By TOM HASSLINGER
COEUR d’ALENE — The city’s legal team says it fits within the letter of the law, and the election winners say it’s why they were voted in.
If the proposed McEuen Field redevelopment project was the biggest city issue in 2011, it could be again in 2012, as Tuesday’s City Council victors said putting the park’s conceptual plan to a public vote — in one fashion or another — will be a first topic of business come January.
The election results, they said Wednesday, don’t lie.
“Last night the people said, ‘We want a public vote,’” said Ron Edinger, the lone council opponent of the park plan and only incumbent who retained his seat Tuesday. “No question in my mind. The people spoke.”
But what question or questions a ballot asks voters when deciding the park’s fate still has to be worked out — assuming the issue gets that far. The current administration has already said it doesn’t favor putting the issue to an advisory vote, and if current positions hold, it would leave Mayor Sandi Bloem as the deciding vote.
Bloem said Wednesday that she still feels the same way.
“I have not changed my mind that a public vote is good for planning a park,” she said. “I don’t think it is.”
She also maintained that Tuesday night’s winners — which landed challengers and public-vote supporters Dan Gookin and Steve Adams in office for the first time along with Edinger — shouldn’t be viewed as a direct result of their McEuen Field stances.
She said it had more to do with the partisan support Republicans Gookin and Adams received from their political supporters, the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans, in the nonpartisan races. The political group supported seven candidates across four municipalities and all seven won. Adams and Gookin were only two of those.
That being said, the discussion should be heading the council’s way in January, when the council-elects are sworn in.
Bloem said she welcomes the discussion.
“I don’t have any idea what the motion would be,” she said. But “I’m always willing to hear the motion and to listen to the debate.”
Edinger has made a motion for a public advisory vote several times. He has never received a second on those motions, thereby killing the topic. If Edinger receives a second, which he should in 2012, it would allow the council to discuss the issue.
An advisory vote is a non-binding vote, essentially a poll of the public’s will the council could use to consider when weighing the park’s future.
It’s a step a city can make legally, City Attorney Mike Gridley said. The conceptual plan is still a plan, and no contracts with a third party are in place to begin turning dirt, so potentially breaching a legal document wouldn’t be an issue.
So what could an advisory vote look like?
Gookin said Wednesday he would like to see the three most polarizing aspects of the park put to an up or down vote.
Those are: Should the baseball fields stay or go? Should the boat ramp stay or go? Should Lake City Development Corp., the city’s urban renewal agency, put in the parking garage underneath Front Avenue (with an estimated price attached)?
“The bottom line is it’s just information,” he said about the results of the hypothetical ballot.
And that’s just one possibility, he added. They could also vote on previous plans that have been drawn up through the years. The citizen-comprised Committee of 9 drew a plan up about a decade ago, for example.
Adams said Wednesday his initial thought is to put the current conceptual plan, which could cost up to $39 million when replacement facilities are included and take decades to fully build out, to an up or down advisory vote.
“If they say they like it, I would stand by the voters’ decision to stand by the plan,” Adams said.
Edinger said he’s unsure of what a ballot would entail. It needs to be vetted at the council level and go from there, he said Wednesday.
Edinger’s race could be the bellwether of how voters felt about McEuen Field. The lone councilman to go against the plan, he ran against Adam Graves, who didn’t favor a public vote. Yet Edinger, public servant for 40-plus years, sided with the city on many other issues during the campaign, including employee pay. He received the most votes of any candidate, and took in 72 percent of the total for seat 1.
“I would think the council, after Jan. 1, I would think the council would look at it,” he said of the voting option.
Meanwhile, the park plan is moving forward, although estimated timelines couldn’t be nailed down Wednesday. Bloem said the city is discussing with Idaho Transportation Department officials about locating a replacement boat launch near Silver Beach — a requirement from an equal or better pledge the city promised for all replacement facilities that would leave McEuen Field.
It wouldn’t be paid for out of city coffers, she said.
The city engaged in more detailed studies, such as topography work, with the park designers earlier this year. In addition, it earmarked money in its fiscal year 2012 plan to go to land acquisition near Cherry Hill Park for a possible spot to put a state-of-the-art baseball facility.
Whichever way it turns, the highly political, seemingly split issue could put pressure on those who decide, even those who already made their decision, like Councilman Woody McEvers.
As the plan was up for adoption by City Council on May 24 at Woodland Middle School, the audience, many of whom waved signs calling for a public vote, shouted out to McEvers to second Edinger’s motion for a vote.
“That was brutal,” said McEvers, who didn’t second the motion and instead voted to approve the plan. “It was the most uncomfortable thing I can recall. You’re up there trying to do your best, you know?”
While citizens may contact McEvers, Gookin said he would keep discussion at the council level, in public view, while Bloem said McEvers has a track record of listening to both sides of a debate and deciding what’s best from there.
“I like to hear both sides. Let’s talk about it,” McEvers said, adding he hadn’t be contacted about McEuen on Wednesday. “There are some new voices, some new opinions — that’s good. That’s what makes the job interesting. Everyone gets one vote; that’s what it comes down to.”