Development a hot topic at council candidates forum
POCATELLO — Four candidates for Seat 6 on the Pocatello City Council battled for advantage last week during a forum.
The candidates — Richard Cheatum, Sanju Choudhury, Steven Conway and Elton Zundel — all seek to fill the seat left open after longtime councilman Gary Moore chose to retire.
The four were among eight candidates for various council seats at the forum presented in City Hall by the League of Women Voters of Pocatello.
Cheatum — a longtime Pocatello resident who’s worked in radio, auto sales, advertising sales and at credit unions — said he’s now retired and can devote his time to the council if elected to Seat 6.
He and other candidates touched on hot button council topics that included:
n The future of electronic billboards in Pocatello.
n An Idaho Supreme Court ruling on Pocatello water and sewer fees that could cost the city millions.
n The planned new Siphon Road interchange and related Northgate home and commercial development project north of Pocatello, which is expected to bring growth to both Chubbuck and Pocatello.
n Council transparency.
Cheatum said the electronic billboard issue needs to be further addressed. The way it is written today, he would oppose it. The City Council, which issued a temporary ban on them earlier this year, plans to consider the matter again soon.
Choudhury, who has started several businesses and is in the sign business, said council members didn’t read documents correctly when acting on the billboards issue. He said the council needs to do its homework and follow the rules.
“I believe the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing,” Choudhury said.
Conway, an East Idaho native who graduated from Idaho State University and works at a local credit union, said the council may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater on the billboard issue. And he says it’s an example of how the council hasn’t been transparent. He said not enough was done to get public comment sooner.
Zundel, who ran a business with his father for 30 years, has been to many cities. But says Pocatello has the greatest potential of any city he’s been in.
He says the billboard matter is a difficult issue. Businesses need to get their information out, but still preserve the aesthetics of the surrounding property.
On city water and sewer fees, an issue that predates the current mayor and council, Cheatum says any decisions are premature until a lower court, as directed by the Idaho Supreme Court, settles how much the city owes.
“There may need to be some hard decisions made to resolve this issue in the future, whenever we finally know what needs to be done,” Cheatum said. “But I’m confident that those right decisions will be made.”
Choudhury said he would need to get into the issue more to better understand how it happened, then communicate to the public on where it’s at and what best to do.
Conway said more diligence from the City Council and potential external auditing could have gone a long way to prevent the problem. But that didn’t happen.
“We now have a problem, we need to make it the highest priority to rectify this with the citizens,” Conway said.
Zundel believes the court decision is wrong. He says it should be appealed.
Cheatum says he has a friend knowledgeable in city finances who says that many other places do what Pocatello did and it’s legal. Cheatum says the issue may be something for the Idaho Legislature to address.
On the Siphon exchange and Northgate project, Cheatum said he’s sure there were nondisclosure agreements signed that limited information that was released. The agreements protect potential businesses from seeing property prices skyrocket.
“I think as soon as this becomes a little more firm, we will hear when the timing is right,” he said.
Choudhury said the project will benefit the community, though he would have liked to have known a little more. But it can help keep ISU graduates in the community. He says 70 percent of ISU graduates now end up leaving the city for jobs.
“We are expecting a lot of good jobs coming in,” Choudhury said.
Conway said it’s good that there are potentially going to be more people coming into Pocatello with the Northgate project. But the city should first focus on the people who are already here. He says there’s been a lack of transparency.
“The citizens … should be part of the decision-making process on any of these kinds of big decisions,” Conway said. “They were not involved.”
Zundel said it’s important to look at the project from an economic point of view rather than an accounting view. There’s a cost, but it will be more than repaid.
“As you look through an economic view you can see the process farther down the line and the growth that will happen,” Zundel said.
But Conway takes issue with what he says is the lack of information.
“It’s not about what sort of growth this project is going to be brought here,” he said. “The question is about being dismissive of public input.”
He says a confidentiality agreement between the city and the developer can be problematic.
“That lends itself to forgetting where this money came from,” Conway said. “Tax dollars raised from the public should not be spent in private. You should have at least had the knowledge of where your funds were going before they were committed, if not having input on it.”
Other council candidates attending the forum were Seat 4 incumbent Heidi Adamson and challenger Danny Wells, and Seat 5 incumbent Michael Orr and challenger Linda Leeuwrik.
Video of the forum is available online at http://bit.ly/2xPTRiQ.
Early voting for the Pocatello mayoral race opens Oct. 10 and closes Nov. 3. The elections office is open from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Election day is Nov. 7 and polling locations are open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.