‘It’s like North Korea in there.’ Council members raise concern over how Pocatello is being governed
POCATELLO — “It’s like North Korea in there.”
That is how Pocatello City Council member Claudia Ortega described the city’s operations.
Everything, from council’s agenda items to simple conversation among council members with city departments, must make it past Mayor Brian Blad’s desk, Ortega said. And that has created a rift down the center of the council.
On one side, council members Ortega, Christine Stevens and Roger Bray say a communication breakdown between them and Blad has made their daily duties difficult.
On the other, council chair Heidi Adamson and members Linda Leeuwrik and Rick Cheatum have worked with Blad for years and have a productive working relationship.
Many recent votes have been split down that line, with Blad serving as the deciding vote.
This type of decision-making leaves Blad with ultimate ruling power, but the three-term mayor is not supportive of the process.
“It is bad for economic development, it is bad for morale. The look of the city is very bad when you have a council that is split the way we (are) and continue to bicker back and forth,” he said. “It definitely sends mixed messages to employees when it is very adversarial the way it has been the last year-and-a-half.”
Asked her take on the idea of there being two separate factions within the council, Adamson told EastidahoNews.com that she believes there to be one faction — consisting of Bray, Ortega and Stevens — working against the council.
“There is only one faction, or coalition, that has been exceptionally critical of our city and has chosen to distance themselves from everybody else,” she said. “The remaining council members, as well as the city employees, the mayor, and other local officials, are just trying to carry on in spite of the coalition’s negativity. The coalition tries to paint an ‘us versus them’ picture. In reality, most of us don’t want a feud, we want to work together and move our community forward.”
Stevens argues that due to years of conditioning, the council has grown accustomed to serving the mayor rather than alongside the mayor for the residents. It has created a zero-sum balance, she said, in which the entire council believes it must take in order to keep from giving, rather than an opportunity to work together for the good of the city.
Like most disagreements, both sides of the council chambers believe it is serving the best interest of the city.
But the problem goes further, according to Ortega.
Blad will not allow useful and meaningful discussions to even reach the council, she told EastIdahoNews.com.
The mayor controls all potential agenda items and whether or not they reach the council, rather than presenting potential agenda items to the council for a vote. And when requests are made by her, Stevens or Bray, Ortega said, the response has been “I will add it to the list” — a list of things “as long as Santa’s list” that should at least be discussed but has never seen the light of day, according to Ortega.
“People are asking us why we can’t get things done. One of the primary reasons we can’t get things done is, essentially, Brian Blad has a stranglehold on the city,” Ortega said. “There’s something wrong with a system where one person — there are no checks and balances in this town — one person controls everything.”
Blad agreed that there have been requests made that did not reach the agenda. The reason, he said, is to streamline the process. Before items can even be considered for the council’s agenda, there must be due diligence shown — which he said is not always the case.
“If it’s not the right time, and we’re not able to give the right credence, if you will, then it’s not going to be on the agenda until we have the opportunity,” he said.
But Ortega argues that requests to follow through with proper research have also been shot down.
During budget discussions, Ortega requested city staff compensation information in order to research possible jobs cuts proposals. She says the request was treated as a jobs cut request and was denied.
This, Ortega believes, is another example of Blad’s belief that he is the end-all, be-all ruler that has forced her to liken the city’s operation to the communist dictatorship of Kim Jung-Un.
“Since Brian Blad has been mayor, for almost 12 years now, past councils have abdicated their responsibilities to him,” she said. “So now, the culture in city hall is, everybody works for the mayor.”
Even discussions between council members and city department heads, Ortega said, has grown into a dilemma. According to Ortega and Stevens, conversations with departments heads must be reported to the mayor.
Blad explained this is merely him protecting the staff. In his role as mayor, Blad said it is his responsibility to manage all day-to-day operations within the city — not the council’s. This means that he must be allowed to process any requests made from the council to staff, in order to assure that following those requests does not go against city, and his, guides.
Adamson believes the council, throughout her tenure, has worked together, professionally and respectfully.
“I’ve been on the council for five years and worked with ten different council members during that time,” she said. “Prior to the coalition of Stevens, Ortega and Bray, the council functioned together as a body. We were united in our efforts to serve the community, despite our diverse and varying opinions. I have always considered my colleagues on the City Council to be my friends, so it has been really disheartening to see drama and contention arrive in our city government.”
The Pocatello City Council’s next scheduled meeting is Tuesday at 1 p.m. when it will discuss whether or not to implement another mask ordinance.