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Local mayors oppose Ehardt bill aimed at reducing power of cities to enforce ordinances

Politics

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EastIdahoNews.com file photo

Editors Note: This story has been updated to include quotes from Rep. Barbra Ehardt from a Friday interview with EastIdahoNews.com

BOISE — Mayors from three of eastern Idaho’s largest cities have concerns over a bill that aims to take away power from local governments.

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, introduced House Bill 197 last week, which would amend a state law that allows counties and cities to create consequences for violations of local ordinances. Currently, cities and counties can charge ordinance violators with a misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to $1,000 in fines, and/or six months in county jail.

Ehardt’s bill — if passed — would eliminate counties and cities’ ability to send ordinance violators to jail or give them a significant fine.

“Misdemeanors carry a criminal element and thus should only be created, outlined and implemented by the state,” the bill’s purpose statement reads.

Ehardt’s proposed amendments would set limits on fines on a scale depending on the frequency of the violation. Multiple offenses would be treated as infractions, which are essentially what law enforcement gives people when they are going a few miles over the speed limit. The maximum fine a local ordinance violation could hold would be $75.

“It’s the concept of what’s wrong and the ability to use force of government to go after people,” Ehardt said in an interview with EastIdahoNews.com on Friday. “When it has that ability then we better darn well ensure they were not being punitive in action and the things in which we hold our people accountable are the crime so to speak equals the punishment.”

The proposal has been met with stiff resistance from local municipal leaders.

“I can easily understand why Idaho’s municipalities and counties are very concerned about this bill,” Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper said. “Frankly, our residents should be concerned about this as well because it directly impacts our ability to protect them and to preserve their quality of life.”

Casper went on to explain having the ability to apply misdemeanor penalties for violations of the law ensures local governments can stop unsafe practices. Casper gave examples like keeping people from constructing poorly built and dangerous buildings, flushing harmful chemicals into the water or having adult businesses in residential neighborhoods.

“The bill is not well thought out and will have very harmful effects,” Casper said.

It’s not clear what motivated Ehardt to propose these amendments. However, one of the hallmarks of the 2021 legislative session has been fighting against restrictions put in place by local and state governments due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, one of the most controversial issues in Idaho was mask orders implemented by cities. In eastern Idaho, Pocatello, Driggs, and Victor passed local legislation that could punish people for not following the temporary mask mandates.

Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad, who pushed for the mask ordinance in his community, agrees with Casper.

“I am opposed to the bill because, as it is written, this bill would take away local control from local people,” Blad said. “This bill would also restrict our ability to enforce many of the ordinances that keep Pocatellans safe and help our citizens maintain a good quality of life. It would open a Pandora’s Box of potential problems for city governments and our residents.”

Ammon Mayor Sean Coletti has also been very outspoken against Ehardt’s bill. He took to Twitter and gave several examples of Ammon ordinances that can be punished with misdemeanors. Among them are tampering with the fire hydrants or irrigation system, and discharging a gun within city limits when not in self-defense.

“I’m looking at the civil rights,” Ehardt said about the legislation. “Were literally looking at the rights of the people and not have them infringed upon the government.”

For the moment, the bill has remained in the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration committee awaiting a hearing. It would need to be approved by that committee before it could be seen by the full House or Senate.

To learn more about House Bill 197, click here.

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