By Zach Hagadone
The uproar over the James E. Russell Sports Center at Travers Park took another dramatic turn at the Oct. 18 regular meeting of the Sandpoint City Council, when Mayor Shelby Rognstad opened the meeting with a mea culpa over the suspension of public forum testimony on the topic at a recent meeting, followed by the surprise resignation of Councilor Andy Groat.
“I would like to issue an apology to the public,” Rognstad said. “I wish I would have conducted that meeting differently two weeks ago and accepted public input, suspended the rules and allowed for the community to be heard.”
The meeting to which the mayor referred took place Oct. 4, when numerous residents showed up to City Hall to express their thoughts on the planned removal of 20 trees at Travers to make way for the indoor sports facility, but were told immediately that no testimony on the subject would be taken because the matter had already been decided.
“I recognize that this community is in a place right now — I don’t know how else to say it — we’re sensitive,” Rognstad said, adding that the pressures of rapid growth and change have fueled polarization and distrust.
That has often resulted in city staff being “berated, accused of malfeasance, attacked [and] disrespected,” he said, underscoring that such behavior is “unacceptable; I will not tolerate it.”
However, Rognstad added that he didn’t think the council would have made a different decision about the location for the sports center even if it had taken more time to deliberate.
Groat followed Rognstad’s comments by apologizing for not being present at the Oct. 16 groundbreaking, during which loud protests occurred in the Travers parking lot (see Page 7); and, after acknowledging members of the Travers family in attendance, said, “I am sorry for my decision.”
Specifically, Groat said that he had been unaware that the Travers’ interred the ashes of several family members in the park, or that many of the trees now slated for removal had been planted as memorials. Groat also said that he had been made aware of a piece of property now available on Ontario Street south of the Forest Service station that had become
available for purchase.
“I cannot with good conscience ask for us to reconsider — I have no expectations of this body,” Groat said, becoming visibly emotional before turning to City Council President Kate McAlister.
“Kate, I thought I’d have enough. I don’t; I’m done,” he said, going on to ask, “Is this body willing to reconsider?”
At that point, Groat said, “I resign, I’m so sorry,” before standing and leaving the dais.
After applause and amid shock, Councilor Joel Aispuro said, “That shows me and reminds me that up here, even though we do the best we can, we’re humans, too.”
Following Aispuro’s expression of support for Groat, Councilor Jason Welker added his own public thanks for Groat’s service.
“I know this has been a really tough process for him,” Welker said, also becoming emotional. “He’s a good friend.”
Councilors Justin Dick and McAlister offered their own apologies for the suspension of testimony at the Oct. 4 meeting, both stating that they should have asked to allow those comments.
“My heart breaks for my friend Andy. He’s a good councilor, and he just couldn’t take any more of the hatred and the mean words. He tried his hardest,” McAlister said, adding later, “We all do share the blame for not standing up. … It’s really sad that someone like him will no longer serve in public service.”
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