Rebekah Sorensen, Marc Beitia facing off in unique American Falls mayoral race
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AMERICAN FALLS — Marc Beitia was elected for his third term as mayor of American Falls in 2017.
But he stepped down midway through that term, in July 2020, at which time Rebekah Sorensen, who had been serving her first term as a city councilmember, was named interim mayor and finished the term.
As she runs for re-election, Sorensen will face a challenge from Beitia.
EastIdahoNews.com sent both candidates the same eight questions. To learn more about the candidates, read their unedited responses below — note: candidates were asked to keep their answers to 250 words or fewer for each question.
Tell us about yourself – include information about your family, career, education, volunteer work and any prior experience in public office.
SORENSEN: I am from Declo, Idaho and grew up immersed in the fine arts. I was raised performing and teaching piano, voice, and dance. I attended BYU before meeting my husband, Eric Sorensen, and transferring to Utah State. Go Aggies! Eric grew up in American Falls, and after we married and graduated from USU, we moved back. Twelve years later and we are still here and loving life. Our four kids keep us busy with piano and sports, and we also have a dozen cows, 4H sheep, and we farm and move handlines all summer. I make time to help others and volunteer in various capacities because I enjoy being a part of something much larger than myself. I joined City Council after my youngest child turned two years old, and I served for a whole six months before being appointed to Mayor of American Falls. So that escalated quickly! As Mayor for fifteen months, I have continued to gain knowledge and experience as I interact with the community and manage ten different city departments.
BEITIA: I have been in love with Sally my wife and best friend since 1973 and enjoy the company of combined families immensely. I graduated from high school as a Highland Ram in 1978. I worked my way through college and double majored at the University of Idaho in Range and Livestock Management and Agricultural Education in 1984. My first teaching position was at Raft River High School where I taught Ag Ed while coaching football and track. I completed my Masters in Agricultural Education in 1987.
Ron Funk, Klaren Koompin, Jim Tiede and Principal Pat Charlton hired me here in 1990 to start an Agriculture program and FFA Chapter. In 2006, former student, Amy Woodworth-Manning, suggested I run for City Council. My students will tell you I am a firm believer in community and public service; thus, I followed through with her suggestion. I was sworn into my first public office as a City Council member in January of 2007. Halfway through my second term, Mayor Manning moved to Pocatello with her husband. As Council President, I was appointed mayor to fill the vacancy. My first act as mayor was to appoint Maria Rangel to the City Council to fill my vacated position. In my term as mayor, I appointed two other Council members to positions, Susan Love and Blanca Mendez. In June of 2020, I was required to resign as mayor in order to receive my PERSI retirement as a teacher. I look forward to finishing what I started.
What are your proudest accomplishments in your personal life or career?
SORENSEN: Accomplishing difficult endeavors is so satisfying, whether it is racing in a triathlon, installing fiber broadband throughout the city, or fully updating the City Code book. A complete Code Book revision for American Falls is our most recent achievement, and I have led the City Council and superintendents over the last year to review and update over 300 pages. Much of the Code Book was outdated and some of it irrelevant, so now it better represents current and future American Falls and is ready for legal review and codification. I am proud of my time as Mayor of American Falls. It is demanding yet rewarding, I am wholly invested, and I am not done yet! Great things are happening in American Falls, and I want to see this momentum continue.
BEITIA: I am most proud of our three daughters, their independence, their families and the success they have earned in their chosen careers. Leona and Frances continue to call American Falls home as do their families. They are each contributing members in our community both professionally and through public service; no, I could not be prouder of either. Our youngest daughter, Suzanne, lives in Gilbert, AZ where she started her own business from scratch and has built it into one of the premier aesthetics spas in Scottsdale. Sally retired two years ago after working 42 years as a paralegal. She now enjoys being a full-time yoga instructor at James Barrett Fitness Fusion in Pocatello.
As a teacher, I am most proud of the Agricultural program and FFA Chapter we have built as a community. The program, FFA Chapter and its members are consistently recognized among the State’s and Nation’s very best. And, while I have been a part of that success it is largely due to the endless support of this community which has fostered equity and opportunity for all of our students. This program and chapter are a reflection of so many of you. I am so proud to be a part of it.
As a former City Councilperson and Mayor, I cannot look at our community and what we have chosen to accomplish and not be proud. I believe together we have indeed made American Falls the best place to live.
What are the greatest challenges facing your community?
SORENSEN: Our city has a list of challenges like high taxes and substance abuse, to name a couple. But a specific hurdle weighs heavily on my mind and is compounded with other factors. American Falls is facing serious water infrastructure problems. We have thirteen miles of deteriorating, inadequate, noncompliant water lines running under the city that need to be replaced. In addition, we have water-consumption concerns because our city uses more than twice the state average per capita. Both issues are coupled with the growth in population and business that seems to have only just begun. I am thrilled about expansion, but new homes and businesses need water, so this must be handled sooner than later.
