‘Venezuela on the Portneuf’: Residents protest at Pocatello meeting after citizen denied opportunity to speak
POCATELLO — The controversy over proposed renovations at Pocatello High School overflowed Wednesday night when a citizen against the project was not allowed to speak at a city meeting.
After addressing their agenda items for the meeting at City Hall, the members of the Pocatello Historic Preservation Commission abruptly adjourned when Pocatello native and leader of the Save Pocatello High School movement, Steven McCurdy, asked for permission to speak.
“It’s almost incomprehensible,” McCurdy said about not being allowed to speak. “I have no idea why they would not want to hear this information. I am in shock almost.”
McCurdy, who graduated from Pocatello High School in 1978 and now lives in Utah, attended the meeting to voice his opposition to the Pocatello High School renovation project, and more specifically to take issue with the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to provide a certificate of appropriateness to Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 for the project.
McCurdy started the Save Pocatello High School movement to rally opposition to School District 25’s planned renovations of the historic school, which he feels are a bad fit with the school’s architecture. He started an online petition against the project that has attracted hundreds of supporters.
McCurdy has said the project is being rushed without proper public input. The Historic Preservation Commission’s refusal to allow him to speak only added to that belief.
The certificate of appropriateness issued by the Historic Preservation Commission indicates the commission has reviewed historical building guidelines and supports the proposed changes included in the first phase of the Pocatello High School project.
These first phase renovations include constructing a main entrance in the center of the school’s east side that will lead into the school’s administrative office area. The new entrance will include two ramps for students with disabilities in addition to the steps leading to what will be the school’s main east side door.
There will also be a vestibule area for student safety between the new east side main entrance and the interior doors leading to the rest of the school.
Construction on the project’s first phase will start and be completed this summer, according to School District 25.
The second phase of the Pocatello High School remodel involves the construction of a connector and commons area between the school’s two existing buildings. Large city utility lines under the proposed location for the connector resulted in the district asking the Boise-based Hummel Architects to redesign this addition. The new design was presented to the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District Board of Trustees on Tuesday.
The timeline regarding phase two of the project has not yet been set.
The district has allocated $7.5 million for the Pocatello High School renovations but has not said whether that will be enough.
Updates about the project, including the new main east side entrance design and project timeline, can be found on the district’s website at www.sd25.us/Content2/current-projects.
Wednesday night’s Historic Preservation Commission meeting began to devolve when McCurdy asked to make a general statement regarding his opposition to the Pocatello High School renovation project and his frustrations for being denied an opportunity to speak at the March 6 Historic Preservation Commission meeting during which the certificate of appropriateness was issued.
After McCurdy asked to speak on Wednesday night, Nick Nielson, the chairman of the commission, took a brief recess to consult with the city attorney, Jared Johnson.
After discussing the matter in private with Johnson, Nielson opted to ignore McCurdy and the commission adjourned the meeting.
About a dozen people were in the audience at the meeting and several of them responded to the commission’s adjournment by shouting words of protest at the commission.
“I protest,” said Pocatello resident Bill McCurdy, Steven McCurdy’s brother and a part-time philosophy professor at Idaho State University. “This is an outrage in a country that is supposed to have a representative democracy.”
Another Pocatello resident in the audience, Vic Watts, said, “This is terrible. There is plenty of time unless you guys are too busy to hear Pocatello taxpayers. What is the reason for not letting the public speak?”
Without acknowledging Steven McCurdy’s presence at all, the commission hastily exited City Hall as he took the podium to deliver his speech anyway.
As the commission members were leaving the room, Bill McCurdy shouted, “Wow! Venezuela on the Portneuf.”
One member of the Historic Preservation Commission, Stephanie Christelow, opted not to attend the meeting out of fear that Steven McCurdy would be present, according to emails obtained by the Journal on Wednesday night.
”I am afraid that the threat of being maligned and harassed makes me unwilling to attend the meeting on Wednesday,” Christelow wrote in a Sunday email sent to Terri Neu, the city’s assistant planner.
Heather Disselkoen, a resident of Pocatello for nearly 16 years who was in attendance to support Steven McCurdy, told the Journal after the meeting that she was appalled by the lack of professionalism displayed by the commission.
“I am dismayed at the dismissive attitude displayed by the members of the Historic Preservation Commission when they walked out on a group of citizens simply trying to have their voices heard,” Disselkoen said. “The city employees advising this commission not only demonstrated a disdain for the public, they also have done a grave disservice to the community by shutting down public comment — one of the most common and basic exercises of our First Amendment rights.”
Disselkoen continued, “I believe it is standard practice for historic preservation commissions in other cities to allow public comment at these meetings, so why isn’t the city of Pocatello allowing this? Every citizen should be outraged by (the Pocatello Historic Preservation Commisson’s) actions, which were seemingly done in response to the counsel of a city attorney.”
During the meeting, Disselkoen held up a hand-written sign that indicated she had contacted the cities of Nampa, Idaho Falls and Twin Falls and was told by officials in those cities that comments from the public are accepted at their historic preservation commission meetings.
The Journal contacted the cities of Nampa, Idaho Falls and Twin Falls and confirmed that they do allow public comments at their historic preservation commission meetings as a service to the public, though they are not required by law to do so.
”We’re big proponents for having the public having a forum to speak,” said Lisa Strickland, an administrative assistant for the city of Twin Falls. “Even on items that don’t require public comment our commission, council and all of our committees ask if someone wants to speak.”
But what happened at Wednesday night’s Pocatello Historic Preservation Commission meeting is not illegal or in violation of the state’s open meeting law.
A question noted on the state’s official open meeting law handbook asks, “Does the open meeting law require the governing body of a public agency to accept public comments and testimony during meetings?”
The provided answer reads: “No. While other statutes, such as the local planning act, may require the solicitation of public comments, the open meeting law does not.”
Johnson has previously told the Journal that had the Pocatello Historic Preservation Commission hosted a hearing instead of a meeting, the public would have had an opportunity to comment on the particular matter that resulted in the hearing.
Johnson said it could have been an open meeting law violation had the commission provided Steven McCurdy, or any other person in the audience on Wednesday night, an opportunity to speak without a corresponding action item on the agenda, which there was not.
Nampa, Idaho Falls, and Twin Falls include an agenda item for all of their historic preservation commission meetings allowing for public comment. Pocatello does not.
However, Steven McCurdy prefaced his request to speak at Wednesday night’s meeting by explaining to Neilson that he had requested guidance in getting his name on the agenda to no avail. Steven McCurdy says he never received a response from Pocatello city officials to his request to be added to the commission’s Wednesday night agenda.
“The most important thing that was said besides the fact they need to open these meetings up for public comment is that virtually all of the cities we contacted thus far are shocked and surprised that this is how Pocatello conducts its meetings,” Steven McCurdy said. “For whatever reason this commission just wants to do whatever they want to do.”