Pocatello mayor and councilwoman butt heads over $18K custom cabinets, countertops
POCATELLO — An exchange between Pocatello mayor Brian Blad and councilwoman Claudia Ortega got a bit heated at last week’s council meeting.
The exchange began when Ortega declined to approve the city’s August expenditure report without discussion regarding a $9,000 purchase. The purchase was for custom cabinets and a custom granite countertop for the office of public works director Jeff Mansfield and did not include labor costs.
Ortega also brought into question a similar purchase that will be included in September’s report, which will provide Police Chief Roger Schei’s office with its own remodel.
“I can’t imagine that, if we’re looking at the same amount for both, we couldn’t find a better way to spend $18,000 for the benefit of the taxpayers,” Ortega told EastIdahoNews.com.
Eventually, the expenditure report was approved by Blad’s deciding vote, following a 3-3 council split. Blad offered an explanation.
“We went through the bidding process for the public works director’s stuff, and it made sense for the public to have that happen,” he said.
Then, as he and Ortega briefly exchanged barbs with greater intensity, Blad insinuated that Ortega and fellow Councilwoman Chris Stevens, who also took part in the discussion, were questioning the integrity of city staff.
“It’s offensive that we have the idea that we don’t follow the policies that are in hand,” Blad said. “They’ve been there for decades. We have followed them very, very good.”
Speaking with EastIdahoNews.com over the phone, Ortega insisted that her efforts to force the discussion were in no way questioning the integrity of any city employee.
“I’m not questioning the integrity of the employees. I’m questioning the judgment of two department heads,” she said.
In particular, she added, when the department head in question is responsible for so much of the city. Mansfield, Ortega said, oversees the city’s streets, sanitation, fleet and science and water departments.
“When somebody who’s got that much responsibility shows a lapse in judgment, it’s to be called out,” she concluded.
During the exchange between Ortega and Blad, the councilwoman asked the mayor if he approved the purchase of the custom cabinets and countertop. He declined to answer.
Stevens, like Ortega, persisted, saying that the discussion deserved to be had, and shared, both live and through recording, with city residents.
“For me,” she said, “this is also an issue of transparency because this is public money, and I believe deeply that the public deserves to understand and have faith in our city financial policy and procedures.”
But Blad shut down Stevens. He refused to give her the floor and instead moved to the next agenda item.
Ortega also raised questions about some other purchases included in the report.
According to Ortega, among the purchases listed in the report were around $21,000 in Amazon receipts, about $6,000 of which did not included descriptors.
She had no issue with city employees making necessary purchases, Ortega said, but in the name of transparency, all purchases made with tax dollars should be itemized, she said.
Ortega emphasized to EastIdahoNews.com that her issue is not with the integrity of the city employees but with the policies as they are written — sort of.
The city employee handbook, she said, includes two mentions of a purchase card (P Card) policy all cardholders must sign. But no one is able to provide that policy to her. She had requested the policy in the past, but those requests have been met with accusations of micromanagement, she said.
What Ortega has gathered is that city employees are allowed to make purchases up to $50,000 without approval. Her past requests to lower that mark has been met with similar accusations.
“I think it’s irresponsible, and I think it’s inconsiderate (to taxpayers),” she said.