Local election results: 2021

Incumbents (mostly) out in LPOSD Zone 2 and Sandpoint City Council, local option tax fails

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

With countywide elections concluded Nov. 2, area voters put in place a new slate of public servants, turning away from incumbents in a number of high-profile races and declining to support the Sandpoint 1% local option sales tax ballot measure with the necessary supermajority.

“It went better than I thought,” said Bonner County Clerk Michael Rosedale, who also heads the Elections Department, referring to an overall turnout of 31.33%.

“I thought we might have kind of a thin turnout, and I don’t know what the kicker was to get people to turn out,” he added, noting that even some residents who had nothing on the ballot during this cycle still turned up at their polling places, having not heard that their areas lacked active races and illustrating a high level of interest in local elections in general.

Of special note was the speed with which elections staff and volunteers were able to post results.

“It was very unusually quick last night,” Rosedale said. 

Drawing on experience with between 22 and 24 elections, Rosedale said the Nov. 2 results  beat the previous earliest returns by more than an hour, coming in before 11 p.m. 

“Everything was working perfectly,” he said, from the technology to the consistent manner with which ballots arrived at the counting room. “Kudos to everybody in the supply chain — the poll workers, the drivers of the vans bringing ballots from Priest River — everybody just did a great job.”

LPOSD Zone 2 trustee

The LPOSD Zone 2 trustee race spurred the most public comment of any campaign in the eastern part of the county, with dozens of letters to the editor in local newspapers and robust social media conversation.

Challenger Jalon Peters unseated incumbent Gary Suppiger with 931 votes to 682 in a race that drew a turnout of 32.95% in the zone, which reaches from Sagle in the north to Careywood and Kelso Lake in the south.

The campaign focused on experience — Suppiger being a decades-long volunteer at Sagle Elementary School, and with children having attended local schools, as well as his prior service as a school board trustee, and Peters coming to Cocolalla about four and a half years ago and working as a handyman and citing no prior government service. 

Hot-button national issues related to COVID-19 protocols and curriculum also featured prominently — Suppiger pointing to the success of LPOSD in pulling through the pandemic while maintaining in-person instruction, and dispelling the myth that “critical race theory” is a component of local classroom learning.

Yet, Peters’ message of parent involvement; educational and financial transparency “through monitoring,” as he put it in the Reader’s candidate questionnaire published Oct. 14; opposition to COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates; and pledge to push back against so-called “critical race theory” curriculum in schools resonated with Zone 2 voters.

“THANK YOU! Thank you! All of you who voted (and not just for me) thank you!” he wrote in a post-election email to the Reader. “Fair elections are one of the most important parts of our freedom in this country. Thank you to all those who voted for me, to all the volunteers, and donors. Thank you Mr. Suppiger for your dedication to LPOSD. Lastly, thank you to my family for your support and for allowing me to sacrifice some family time to help the community where I can. 

“As I have said from Day 1 of my campaign, I promise to get parents involved in their students’ education. The family is the most important part of education. I promise to be accountable and transparent to parents, teachers, students and taxpayers! I will do everything in my realm of influence to keep CRT [critical race theory] out of LPOSD. 

“I will fight for your rights and personal liberties under the Constitution, including your right to decide what’s safe for your family. I want to see students learn and grow into who they were designed to be. Not just while they’re in LPOSD, but when they graduate and start their careers and families. 

“I can also promise that I will make mistakes, but I will own them — I won’t act like I’m perfect — and I will listen to parents and taxpayers. 

“What a whirlwind ride! Thank you all for the journey! Time to get to work!”

Reached by the Reader on Nov. 3, Suppiger said in a phone interview, “I’m optimistic about our school system and I’m going to continue to be an advocate for our students. … I’m still bullish on public education and I support our staff and the resources for every student’s success.”


Sandpoint City Council

In an eight-way race for three seats on the Sandpoint City Council — one of the deepest candidate fields in recent election cycles — residents returned incumbent Joel Aispuro for another four-year term, pulling the most votes with 1,316, or 19.32%. Following a vigorous campaign, Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Jason Welker will also serve on the council with 1,229 votes, or 18.05%, as well as local restaurateur Justin Dick, who secured 1,224 votes, or 17.97%.

Incumbent Council member John Darling came in fifth, after challenger Luke Omodt, who received 13.89% of the vote to Darling’s 11.63%.

Of note was the lack of traction at the ballot box for firebrand Frytz Mor, whose highly visible campaign signage featured his distinctive beard. During the race, Mor spoke forcefully about big ideas involving local divestment from federal funding, health freedom and the rejection of regionalization at numerous public meetings — from the Bonner County Board of Commissioners to the Sandpoint City Council — as well as in forums and interviews with various media, including Redoubt News. He came in sixth in the race, with only 612 votes, or 8.99%. 

