Every so often, someone gets the inspiration to call for a constitutional convention as a panacea for what ails this country.
It never gets very far because people quickly realize the high-risk, low-reward equation that would result from radically changing the nation’s political DNA. Want to achieve some elusive policy goal such as reining in government spending? Is it worth risking eliminating the Electoral College or erasing the Second Amendment?
That same kind of extreme choice confronts Lewiston voters on Nov. 2.
On the ballot are these revolutionary questions: Shall the community not only replace its city manager with an elected executive — or “strong mayor”? Who should that individual be? And should the voters elect an entirely new slate of six city councilors?
It’s a certain recipe for disruption, all but assuring the removal of City Manager Alan Nygaard and some of his administrative team.
It invites chaos as the newly elected and untested leadership struggles to acclimate itself to operating the equivalent of a mid-sized corporation.
And it undermines continuity at a most sensitive time — as Lewiston advances its multimillion-dollar efforts to upgrade and replace critical wastewater treatment and water plants.
And for what?
If voters are unhappy with policies or personalities, why are they being told the remedy involves changing the process?
For instance, much of the emotional energy behind this campaign seems to stem from the city’s decision last year to impose a face mask mandate in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But a strong mayor system would not preclude such a policy. Quite the contrary. In contrast to Lewiston, where it required a majority of councilors before Nygaard was authorized to impose the mandate, a strong mayor could simply act on his own. Such was the case in Boise, Moscow, Bellevue, Driggs, Sandpoint and Hailey.
Behind this drive is a well-found frustration that Lewiston is falling behind. In the last decade, the community recorded a comparatively anemic 3.4 percent growth, compared to a statewide average of 17.3 percent.
But operating under a city manager system was no detriment to McCall, which expanded by 29.4 percent during the past decade. Nor did a city manager hold back Twin Falls, which grew nearly 16 percent in the same time.
No mayor can magically alter Lewiston’s geographic isolation, its lack of access to a modern, Interstate highway system or the clouds of uncertainly surrounding the four lower Snake River dams.
No mayor can reverse the advance in online shopping that has closed so many of Lewiston’s brick and mortar retailers.
Advocates of a strong mayor system complain about property taxes at a time when inertia within the Idaho Legislature hamstrings the ability of local officials to act. As far as the dramatic increases in sewer and water fees, that’s a city council, not executive, decision. Moreover, voters overwhelmingly approved the concept two years ago.
Antipathy toward Nygaard is another gripe. But that’s the kind of argument you’ll hear from a limited group of community elites who operate in or near the city orbit. Here’s betting most people in Lewiston wouldn’t recognize Nygaard if they bumped into him at the grocery store.
In any event, so-called “unresponsive,” “high-priced” or “unelected” administrators inhabit city governments, regardless of whether they’re headed by a manager or a mayor. But in the case of the latter, you’re not only paying for the elected leadership, but also the professional talent that surrounds him. By and large, this team — usually a troika of an administrator/finance director, a public works director and a city attorney — operates behind the scenes and remains entrenched. They remain, regardless of public opinion and who comes and goes as the mayor.
If what you desire is a change in taxes, zoning, community development or the local economy, then you’re being asked to apply the wrong tool: Replace your elected representatives.
Rebooting Lewiston’s form of government won’t get you what you want. But it is likely to get you something that you don’t. — M.T.