Oct. 24—The three men aiming to become Lewiston's first strong mayor in nearly five decades are in the odd position of running for a position that doesn't even exist.
But if a majority of Lewiston voters mark "no" on Proposition 1 in the Nov. 2 election, the city will shelve its council-city manager form of government, and Bob Blakey, Wilson Boots or Dan Johnson will assume the newly created office. If none of the candidates wins a majority of votes, the top two will head to a December runoff.
Blakey actually opposes a switch to the strong mayor form, which is popular in Idaho cities but less so around the rest of the country.
"I'm very comfortable with the form of government we have," he said of the seven-member council, which hires a professional city manager to run daily operations. "But if the voters want to go in a different direction, in the last several weeks it's become very apparent that I am truly the only qualified candidate who understands what it takes to run a city, and what's involved with managing our budget."
Blakey also is running for a third term on the city council in the event voters retain the council-city manager form of government.
Boots said he was thrust into running by supporters of the switch to the strong mayor form. He first heard the pleas for him to run for city council, and then for mayor, as he helped the Lewiston SMART organization gather the signatures that put Proposition 1 on the ballot.
He first gained a following starting in the spring of 2020 for his advocacy against Idaho Gov. Brad Little's economic shutdown to help slow the spread of COVID-19, and gained steam with his opposition to the face mask mandate the city enacted for the same reason later that year.
"It was a watershed moment if we didn't stand up and stop the government overreach into our personal lives and onto businesses, picking winners and losers, with the small businesses and everyday people being the losers," Boots said of his initial involvement.
He has continued to crusade against all mandates, including the one for public employees in the state of Washington. The mandate will cost him his job as an instrument maker at Washington State University at the end of the month over his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine. He also has urged others to not get the shot.
"As we were concerned, it's not just masks," Boots said. "It wasn't just business shutdowns. Now we're looking at vaccine mandates. It's very real. It's not theoretical any more. It ought to scare the hell out of people."
He said that as mayor, he would pursue ordinances that would prohibit the city and its businesses from requiring masks or vaccines. Johnson also opposes mandates of any kind, mainly because of studies he's read that say they simply don't work.
"However, as mayor, I would certainly strive to provide a safe community, but also respect individual choice," Johnson said, adding that he wouldn't require masking or vaccines for city employees.
Blakey voted in favor of past mask mandates for the city, but said he would only support mandates in the future if they are also supported by counties, public health officials and the governor.
"We need the support of the whole team, so I'm no longer in favor of a mask mandate," he said, calling the division over such edicts too much of a distraction. "That battle has been lost in America. But I continue to recommend vaccines."
Both Blakey and Johnson called out Boots for his focus on mandates, saying they are more qualified to run the city.
"People forget, this election is not about vaccines and mandates," Johnson said. "This started before the pandemic. This is about trying to right-size our government and get leadership down (in City Hall) through an elected mayor."
Johnson said his 10 years as Lewiston's Republican senator in the state Legislature have given him those necessary qualifications. If elected, he first wants to gain a full understanding of the city's revenues before he asks the council for any drastic action on the budget. But once he does, he plans on helping councilors craft a budget that takes pressure off property taxpayers by going through, line by line, to find expenses to cut.
Boots blamed the city council for troubling economic signs like the closure of several department stores. He noted that such stores are opening in other locations. But city councilors have said national chains are making those decisions based on economic factors beyond their control, like the rise of internet shopping.
"The current city council has a lot of excuses," Boots said in response. "But we need to get out of the way of business. There's so much regulation, so much red tape."
He said people have complained to him about the problem on the campaign trail, including a couple who wanted to open a homeopathic clinic but couldn't afford upgrades required by building codes.
"It shouldn't have taken that much to do what they wanted to do," he said, adding that he's heard many people complain about the pace of and cost of building permit applications. "This is exactly the type of thing that makes it difficult for people to open businesses here."
Johnson said he's heard some of the same gripes, and thought a reallocation of resources to the city's Community Development Department might be worthwhile. He would limit budget growth by starting with a zero-based budget, instead of starting with last year's budget and tacking on items from there. But Blakey said those who claim they can examine a budget and start cutting expenses and property taxes will face a different reality once they try.
"Eighty percent of the budget goes to funding police and fire," he said, noting few people want to cut public safety budgets. "So with 20 percent of the budget left, there isn't much meat on the bone."
So he advocates a different approach to lowering the property tax burden. Lewiston took on all the responsibilities of government early in its history, before separate taxing districts became common. Blakey said the residents of Lewiston are now unfairly being charged twice through both city and county taxes that go to pay for things like the airport, law enforcement and road work.
"If you live in Peck, you pay once (for the airport) through county taxes," he said. "We pay for upkeep of county roads, but citizens of the county don't pay for upkeep of city roads. We pay for county police protection, but county residents don't pay for city police."
He advocated for the creation of taxing districts for expenses like libraries, parks and roads so county residents would pay a fair share.
"Over 80 percent of the population of the county lives in the city, and it's time the residents speak up and say, 'We're tired of carrying too much of the responsibility of providing services to the residents of the county,' " he said.
Those who visit Lewiston for its recreational opportunities and other reasons also should pay a greater share for the city's upkeep through a hospitality tax on hotel beds that could raise hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for things like parks and other enhancements that could attract further development, Blakey added.
Boots said he isn't fond of the city's Urban Renewal Agency, which diverts the taxes on new property values in its revenue allocation areas to specific infrastructure projects. He didn't outright advocate for its dissolution, but said a strong mayor would have greater influence over the agency and its direction.
Johnson said urban renewal can be a good tool if used properly on only infrastructure projects, not items like the public art the agency funded downtown a decade ago.
"You just have to maintain good review over the process, and things have to be very transparent," he said.
Blakey has been the city council's representative on the URA board for years, and wholeheartedly supports its mission.
"Cities and counties have so few tools to promote economic development," he said. "Counties can give tax exemptions to certain businesses for development purposes, and cities have URAs. It's a strong component for the growth of the city."
Boots urged voters to mark "no" on their ballots for Proposition 1, and called out his opponents for their years spent in elected office.
"Do they think two current failed politicians are going to fix the problems that they actually created?" he said. "I don't think so."
Both Johnson and Blakey fired back at the tenor of Boots' campaign.
"Wilson has made a lot of statements, and he's attacked my voting record in Boise," Johnson said, noting that he doesn't stoop to name calling. "He obviously has not studied the bills and doesn't understand the legislative process. I think the comments were made with the intention of misleading the voters. I think I'm a very credible person, and I think I've been very successful in the Legislature."
Blakey said he worries that the caustic climate that has emerged, most of it on social media, will discourage people from seeking to serve their communities in elected office.
"I think that platforms like Facebook and Twitter make it so easy to make baseless statements about one another that many times aren't factual," he said, calling the city far more successful than its detractors have portrayed on the internet. "And I don't hear that message at all. I just hear a message of hate. I don't see how any of that is good for the city of Lewiston."
Editor's note: The Lewiston Tribune's parent company, TPC Holdings (listed as Tribune Publishing Co. on the Idaho Secretary of State's website), donated $1,000 to the KEEP Lewiston campaign to retain the city manager form of government.
Mills may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2266.