It’s been 20 years since the last attempt, but a new group has officially launched an effort to change the city of Lewiston’s form of government.
The group calls itself SMART (for Strong, Mayor, Accountable to voters, Responsive to the people, Taxpayers have a voice). And as the name suggests, it wants Lewiston voters to ditch the city’s longstanding council-manager form of government — where the city council appoints a professional administrator to manage the city — for the “strong mayor” model in use by most Idaho cities where an elected mayor is the chief administrator.
According to a news release, the group is the creation of Rick Eldridge, Ada Eldridge, Maureen Anderson and former Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport Authority Board member Joe Gish.
City Attorney Jana Gomez said the group has submitted the 20 signatures necessary for her office to issue titles for a ballot initiative and allow the circulation of petitions to put the initiative on the Nov. 2 municipal election ballot.
According to Idaho election law, SMART will need to gather 815 signatures to qualify for the ballot, a number equal to 20 percent of the voter turnout (4,074) for the last municipal election in 2019. The group has until April 30 to collect the signatures, and a simple majority is required for passage.
City Councilor John Bradbury won his seat in that election, and his platform included the strong mayor switch. He has complained frequently that appointed City Manager Alan Nygaard is driving the agenda, not the elected members of the city council.
“The person responsible for formulating the city budget should have to answer to the people who pay for that budget,” Bradbury said, adding that an elected mayor is directly accountable to voters.
Bradbury was the spokesperson for the last effort to change Lewiston’s form of government in 2001. That attempt went down to defeat, with nearly 61 percent of voters choosing to retain the council-manager form of government. Voters also nixed a 1998 attempt by a closer margin, with almost 56 percent supporting the council-manager form of government.
Critics of the 2001 initiative said it was a thinly veiled personal attack on then-City Manager Jan Vassar. Nygaard has also borne the brunt of many slings and arrows cast by dozens of city residents, many of them rankled by the coronavirus mask mandate approved by the city council. But Bradbury asked that supporters of the strong mayor switch refrain from directing their ire at Nygaard.
“I don’t want it to be a matter of personality,” he said. “Alan Nygaard is doing what a majority of the city council wants him to do. I don’t blame him personally. I blame the system.”
He added that any personal attacks will detract from the quality of the group’s campaign.
As in 2001 and earlier efforts, there is uncertainty about how to move forward if the initiative does pass. Gomez said city and county staff have discussed that possibility, but won’t move forward with planning until the initiative does end up on the ballot.
“We are aware that the statutes are unclear, even silent, as to how the elections would occur,” she said of how and when a new mayor and council would be seated. “We know it’s something we need to work through, and we will do so if the petition garners sufficient signatures.”
According to its news release, SMART will be printing petitions and making them available to sign. It said voters will be able to learn more about the effort at future events and access more information at yet-to-be-released website. Information is also available by emailing Volunteers@LewistonSMART.org.
Mills may be contacted at email@example.com or at (208) 310-1901, ext. 2266.