This spring American Falls was awarded the title of Best Tasting Water in Idaho, and I plan to keep it that way. I currently head up a Water Working focus group to discuss the nuances and options, educate the public, and find solutions. We have made progress over the year, but we still have big decisions to make and a significant amount of work ahead. There is no easy (or cheap) answer to our water needs, but we will find the right fit in the best interest of the people of American Falls.
BEITIA: At the time of my required resignation as mayor, I was working with community members and City employees on a list of goals that were identified and outlined in the City’s Strategic Plan. Those unfinished goals are the sole reason I am seeking reelection. I grew up learning you finish what you start. I am a lifelong believer in that premise. My top 10 goals and priorities follow below:
• Be timely, open and transparent about City business and continue the Our City column.
• Maximize water conservation by the City.
• Modernize outdated water infrastructure.
• Continue to invest in our public spaces/parks and recreational opportunities for our youth.
• Meet the needs of our Police and Volunteer Fire Departments.
• Work with law enforcement, AF Schools, and other agencies to better address mental health.
• Maintain direct communication with Gov. Little, State and U.S. legislators to help secure funding for all critical infrastructure and programs.
• Continue work on the Ferry Hollow Trail.
• Work to maintain a competitive salary and benefit package for City employees.
• Ensure that the City meets demands for growth.
How is your experience better suited to dealing with these unique challenges than you competitor?
SORENSEN: Politicians are generally stereotyped as having rigid opinions and flexible morals. It is far better vice versa of rigid morals and flexible opinions. Running a city has no room for egos and obstinance. It is a group-effort, and my leadership yields results with unity, trust, and appreciation. I choose to look for the good and ground myself in hope. Twelve years of motherhood has taught me many lessons that shape my leadership style like optimism, empathy, compromise, calmness, and humor to help lessen the heavy load of life. Even amid COVID or fires and calamity, that is the time to buckle down and work together. Hysteria and anger help absolutely nothing. There is always a solution to be found. There is always someone to help. There is always someone to support and empower, and teamwork is key!
I possess a unique perspective by having been employed by the City of American Falls throughout summers between college semesters. I worked with Jeremy Peirsol in the Parks and Recreation department and developed pride in this beautiful town. I met the city employees and worked alongside the Street department as well. It was fascinating to see some of those inner workings of a municipality and understand the value of cooperating as a team. The team comprised of the city’s current superintendents and employees is amazing! I enjoy and trust them, and they are truly a pleasure to work with.
BEITIA: I am not running against Rebekah Sorenson. I am running so I can finish what I was not allowed to complete. I know my efforts as Mayor did not please everyone. That said, what we were able to accomplish as a City, I firmly believe made our community better. The challenges that face our community today are not going away and have to be addressed by the collective will of the people. A mayor, regardless of who it is, cannot do this by their self. The City Council cannot do it alone. The issues before us today will take the united effort of the community just like those that we faced in 2007 when I first began serving in public office. These collective efforts will not be easy and they will not be without cost. I would much rather prefer we choose, as a community, how to address the challenges rather than be told by another authority when and how we will do it and costing each of us more.
I welcome the possible opportunity to serve again and I am asking for your vote to help me do so.
How will you best represent the views of your constituents – even those with differing political views?
SORENSEN: I LISTEN to LEARN. I know that it is impossible to solve every single problem, but I continue to try. As Mayor, I have intentionally made space to listen to anyone that wants to speak with me about anything. It takes time, but every person needs to be heard and feel heard. I have and will continue to examine any suggestion, apprehension, complaint, and idea. A lot of these patient conversations have resulted in remarkable connections, resolutions, and widened my perspective. I tend lean to more right than left, but I strongly believe that “different” does not equal “wrong.” A city is conglomeration of differences, and every view is real and matters.
BEITIA: As a City Councilperson and Mayor, I would have discussions with folks with views and opinions 180 degrees from mine own. As elected public servants, we are supposed to represent the whole of who we serve not a select few. As a true servant of the public, one has no right to disregard opinions that differ from their own.
I was fortunate to serve on the City Council with both Dean Weaver and Stuart Pankratz. If asked, they will both tell you we did not always initially agree on a course of action, but through civil discourse and compromise, we reach conclusions that best served our community. As mayor, in times of a tie Council vote, I remember where I voted against my personal beliefs and supported the more publicly supported position; in two instances involving vicious dogs, one involving a zoning ordinance, and another dealing with smoking in City parks.
Last week, I stopped to talk to a gentleman who was working in his yard. He recognized me as a former mayor. To begin with, he didn’t have much good to say about what Mayor Manning or I had done in our time in office. As we kept talking, he expressed his views and frustrations with things the City had done and that I had supported. I explained why my positions had been what they were and we moved to the next topic. We parted by shaking hands. Discussions like this are essential to our community. I welcome them.
