By Zach Hagadone and Soncirey Mitchell
A near-capacity crowd turned out Oct. 17 at the Sandpoint Community Hall for a candidates’ forum featuring office seekers in contested races for Sandpoint mayor and City Council, as well as the Zone 1 position on the Lake Pend Oreille School District Board of Trustees.
Hosted by the Sandpoint Reader, KRFY 88.5 FM Panhandle Community Radio and SandpointOnline.com, the forum ran for about two and a half hours with questions submitted by the audience both in-person and by email, with Reader Publisher Ben Olson and Keokee’s Chris Bessler serving as moderators.
Questions for the LPOSD Board contenders led off the evening, though with nine candidates vying for city offices, responses from those candidates took up the bulk of the forum.
KRFY streamed and aired the event live, and a recording will be posted to KRFY.org.
LPOSD Board of Trustees Zone 1
The two Zone 1 LPOSD trustee candidates began the evening by emphasizing their strong familial ties, and though both indicated that they would not support another hypothetical mask mandate, their similarities ended there.
Jennifer “Jenn” McKnight described herself as “a Christian wife and mother” and was largely concerned with opposing critical race theory, which she alleged is taught in Idaho under different names like “Core” and “social-emotional learning.”
“I would put a strong focus back on academics and try to take that value stuff out and leave it to the parents,” she said, hinting at future changes to the curriculum should she be elected.
Scott Wood, of Wood’s Crushing and Hauling, and whose family has lived here since the 1940s, disagreed with McKnight’s claim that only parents can teach their children values. He said that the community — including teachers and coaches — helps to shape kids into successful adults.
Wood said repeatedly that he will make “no sweeping changes” to the curriculum, and instead emphasized the need to replace the district’s aged building infrastructure and promote career and technical education.
“What I believe is we need to go to our legislators and try to figure out how to get the state to fund the schools,” he said, adding: “Nobody wants a levy.”
He argued that funding is a state issue, not just a local one, because Idaho ranks last in the nation in per-pupil spending.
Wood also noted that three generations of his family have gone to school in the same middle school building, which has developed serious issues with age.
McKnight opposed state funding to both technical education and new school buildings, believing that the district should adhere to a strict budget. She further argued that neither students nor citizens have complained about the condition of the schools — a claim which brought forth grumbled protests from the crowd.
“We need to budget and work within our budget,” McKnight said, later adding, “We do need to maintenance the schools.”
Sandpoint mayor and City Council
The role of the city administrator position
Both opening and closing statements from all three mayoral candidates Jeremy Grimm, Kate McAlister and Frytz Mor touched on one theme that came up at several points throughout the forum: the balance of power between the mayor’s office and the city administrator.
Grimm, who served as planning and community director for the city of Sandpoint from 2007-2015 and currently owns land use planning firm Whiskey Rock Planning + Consulting, went right into the issue of growth and development, and how city leadership has — or hasn’t — adequately managed it.
According to Grimm, a study on development impact fees making future growth “pay its way” was adopted in 2012 but hasn’t been acted on, because “something happened in 2015 — we started a city administrator position, and I am very against that. I’d like to go back to department heads.”
Current City Council President McAlister, who is seeking the office being vacated by Mayor Shelby Rognstad, led her opening remarks with thoughts on the role of the mayor, saying, “Believe it or not, we still have a strong mayor form of government, which means everything begins and ends with the mayor. And the mayor has not been present a lot throughout this last term, not listening to people.”
She added that the top elected job in the city is a part-time position, and the city administrator — acting akin to a chief operations officer — “allows the mayor to be out amongst the public and listening to people … and we have been off track with that.”
In another question later in the forum, all nine candidates were asked if they would vote for or propose eliminating the city administrator position. Though not named during the forum, Jennifer Stapleton has served as city administrator since 2015, and has in recent years become a lightning rod for criticisms among segments of the community that argue the unelected position has amassed too much authority and resulted in elected officials becoming too reliant on the leadership of city staff.
Grimm responded that, “I am not in favor of the position; I don’t think it’s worked for a town our size.”
Mor agreed, saying, “it’s not working and we need to reorganize.” However, he added, “That’s going to be difficult if you have a City Council that doesn’t want the same thing that you want. Engagement is going to be necessary, because if the people of this town feel that the city administrator is an inappropriate position, you’re going to have to get involved and convince the people that need to vote for it.”
McAlister returned to her emphasis on the strong mayor role, saying, “we have not had a strong mayor,” and, “We need that position as the COO, because before that position all these projects are being deferred, deferred, deferred, deferred, deferred, and with somebody running operations, those projects are actually getting implemented.”
However, she said eliminating the city administrator’s post should follow the decision to make the mayor a full-time position that makes more than $25,000 a year. Until that happens, “We need that operations manager to keep some of these projects running so our city doesn’t fall apart.”
