Ketchum Votes on Big Change

Nov 2, 2011

Ketchum, ID - Many cities around Idaho hold mayoral elections next Tuesday. But one community will vote on whether to have a mayor at all. There’s an initiative on the ballot in Ketchum that would switch the local government to a city manager system.

Ketchum city council hopeful Mickey Garcia tries to ease the tension at a recent candidate forum with a joke.

Mickey Garcia “Welcome to fear and loathing in politics Ketchum style.”

Loathing may be too strong a word for the eleven people crowded hip to hip on the stage of Ketchum’s community theater. But…a woman in the audience whispers, “I can’t believe they made her sit by him.” Each candidate lists pros or cons of having a city manager instead of a mayor. If voters say yes to the manager system, then the five candidates who get the most votes November 8th become Ketchum’s government. Those councilors then hire a manager to run the town’s daily operations. There could also be a mayor although the duties would largely be ceremonial. Supporters say the system will make Ketchum less politicized. Opponents translate that as less democratic. Supporters say it works better.

Anne Corrock “I don’t think you could ever find a mayor who would be as qualified as a paid, educated, skilled city manager.”

Anne Corrock started the petition to put the initiative on the ballot. She and her committee have blanketed the town with vote yes signs. Corrock says having a city manager would save money by making things more efficient. But Ketchum’s city council president Larry Helzel says switching would cost more money. He says the city already has an administrator who’s very busy.

Larry Helzel “We are going to add to those responsibilities the 30 or so hours a week that the mayor now spends running the city and that’s just impossible. The whole city would blow up it’s just too big of a job for one person. So we’re going to hire additional staff, staff that we don’t need now.”

The current city administrator is Gary Marks. Helzel and Corrock think if voters approve a city manager led government Marks will get the job. He seems to be the only person in this debate everyone likes. From the coffee shop where Helzel sits, two vote no signs are visible. They’re all over town. Helzel explains who’s responsible for those.

Larry Helzel “Representatives from WREP, the Wood River Economic Partnership, people from the hotel development area. Some of the incumbents are advising them.”

Helzel describes the current city government as pro-business. After losing several development prospects in the economic downturn they’ve struck a deal with developers to build a new luxury hotel called the Bald Mountain Lodge. It’s in limbo right now. The developers have said in local newspaper articles they’re concerned about any big changes to Ketchum’s government.  Anne Corrock says she doesn’t like the way the city has dealt with the developers. Neither does Ed Simon. The former Ketchum mayor works with Corrock on her effort to change city government. Simon rattles off council decisions he says citizens don’t like. It starts with leasing city property to Starbucks and ends with…hotel developments.

Ed Simon “People were unhappy, and there’s been a sentiment that when the public goes to a city council meeting that the decision has already been made.”

Council president Larry Helzel says he knows about the discontent.

Larry Helzel “There are a number of people in town who object to some of the policies of this particular mayor and council over the last four years. How policy is made is not an issue of the form of government. Policy is made by people.”

The day of the candidate forum the local paper, the Idaho Mountain Express, published an op-ed from Jack Bariteau. He’s the project developer of the Bald Mountain Lodge. He blasted Simon and Corrock in the op-ed. He says the change of government proposal is a veiled attempt to recall the mayor and council. Larry Helzel agrees.

Larry Helzel “The people responsible for getting this on the ballot are people who have been unsuccessful in recent elections. And so I think part of it is they feel that in a whole sale deal where you’re going to have a ballot that says there’s 13 candidates and vote for five that they would have a better chance.”

There are 13 names on the ballot including the mayor, incumbent councilors and challengers. Anne Corrock has run unsuccessfully for city council a couple of times. 

Anne Corrock “Would I like to serve my community? Absolutely, and you know I’m serving it in a different way right now.  So no it’s not sour grapes. I don’t carry that kind of a grudge.”

Corrock isn’t running this time around. Ed Simon isn’t either.

Ed Simon “If the election chooses the five incumbents and the initiative is passed, we still believe we’ll have a better and more effective government.”

If voters turn down the idea for a city manager form of government …nothing happens. The current government stays in place. But the initiative has shaken up what would otherwise be a normal election year. Two council seats would have been on the ballot this time around. Now  there’ll be a special election next spring for those seats if the change in government doesn’t happen.

McCall, Lewiston and Twin Falls already have city managers. Twin Falls has had the system since 1950.