime opportunity for members of varying backgrounds to band together for Pocatello’s benefit. Adamson said she also believes adding new opinions to the mix will be a good thing.
“It’s helpful to hear new perspectives and despite individual differences, the council has always been able to work together as a team,” Adamson said.
Cheatum said he’s disappointed that the council’s president, Jim Johnston, whom he regards as one of the community’s greatest advocates and most effective leaders, wasn’t re-elected. But when asked about his thoughts on the future, he recounted a story about his election two years ago. Councilwoman Linda Leeuwrik had defeated a friend of his in the race for another seat.
“As we got to the daily business of serving on the council, I found Linda and I weren’t that far apart,” Cheatum said. “When you’re there to help Pocatello, there aren’t many rights or wrongs.”
Mayor Brian Blad believes the city is headed in the right direction and has come a long ways throughout the past decade. Blad is optimistic that School District 25’s investment in renovating Pocatello High School will be a boon to the Old Town community, and the Northgate development in the city’s northeast corner will bring steady but controlled growth. He’s confident that good news is on the horizon for the business park at the Pocatello Regional Airport, and he’s convinced the city’s staff is equipped to handle any challenge that may arise.
“I’ve got all of the confidence in the world that (Stevens and Ortega) have good ideas and they’re going to be an asset to the community and the council,” Blad said. “It’s going to be exciting and fun to work with them.”