The pesky public

From the Statehouse to City Hall, Idahoans are slowly being pushed out of participating in government

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

In an ideal democracy, a government serves at the behest of its people, not in spite of them. We are oceans away from anything resembling an ideal democracy in our nation, especially here in Idaho where lawmakers cry “We the People” at campaign rallies and suddenly forget those very people the moment they walk up the Statehouse steps.

From the Idaho Capitol to City Hall, there has been a concerted effort to distance the public from participating in government.

Leading up to the 2018 election, the grassroots organization Reclaim Idaho successfully led a signature drive to place a Medicaid expansion initiative on the general election ballot, which aimed to provide coverage for those who fell through the gap. The measure proved successful, passing with a 61% vote and ultimately providing Medicaid coverage to 145,000 Idahoans. The following year, the knives came out from Republicans, bitter that the lowly public dared to actively get involved with their government.

District 1 Rep. Sage Dixon led efforts during the 2019 legislative session to severely restrict the signature gathering requirements, making it much tougher for citizen-led initiatives to find their way onto the ballot. Despite very little public support, the House and Senate sent the legislation to Gov. Brad Little’s desk, where he vetoed it after public outcry. Dixon reintroduced his measure broken up into four separate bills, but, as Boise Democratic Rep. Ilana Rubel put it, “A turd sandwich cut into quarters is still a turd sandwich.” That effort failed, then failed again. Another attempt crossed the finish line in 2021, only to have the Idaho Supreme Court rule that the law raising initiative signature requirements violated Idahoans’ constitutional rights. 

Now, another Republican lawmaker has again taken up the issue, this time aiming to amend the Idaho Constitution itself to make it harder to get initiatives on the ballot. 

Another bald attempt to limit public discourse happened in January, when Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, banned those under 18 from testifying in his committee. He later amended the ban to allow minors to testify with their parents present after 30 teens attended a committee meeting in protest, some holding signs reading, “Let us speak.” 

Closer to home, at the Board of Bonner County Commissioners meeting Feb. 7, Commissioners Steve Bradshaw and Luke Omodt both voted in favor of eliminating the public’s ability to participate in weekly meetings via Zoom. They claimed BOCC had no legal obligation to continue allowing the public to participate remotely. The sole dissenting vote was Commissioner Asia Williams. After pushback from the public, the BOCC reversed course two weeks later, with Omodt changing his stance and voting in favor of allowing Zoom participation.

I understand public testimony can be painful. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, public meetings around the nation became dumping grounds for extremists to unload conspiracy theories, issue threats and generally pound the nearest table. But there is nothing more American than a shabbily-dressed citizen in muddy duck boots, holding a folder full of “research” and petitioning their local government. It’s not pretty, but it’s who we are, and those who wish to do away with pesky public testimony have forgotten who elected them. 

Finally, at the city level, efforts are being made to keep the public at arm’s length with the “Couplet” plan, which would see a five-lane highway running down the Highway 2 corridor through Sandpoint. In the early 2010s, when the Sandpoint City Council killed off the precursor to this plan called the “Curve,” the city officials relentlessly polled the public to get an accurate idea of what people thought about the plan. 

The people hated it — as they do now — and the council voted it down only to see it resurrected a decade later, even though most everyone agrees it’s not needed for another 30 years. The Feb. 1 council meeting ended with motion to table an amendment to the Multimodal Plan related to the portion of the “Couplet” that included someday bulldozing Dub’s Drive-in for a North-South Boyer connection across U.S. 2.; but, at the Feb. 15 meeting, City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton outlined a plan to hold a workshop that wasn’t in fact open to public input, but rather, an “informational meeting” between city staff and council members.

“After council has that information and if there will be further actions, we can discuss that at a future council meeting,” Stapleton told councilors.

Gee, thanks.

What is everyone so afraid of? That the public won’t like the plan and we’ll have to scrap it? That their jobs will be made harder? So what? It’s clear that those in power — whether elected or not — view public input as an annoyance rather than a guiding hand.

We hold the power, not bureaucrats and politicians looking to enrich themselves. If we could ever band together at the ballot box, we might just be able to vote out those who wish to silence our voices. Then, we might live up to those ideals uttered by a behatted skinny man in Gettysburg, Penn., some 160 years ago: “… and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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