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Incumbent Austin Robinson and candidates JoAnna Ashley, Paige Byram running for Soda Springs mayor

East Idaho Elects

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SODA SPRINGS — Incumbent mayor Austin Robinson has two challengers in Soda Springs. Robinson, finishing his first term as mayor, is running against JoAnna Ashley and Paige Byram.

EastIdahoNews.com attempted several times to receive a completed questionnaire from Robinson but did not get one.

To learn more about the candidate’s platform, EastIdahoNews.com sent the same eight questions to each one. Their responses are listed below, were required to be 250 words or less, and were only edited for length and minor punctuation and grammar.

Elections are on Tuesday, Nov. 2.

Tell us about yourself — include information about your family, career, education, volunteer work and any prior experience in public office.

Ashley: I was born in Pocatello and have lived all but seven and a half years of my life in Southeast Idaho; Soda Springs has been my home for 15 and a half years. I have been married to my husband, Adam Ashley for 15 years, and we have two children, a daughter and son. We love spending time together outdoors, working on projects, movie nights, having fun, and laughing together. I personally enjoy puzzles, reading, playing the piano, exploring new places and playing card and board games.

Over the past seven years, I have worked for the City of Soda Springs and Caribou County in the capacity of planning and zoning, community development, public relations, and grant writing. I served on the Soda Springs Education Foundation board for three years and have been an active board member of the Caribou Memorial Hospital for the past five years. I regularly volunteer with local organizations and non-profits for community projects and events.

I worked as a 911 dispatcher, developmental therapist, office manager and trainer for a developmental disabilities agency and was a small business owner for four years. I have formally received education and training in leadership and workplace management, community development and planning, land use laws, strategic planning, grant writing, small business management, online marketing/branding, public relations and communication, and GIS mapping.

Byram: My name is Paige Byram, and I love Soda Springs. I have lived in this amazing community for 10 years and am a business owner. For the past decade, I have owned and helped operate three local businesses. I have been an active member of the Chamber of Commerce. I host many local fundraisers through my business and, last year, I started Project Cereal Drop, which collected 1,200 boxes of cereal from the local community to send home with each elementary and middle school student in Caribou County over the Christmas break. I hope to continue this awesome tradition. I have three teenagers and have been married for 19 years. I am active in my church and volunteer my time with the youth. I went to college in Rexburg, Idaho.

What are your proudest accomplishments in your personal life or career?

Ashley: In my personal life my greatest accomplishments include being a wife and mother, but also making a positive impact on the people around me and being an influence for change.

In my career, my greatest accomplishments include bringing the citizens and business owners of Soda Springs together to update the City’s Comprehensive Plan that was adopted in 2020. Presently I am the Planning & Zoning Administrator for Caribou County and I have led the County in rewriting the land-use portions of our code as well as getting the entirety of the County’s ordinances updated and codified. Codification has made the County’s laws easily accessible and available to all the citizens of Caribou County. Additionally, I built the Planning & Zoning Department from scratch and today the County’s building and planning process is streamlined and easy for the public to get information and turn in applications. In both of my positions, at the City and County, my greatest accomplishments have been getting to know the residents and building relationships based on clear communication, integrity and transparency; listening to their concerns and finding solutions that improve the quality of life for all.

Byram: My proudest accomplishment in my career has been opening my business, Soda Sip, and working to make it a success. It started with an idea for a local soda and coffee shop. I loved building it from the ground up and making it a part of the Soda Springs community. Its success has given me the opportunity to give back by providing fundraisers for local families in need, donations to schools, sporting events, holding holiday events such as Easter egg hunts, donating to the local fair and so much more.

What are the greatest challenges facing your community?

Ashley:

  1. Infrastructure. The City’s infrastructure is aging and experiencing regular occurrences of failure that have to be urgently repaired. Further with the need for additional housing and growth in the community there is vagueness around what our systems can add and sustain.
  2. Strategic and operations planning. The City does not have in place any strategic or short-range planning to clearly define the action steps to address the major issues facing our community and to prevent future issues. Additionally, it does not have an operations plan for each department which has led to disruptions in workflow as employees have retired, resigned, been absent due to illness or other life events.
  3. The need for housing, businesses and managing the growth. This challenge is multifaceted as it’s not just about physically getting more houses and businesses in the community and sustaining them. It is also the question of how to preserve the Soda Springs way of life and culture as new residences and businesses come into our community.
  4. The City’s relationship with citizens and businesses. Over the past seven years, I have attended several community input meetings and continually there is frustration and disappointment expressed by citizens and business owners that the City is “difficult to work with,” “hostile,” and “creates red tape.” The City government is the central hub to the success of the community and a good relationship, clear communication and transparency as well as collaboration is crucial to the success of our community.

Byram: I feel the greatest challenge facing our community is a lack of housing growth. We need to begin updating the city codes to help with growth and development. We have adopted building codes from previous years because of convenience, but updating to get compliant with current times is important. We talk about growth in our community. We are one of the only areas in South East Idaho not growing. We need to take action on our own local guidelines and see where we could change things to make better decisions to fit our local community. Invite Smart growth that enhances business opportunity while protecting our way of life.

