POCATELLO — Three Pocatello City Council members have launched what they’ve termed a “city-wide listening and information tour” as part of an effort to engage the public, air their grievances toward a divided council and gain support for their agenda.
The first stop on the tour, organized by council members Chris Stevens, Roger Bray and Claudia Ortega, was held Saturday at Caldwell Park with about 20 people in attendance and the second meeting was Wednesday at the Senior Activity Center with about 15 in attendance.
The three council members have launched the tour to discuss their frustration toward the “inefficiency” of the city’s government, as well as with their being in the voting minority among the body of six council members and Mayor Brian Blad, who often serves as the tie-breaking vote on issues that leave the group split 3-3.
Stevens, who announced at the Saturday meeting that she would be challenging Blad in this year’s mayoral election, said she, Ortega and Bray organized the tour because they “want to hear from the people in this town” and they hope to make the city council more accessible to the residents it represents.
“We believe it’s part of our job as elected officials to make a concerted effort to reach out,” Stevens said. “We understand we’re bucking the norm a bit, and it may take a while to get people trained up to the fact that we actually do want to hear from you, but we do.”
City Council President Heidi Adamson, council members Linda Leeuwrik and Rick Cheatum, and Mayor Blad have not attended the two meetings held thus far.
Stevens, Bray and Ortega on Saturday accused their fellow city elected officials of sidestepping transparency when it comes to involving the public in budget and policy discussions as well as ignoring certain agenda item requests in order to keep meeting agendas in line with the council majority’s idea of what’s important to the city.
Ortega said during Saturday’s meeting that she wants to “piss people off” and get them energized to fight for their causes. “I want to piss you people off, I mean I really do,” she said to the small crowd of residents at the Caldwell Park gathering.
“Because you’re going to talk to your kid and you’re going to talk to your brother and your aunt, and Aunt Mary who lives down the street, and you’re going to piss them off,” Ortega said. “And then hopefully you all show up at City Hall with your signs that say, ‘Stop the bleeding,’ and, you know, ‘Free Pocatello,’ or whatever you want. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Lifelong Pocatello resident Bill Winn said he went into the meeting on Saturday “completely ignorant” of the council’s strained dynamic. Winn said he was surprised by how “totally hamstrung” the three council members seemed, though he said he still wanted to “get the other side of the story.”
“They painted the other three council members to be very unreasonable,” Winn said.
Cheatum called the listening tour “an attempt to oust” himself, Adamson, Leeuwrik and Blad from their positions.
“It’s Christine (Stevens) campaigning against the mayor. That’s exactly what it is,” Cheatum said.
Cheatum disagreed with the characterization that he, Adamson and Leeuwrik are somehow less in favor of transparency and public outreach than Stevens, Ortega and Bray. Cheatum said he agrees that “listening to citizens is never a bad thing” and explained that he has discussions with residents often.
“It’s just too bad we can’t find a way to do it as a group so that everyone hears the same input,” Cheatum said, adding that he, Adamson, Leeuwrik and Blad have not been invited to the listening tour meetings.
Stevens confirmed that the three other council members and the mayor were not invited. She said while no one specifically asked them to “please come,” they are all “free to show up.”
Cheatum said he hasn’t ruled out attending future meetings on the tour.
Adamson struck a similar chord to Cheatum in a written statement to the Idaho State Journal, though she didn’t say whether she might try to attend a future listening tour meeting. She said “transparency and public involvement are of the utmost importance to me as an elected official.”
“It is unfortunate that these council members, who have declared themselves a political coalition, are unwilling or afraid to have the rest of the council present,” Adamson said. “The fact that we were excluded does not seem transparent and shows that the coalition does not want to work with their colleagues. We should all be working together for the benefit of our community.”
Stevens defended the intention of the listening tour meetings, saying they are meant to be an opportunity for her and the other council members to raise awareness about issues that matter to them, not for them to be exclusionary or levy personal attacks against any of the city’s other elected officials.
Stevens, Bray and Ortega said the listening tour meetings are part of a campaign promise they made ahead of the 2019 election.
Future listening tour meetings organized by Stevens, Bray and Ortega will be held at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday at Westello Park; 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 20, at Sister City Park; 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 21, at Alameda Park; and 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 24, at Fremont Park.
The trio is also planning to hold six meetings in August and will announce exact dates and locations soon.
The public is encouraged to attend the gatherings.