Council candidate Kyle Schreiber responded simply, “yes,” that he would remove the position, while Amelia Boyd — who currently serves on the Sandpoint Planning and Zoning Commission — said she’d have to investigate the idea further. However, despite the “disgruntled talk” in the community, Boyd added that she’d also heard of dysfunction at City Hall prior to the city administrator coming on board, with, “So many islands [that] were wasting money and a lot of our budget was going for redundancy and there wasn’t the checks and balances.”
Boyd likened the job to a CEO, saying, “You have a company — that’s what the city is — and you want someone who’s qualified to run it. So do I have a yes or no answer? No, I do not.”
Incumbent Councilor Deb Ruehle, running for reelection, also keyed into the “strong mayor” concept, adding that, “if the system seems to be in failure at that point, then it’s the mayor’s job to figure out how to fix those things.”
That said, “I don’t think you can throw the cogs out of the wheel if you don’t have a strong mayor running the ship,” Ruehle added, to which currents Arts, Culture and Historic Preservation Chair Elle Susnis agreed: “I think that Deb’s right — a strong mayor would definitely change the dynamic in City Hall.”
Pam Duquette came down on the side in favor of eliminating the city administrator position, saying, “it’s not working,” while current Planning and Zoning Commissioner Grant Simmons said he advocates for both a mayor and city administrator.
“I like the dual role system of government — the mayor leads the vision and the policy, the administrator handles those daily operations,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m a fan of professionalism, stability, competence and largely the non-politicization of city government.”
Schreiber said the city must “start prioritizing critical infrastructure over unnecessary amenities.” Boyd highlighted the city’s pavement assessment that prioritized level of service on city streets, as well as the resort city local option tax approved by voters in November 2022, which allocates 7% of city revenue from short-term lodgings to street and sidewalk infrastructure.
That tax has already brought in $1 million, and “is in the right direction and that is going to help fix those streets,” Boyd said.
Ruehle agreed, though added, “the reality is we’re probably never going to be able to keep up with our streets because streets are expensive. … It’s going to happen slow, but we’re working on it.”
Susnis and Duquette also applauded the LOT, while Simmons suggested that a major part of the problem with Sandpoint’s streets lies with the sewage and water system, “which in some sense is a ticking time bomb.”
Grimm agreed with that, nodding to years of neglected maintenance that has resulted in stormwater infiltrating the sewer, but added that eliminating the city administrator’s position would result in cost savings that could be otherwise allocated and Sandpoint could “run this city like we always have, with department heads.”
Mor also said the city administrator position “is a failure,” and pointed to a budget that earmarked millions for parks and recreation projects but only about $1 million for roads.
“There seems to be a disconnect between what’s actually being spent and what is being told is spent,” he said.
McAlister reiterated her campaign’s emphasis on “drinkable water, flushable toilets and drivable streets,” and assured the audience that a complete road update is in the works.
The James E. Russell Sports Center
Every candidate in some form or another pointed to lack of communication and involvement between City Hall and the public as being at the root of the furor over the facility, made possible by a $7.5 million gift from the Russell family and which broke ground Oct. 16 amid a vigorous citizen protest.
Simmons indicated he was in favor of the project but pointed out that if it’s true the sports center is “for the children, one way or another, the children don’t know about it.”
Duquette said the project had been mishandled, and had gotten “so out of control” that it needs to be halted.
“This was definitely a bad thing for the community; it’s really torn us apart,” she said, later adding, “The gift was amazing, but we should have found a better place for it.”
Susnis said the city needs to “meet the citizens where they are early and often,” while Ruehle said that she “can’t really fix what’s already been done,” she committed to “reenergizing” citizen advisory committees that have either lapsed or been eliminated in recent years.
Boyd said “there’s no doubt there’s a failure in the system,” and promised to hold regular councilor’s roundtables with the community and added that the city needs “true open public forums.” Schreiber said, “When people do spend the time to speak out, we need to take the time to listen and actually act on their voices.”
McAlister agreed with Ruehle that “things can always be done differently,” and that the city should bring back citizen committees — “but committees for the sake of committees gets us nowhere.”
Rather, she suggested that a council member be assigned to each committee with accountability for deliverables, and, like Boyd, said she would hold regular topic-specific meetings with citizens as well as pursue “citizen academies” that help the public learn more about City Hall processes.
Mor said that an indoor court sports space is “a brilliant idea, just not at Travers Park,” and, “People are giving their input, it’s just not being received.”
He went on to criticize the practice of contracting with out-of-area firms “to design our town for us.”
Grimm pointed to the protest that took place outside the sports center groundbreaking Oct. 16, saying, “I never thought I would live in a community and see what I saw yesterday.”
“The root of the problem is we don’t have elected officials driving the city,” he said.
Urban renewal, parking garage and Sand Creek development
Candidates were asked where they stood on the creation of a new urban renewal district to support the development of a mixed-use parking structure at the current city parking lot, as well as implementing other changes as envisioned by the downtown waterfront design competition.
Mor said he opposed those moves, saying, “We keep talking about these expensive projects and it’s time to put those down and focus on what’s important.”