How is your experience better suited to dealing with these unique challenges than your competitor(s)?

Ashley: Being a part of the Idaho Chapter of the American Planning Association and several other local and regional planning initiatives places me in a position to be aware of the current challenges facing our community and what we must prepare for such as housing shortages and the need for retaining existing business and adding more. Additionally, my formal training in Strategic and Operations Planning gives me the knowledge to step in and build these plans for our City in an efficient and effective manner.

In regards to the City’s infrastructure, I have seven years of history for past infrastructure projects. I also have good relationships with past and present employees who have spent decades working on the infrastructure of the City and informed me of the challenges we face. I am also an experienced grant water and have built rapport and relationships with key people at a variety of Federal, State and regional agencies which the City can seek funding and technical assistance from.

My experience and training as a leader provides me with several tools, resources and approaches to serve the citizens and the City employees well. The core success of any organization and community is strong leadership and follow through, which I have.

My formal background in communication and public relations has made me comfortable and competent in communicating with citizens, and sharing information in mediums that are available to all; as well as being diplomatic and effective in deescalating situations and finding solutions.

Byram: I feel that I have the leadership skills we need to lead our city. Our city claims to support local businesses, but once they are up and running businesses have no support. Asking businesses for money to fund city projects seems like the opposite of what should be happening. This needs to change. Local businesses are the backbone of this community. We need to learn to work together and to help support each other, and plan and carry out a comprehensive plan for the future of the city.

How will you best represent the views of your constituents – even those with differing political views?

Ashley: In my perspective, being elected mayor means I must represent the views and concerns of all the citizens of Soda Springs. I do not believe the position of Mayor should be partisan in any fashion. Holding this position means I must be proactive in listening to the concerns of citizens, formulating solutions to address them and having transparency regarding the decisions made by myself and the City Council. I plan to provide quarterly mayor letters that provide the citizens with an overview of the current plan, actions that are being taken on behalf of the City, as well as to inform them what options the City is considering to resolve issues. These letters will be distributed via the City’s social media and website as well as in the local newspaper. I also plan to actively promote the use of the City’s “Citizen Concern” portal on the website as a way for citizens to easily submit their concerns and have them followed up with.

Additionally, I believe education is key to having an informed community and best representing the citizens’ views. I plan to provide overviews of:

  • The City’s budget and budget process.
  • Quasi-judicial process which is utilized when applications for land use variances conditional uses, amendments and subdivisions are being considered.
  • Legislative process which is utilized to change the ordinances or laws governing the City.
  • Inform the citizens on the state of our City’s infrastructure, growth opportunities and the challenges we are facing.

Byram: I want community members to feel like my door is always open. I believe in this community and look forward to working alongside all community members for a better Soda Springs.

What are your views regarding the role of the media in covering your city? How can you best work with local reporters to ensure coverage of the issues?

Ashley: I have to give accolades to our local newspaper, the Caribou County Sun. Mr. Mark Steele, owner of The Sun, and his staff do a fantastic job of providing information on the happenings in our community and the decisions and actions of local government in his newspaper every week.

As for utilizing other media sources, I believe the City must work with any news/media entities that cover our area. Transparency is key and I believe the City should form an easy and trusted relationship with local media so that the facts and information are presented to the community unbiasedly and in a timely fashion.

Byram: We have a local newspaper, The Caribou County Sun, that comes out once a week. We always welcome media to help promote our community. I think communication is key to any issue. We need to open the lines of communication and keep everyone involved and up to date.

What measures, if any, do you believe your city should implement amid continued COVID-19 concerns?

Ashley: I believe that local governments have a responsibility to operate within the bounds of the United States Constitution. As a local government, it is within the City’s responsibility to provide information to the public regarding COVID-19 as published by official State and Federal agencies, but ultimately decisions regarding health and preventative measures must be left to the individual.

Byram: I believe local government should let the health care experts take care of making medical decisions and then lend support when needed.

If you received a multimillion-dollar grant to use for the city in any way you wanted, what would you do with it and why?

Ashley: This question is difficult for me to answer due to the vagueness of the dollar amount of the grant; $2 million cannot accomplish near what $20 million can. I believe the City has needs which can be addressed in the bounds of the current budget and therefore are not listed in the priorities below. I would use the award to fund the priorities which may be difficult or near impossible to fund within the bounds of the City’s current budget:

  1. Fund the studies and research required to create a total infrastructure improvement and expansion plan for streets, electrical, sewer, water and stormwater systems. 
  2. Replace the infrastructure and provide extensions at key determined points of the City and expand current systems to accommodate for growth.
  3. Pursue a multi-use community facility that would address the City’s current needs of a new fire station, recreational facility, and large gathering area.
  4. Expand the City’s connectivity for pedestrians, bicyclists and increased handicap accessibility.

Byram: If I received a multimillion-dollar grant I would work to improve the water/sewer system in Soda Springs. This project would consist of mapping out water and sewer lines, knowing where we need to repair, and keeping things updated and maintained. From personal experience, I have found that our city needs improvement with underground mapping. With current technology, we have the ability to track and map out what is extremely important to the safety and health of each person in this city. With this we would have the knowledge where we need larger water lines, to give access to new developments to grow in and around our community.

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