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?
SORENSEN: Our local paper is the Power County Press. I think they do a fantastic job with involvement in the community and being readily available to capture and share moments. I value their ease of accessibility when I need to provide clarity on a topic, publish announcements, or share an event. American Falls also receives coverage from other Pocatello news outlets on occasion, and those segments have been thorough and beneficial in reaching a larger audience. Regarding social media coverage, I recently started a City of American Falls Facebook page to instantly share information and connect with the locals through another source. The following grows daily, and the City Facebook page will continue to be an excellent way to instantly inform a diverse audience.
BEITIA: The Power County Press has always had access to me personally or via email and phone conversations since I started teaching in American Falls in 1990. That same access was given while I was in public office. As mayor, I wrote a weekly column, Our City, that was published in the Press and occasionally in the Idaho State Journal. Daniel Moore of the Press regularly attends City Council meetings and most other public events and does a great job, when necessary, with follow up and clarifying questions. If it’s news and relevant to our community, it is in the Press.
I have enjoyed working with Daniel Moore and Michael O’Donnell before him along with Brett Crompton the owner, editor and publisher of the Power County Press over the last 31 years. I am a firm believer in a free and independent press. As such, I would welcome any legitimate news organization to share and report on the happenings of our community.
What measures, if any, do you believe your city should implement amid continued COVID-19 concerns?
SORENSEN: Managing a city during COVID-19 has been quite a challenge, and the cases and concerns continue. We made many changes last year regarding telework, public broadband, improving technology, and upgrading areas of City Hall to reduce spread. We have employee policies in place and will continue to do so through the pandemic. I am vaccinated and encourage the employees and residents of American Falls to be wise, considerate, and do what is best for their families and neighbors. However, I will not impose a city-wide mask mandate.
BEITIA: When I was mayor, the City followed the guidelines of the CDC, conferenced weekly with Governor Little and his COVID Task Force while working closely with our local Emergency Management team and the Southeast Idaho Health Department. At this point, I believe we as a City are beyond mandates from either the State or Federal level. However this does not mean the local COVID crisis has been averted; data shows quite the opposite. If in January, after the election, COVID continues to persist I believe the City and its employees should continue to follow CDC guidelines and exercise common sense prevention protocols based on current infection rates and the overall state of the pandemic.
That may sound vague, but I cannot speak definitively on something that is constantly changing. From a personal perspective, I have chosen to protect myself by once again wearing a mask indoors and being vaccinated last spring. Those were both personal decisions and while I believe they are right for me at this point they are still choices for everyone.
In our community of American Falls, the Mayor can issue emergency proclamations as I did in the early Spring of 2020. Those proclamations must be supported or overturned by a vote of the City Council.
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?
SORENSEN: With millions of dollars from a generous grant, I would replace the city infrastructure systems in most need of renovation. The first priority would be the corroded, failing water lines explained above, and second would be an update of the sewer lines that are also deteriorating. Lastly, fully repaving the city roads after line replacements would be an ideal scenario. We are already working on each of these projects, but all projects require time and money. A hefty grant sure would free up and speed up the process, as well as relieve worry for the future.
There is great motivation to see these projects completed because I plan to live in American Falls for the rest of my life. I want the parks, streets, buildings, and beaches to stay as beautiful as ever. I want businesses and families to thrive. I absolutely love when our community comes together to celebrate music, faith, sports, or our unique history. My kids are happily attending the fantastic schools and the city will one day be in the hands of our children and grandchildren. Everything we do impacts not just here and now, but generations to come. I desire to do my part to best lift where I stand and set up the future of American Falls for success.
BEITIA: The term multimillion is also vague and enticing at the same time. The water infrastructure needs of our community are significant and will become critical within the next ten years. Many of our sewer lines are not that far behind the over 13 miles of outdated and failing waterlines. Despite the best efforts of our City’s Water, Waste Water and Street Departments, we lack the financial means to continually address our aging infrastructure needs. This has, I suspect, always been the case. Which is why we find ourselves in the predicament before us.
To my knowledge, the largest grant ever received by our City was secured by Mayor Manning and Councilperson Jensen. It was the nearly five-million-dollar TIGER Grant which was used to renew and improve our downtown infrastructure. Realistically, grants are a hard way to make a living and pay for big projects, but they can help in that regard. As I mentioned previously, these infrastructure needs are only becoming more critical. They cannot be wished away or ignored for much longer. It has been my experience the longer you wait to address a problem the more expensive it becomes. Regardless of what I or anyone one person thinks about how these issues are addressed, rest assured it will be a community decision. The only choice we have is if we decide collectively to address issues or have it dictated to us when the infrastructure eventually fails beyond our ability to patch it back together. Let’s do it together.