Sandpoint council candidates Wayne Benner and Arthur Bistline rounded out the ballot with 5.92% and 4.23% of the vote, respectively.

Aispuro, who along with Council member Deb Ruehle, is now one of the most senior elected officials in the body, said he is optimistic for the future — in large part because residents seem so enthused about being involved with local politics.

“I think that in the past few years, no matter how you landed politically, on either side of the fence, there were a lot of emotions, a lot of fears — a lot of people were like, ‘Hey, let’s get involved,’” he told the Reader in a Nov. 3 phone interview. “I think what COVID really showed was that we can’t really control what happens out there, but at least we can have influence in our own backyard.” 

Nodding to his new fellow Council members Jason Welker and Justin Dick, Aispuro emphasized team work: “I’m not going to fix it all — Justin’s not, Jason’s not — but we can get together and make a difference.”

Welker, who in his time on the Planning and Zoning Commission has made headlines with his direct confrontation with affordable housing and housing availability, as well as the need to update the city’s Comprehensive Plan, told the Reader in an election night email that he’s, “honored to have been selected by Sandpoint’s voters to represent them on City Council and I look forward to joining Justin and the incumbents on council in January. 

“I’m hopeful that with our combined efforts, along with support from the mayor and city staff, we’ll be able to begin tackling some of Sandpoint’s most pressing issues, including the workforce housing crisis and the runaway costs of living that are undermining local industry’s ability to fill open positions, expand, or even continue to operate in some cases. 

“I’d like to thank the other candidates, all who I have grown to respect over the last two months, along with all the volunteers and donors who supported my campaign and the local organizations that hosted candidate forums or covered the race in the press. Democracy is alive and well in Sandpoint, and it is humbling to have had the chance to meet, speak with, and listen to so many of Sandpoint’s citizens throughout this campaign!” 

Justin Dick did not respond to a request for comment by presstime.

Local option tax

Proposed by the city of Sandpoint as a means to raise upwards of $13 million over a seven-year period, the local option tax would have levied a 1% sales tax that proponents emphasized would fall mostly on out-of-town consumers in order to help fund implementation of a range of Parks and Rec. Master Plan projects, as well as the priority sidewalk network, as outlined in the Multimodal Master Plan.

In addition, the ballot language stated that revenue from the tax would have been leveraged to purchase additional property for open space, parks and recreation. 

The local option tax ballot measure received 1,269 votes in favor and 1,132 against — while a slim majority, not enough to put it over the top with a supermajority. 

City officials have stressed that the LOT is a finite tool — only available to communities under the 10,000 population mark, under which Sandpoint barely squeaked, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. In the meantime, it is crucial to securing matching funds for state and local grants, which could be applied to the design, engineering and construction of important infrastructure projects.

Opponents challenged the LOT on the grounds that it focused on perceived amenities, preferring that either the tax be shelved indefinitely or redirected in the future to infrastructure or affordable housing.

Mayor Shelby Rognstad, who had taken the point position in advocating for the LOT, told the Reader he was not surprised that the tax didn’t pass muster with voters, and cited a number of factors that he suspected led to its denial — including the broader political climate, which has become increasingly tax-averse, regardless of purpose.

“At the end of the day, what was encouraging is that it still carried a majority of the vote,” he said in a phone interview, adding that the 2015 LOT tax related to War Memorial Field benefited from an entire year of public outreach, whereas the recent ballot measure had only a few months.

Rogsntad said that the LOT will likely return to the ballot in the future, though with the benefit of “lots of time to reassess.”

“Clearly there’s enough public interest around this,” he said, though added that losing that funding mechanism for the time being means “it kind of ties the city’s hands and creates a situation where we might miss out on some other funds.”

“Maybe we could stew on that a little more,” Rognstad said, referring to how to best represent or recalibrate a future LOT proposal.

Aispuro, looking to another four-year term, recognized that “the word ‘tax’ is a bad word,” adding that fears of government overreach and misapplication of funds ran through the opposition argument. 

Underscoring that the city of Sandpoint is especially transparent with its finances, Aisupro said that, “We educated the citizens as much as we could, but I feel there were still a lot of people who didn’t understand this tax. I think there was a lot of mistrust, from what I heard.”

Dick and Welker, in candidate forum comments, all expressed support for the LOT, and Aispuro said that in his next term he’d be in favor of a new proposal:  “I like the form, personally, but I’m definitely open to ideas. …. If this would have passed I would have been happy with what we have on paper.”

Rognstad congratulated the new and returning council candidates, stating that “they’ll be a great addition.”

All results preliminary until canvassed.

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