Likewise, Grimm said if it had anything to do with the downtown waterfront design, then he was also opposed, adding that a new urban renewal district would leach off revenue to pay for services while offering little in return.
“I think we need to slow everything down,” he said.
McAlister, who served on the Sandpoint Urban Renewal Agency board, applauded the downtown streets, parking and street trees made possible by urban renewal, but said she didn’t know enough about the parking structure to make a decision.
Ruehle also said she didn’t have enough information, but noted that a downtown parking garage has been discussed for years. As for the design competition, she asked, “Is the scope of the downtown waterfront what Sandpoint needs? … It seems a little flamboyant to me.”
Boyd also had a skeptical take, saying the parking structure downtown “is not appealing at all and is not what I would like to see personally.” Meanwhile, she said the Bridge Street bridge is failing, which should take precedence over “this fluff and pomp and circumstance of light shows throughout the seasons and all that stuff.”
Schreiber said it was “a matter of priorities,” and added that he’s concerned to hear current city leaders say they haven’t made up their minds when a memorandum of understanding from December 2022 already establishes a process for transferring ownership of the parking lot for private development.
Simmons said a parking garage “doesn’t sound great,” and suggested a better solution to expand parking would be to look west toward the Granary District. Meanwhile, Duquette said the cost would be prohibitive and, rather, the city should look toward reducing the number of cars downtown using rideshare or park and ride strategies.
Finally, Susnis applauded the current urban renewal district for its achievements, but wondered whether the community wanted “that prime piece of property to be a parking garage,” particularly during downtown events.
Wastewater treatment and treatment of the geese
Candidates spent a portion of the forum addressing how to handle the inevitable excretal products of animal life — both human and non-human — with two questions: considering whether to revisit Baldy Mountain Road as the location for a new wastewater treatment plant, and how they can justify the killing of Canada geese at City Beach because of their droppings.
Candidates universally agreed that wide swaths of south Sandpoint are frequently malodorous due to the location of the treatment plant adjacent to War Memorial Field and Lakeview Park, and all concurred that it’s a problem to be solved with repairs, improvements and better maintenance of the current facility.
Both Schreiber and Ruehle pointed to the cost-prohibitiveness of locating a treatment plant at Baldy due to the necessity of pumps.
“We don’t really have the option to build another plant,” Ruehle said, adding, “The most economical way was to keep it where it’s at.”
Grimm suggested that while the current plant operates as a gravity system, a mechanical system upgrade would increase efficiency and reduce, or eliminate, odor.
Regionalization of services, however, was unpopular with Schreiber, Grimm, Mor and McAlister.
With a regional approach, Grimm said, “Development will occur outside of our borders and that is very, very dangerous.” Likewise, Mor said the reason for deferred maintenance has been a push to regionalize, which Sandpoint should be wary of.
McAlister also said she was not in favor of regionalization, as it would “open a can of worms,” but added that the city is “on the path” to addressing the problems facing the wastewater plant with a plan that she said would enter the initial phase in spring 2024.
Candidates were divided on the issue of geese at City Beach, and the years-long efforts to keep them from the park based on concerns about fecal contamination.
McAlister said the city had “tried everything” before settling on the controlled goose hunt at the beach, which will occur on eight dates in November.
“The important thing is there’s a lot of goose poop on the beach,” she said, adding, “I actually think the hunt is the most humane thing we can do.”
Frytz agreed, saying, “This is a hunting town; let’s go kill the friggin’ birds.” That said, he opposed the round-up and euthanasia of the birds that took place in June.
Grimm expressed his frustration at what’s been done at City Beach, adding that there are alternatives such as using drones or other harassment techniques.
Susnis reminded the audience that dogs are allowed at City Beach on leash from Sept. 15 to April 15, and residents should feel empowered to take their pets to the park during those times when geese are numerous to help frighten them away.
Like McAlister, Ruehle said “absolutely everything” had been tried, and while the hunt has been a “hard decision,” “I’m not going to allow children or adults or elderly get sick.”
Simmons said he has “nothing against goose hunting,” but argued that “shooting the geese from City Beach is not going to move the needle in goose mitigation.” Rather, he supported the idea of dogs at the park.
Boyd responded that “every single avenue” had been explored and supported the hunt, while Duquette and Schreiber both argued that there are still options other than lethal strategies.
“If we provide a giant field of grass for them, they’re going to eat it and produce three pounds of poop,” Schreiber said, referring to types of landscaping that deter geese from settling in certain areas.
Duquette echoed Schreiber’s points, noting types of grass that geese find unappetizing, as well as ribbed fencing along the shoreline that the birds might avoid.
Ultimately, though, she said, “We need to learn to live with our wildlife.”
Listen to the full Oct. 17 candidates’ forum at KRFY.org. The election takes place Tuesday, Nov. 7. Visit voteidaho.gov for all election related info.
While we have you ...
... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.
You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal