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Two face off for Idaho Falls mayoral race

East Idaho Elects

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IDHAO FALLS — Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper is seeking reelection while Ashley Romero, a mother of four hopes to see a change in the office.

EastIdahoNews.com sent the same eight questions to each candidate. Their responses, listed below, were required to be 250 words or less.

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

Casper: My name is Rebecca Casper. Prior to election in 2013, I taught university-level courses in American government and state and local governance at BYU-Idaho and what was then called EITC, but which is now CEI. I earned BA and MA degrees from BYU, in Provo, Utah, and a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC-Berkeley. Before that, I worked as a research associate at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.

While serving as Mayor of Idaho Falls has been the most significant government public service experience I’ve had, I have enjoyed a great many volunteer opportunities. I have run a Special Olympics program, volunteered in numerous homeless shelters and soup kitchens, worked with senior citizens, managed a campus-wide volunteer program in college, tutored school children, run several scholastic book fairs, and volunteered with several non-profit boards and helped to raise funds for area schools and scholarships through the District 91 Education Foundation and the Mayor’s Scholarship Fund.

I have raised four children. One is an undergraduate at ISU, one works in support of Nuclear industry, and two are pursuing graduate studies. When we have the privilege of being together, we enjoy eating, debating, teasing each other, and solving the world’s problems in the wee hours.

Romero: I graduated high school at Skyline High School in 2005. Afterward I went to college in Oklahoma and Missouri, working back here in Idaho Falls between semesters and on-campus during semesters to pay for what my scholarships did not cover. I was a member of Phi Theta Kappa- a national honor society that puts heavy emphasis on service projects and volunteer work, for a year and a half. And served for 18 months in Guatemala from 2008 to 2010. I married my husband David in 2011, and I started participating in a quilting group that makes quilts for the local Humanitarian Center, which I did from 2011 to 2018. My husband and I have four children. Gabi is 8, Angela is 5, Hailey is 3, and Westley is 2. When I see a cause and commit myself to it, I put my heart and soul into the cause. I participate yearly in Relay for Life, and have participated 12 of the years since 2008, I only missed 2009 and 2020 because I was out of the country in 2009 and 2020 because of Covid-19.

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

Romero: Graduating with honors from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, serving the people of Guatemala, having 4 wonderful kids and a supportive husband, and honestly, running for mayor- whether I am voted in or not, has been a great accomplishment in my life. I know that this experience will follow me for the rest of my life, and has helped me grow as a person. I am proud of what has been accomplished thus far and am excited to see what is to come.

Casper: Like many parents, I can say that my children are the greatest source of personal pride. As mentioned above, they are each deeply involved in various stages of post-secondary education. In fact, education figures prominently in my definition of accomplishment. Many of the good things in my life result from or have been improved or enhanced by education or the opportunities it provides and doors that it opens. I was the first in my family line on both sides to graduate from university and am very grateful I am also not the last.

I am proud that this community sought to approve the creation of a community college district transforming EITC into CEI on my watch. I strongly advocated for this and already have seen those degrees transform lives for the better.

An educated populace is not just good for individuals and for creating economic opportunity, it is also something this nation’s founders believed would sustain the democratic republic they gave us. In the US, our very freedoms hinge on individual citizens casting informed votes. This important nexus between education and democracy is something I always strived to teach my students. It also comes up not infrequently as I meet with civic groups and students throughout the city.

What are the greatest challenges facing your community?

Romero: Heightened crime, lack of proper budget for the various departments to do their jobs safely, and lack of communication between the mayor and the people of this city.

Casper: Our city’s greatest challenges at present revolve around managing the current surge of rapid growth we are experiencing. These challenges include growing the supply of housing and traffic management.

A couple of years ago, city leaders had the foresight to stand up a committee consisting of city staff members and highly informed community members to examine all of the ways Idaho Falls could increase the supply of housing. They determined the greatest need was for less-traditional housing options sometimes nicknamed the “missing middle.” This category includes duplexes, four-plexes, townhomes, bungalows, and so forth. Many of the developers who have entered the Idaho Falls market recently bring expertise with these types of housing products.

The committee’s work has most definitely paid off as we currently have 1,500 or more housing units in the planning, platting, design, or construction phases. This is just a snapshot of one kind of strategic effort that is underway. Many more are being contemplated. These will do much to augment the supply of homes and that should take some pressure off of demand, which has been driving housing prices upward.

Traffic-wise, our city grew enough this past year to justify hiring a full-time traffic engineer. She has been working on traffic light signalization throughout the city and making small improvements to optimize traffic flow on city-owned roads. Prior to this, we only were able to perform this kind of work sporadically, whenever a traffic safety grant was available.

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

Casper: My experience is better perhaps because there is simply more of it. I have more life experience as well as civic and municipal experience. Of course, new ideas and fresh perspectives are always desirable. Fortunately, new and fresh ideas can and already do come from a variety of sources within the city. It is important to remember that

Idaho Falls is a nearly $300M enterprise with 11 departments and 36 divisions. We have approximately 700 full-time employees and we swell by another 3-400 each summer as seasonal workers are brought on to assist with the many duties that summer brings. The city’s 2022 budget includes not only the municipality’s property-tax funded general fund, but also five utilities, 2 separate enterprise funds, and many more special revenue funds. Mastery of all of this involves a steep learning curve and the ability to stay on top of and manage it. By electing me, the years of learning I have already invested become readily available and will be put into good use moving our city forward. We need not lose any momentum.

Romero: I am better able to communicate with others, and I can objectively look at a budget and accomplish goals that I set financially.

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

Romero: The first step is listening to them. How can I represent the people if I don’t know what they need or want done? Then, I would look at the budget, and speak with the members of the departments and city council to see what can be done.

Casper: Idaho’s cities operate on a non-partisan basis. In my opinion, this is as it should be. Non-partisanship allows local elected officials to work on local community concerns without loyalties to unelected outside organizations intervening in that process. And while the many virtues of non-partisanship do not preclude disagreement, the result is typically a more focused solution that is almost always less expensive than we might get with partisan loyalties in the mix.

Over the years, I’ve been privileged to meet many citizens as they reached out to share their concerns with me. That is an important aspect of public service. A Mayor listens. Often, I have found that when a citizen has called the office with a concern, it has been better suited for an expert to handle than for me. In the city, our experts are Department Directors, Chiefs, program managers, etc. A mayor easily can and should facilitate those kinds of conversations when warranted—for all constituents, residents, and business owners.

Finally, it is important to remember that Mayors serve as administrators—i.e. managers of budgets and programs—and as representatives of the community in external settings. Policymaking and spending—common targets of citizen
concern—are the purview of the City Council. Balancing the competing interests of individual citizens and the community as a whole is rarely easy, but Idaho Falls residents can be proud of how much the Council members and I put into this work.

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?

Casper: I have a great deal of respect for the role played by a free media in a free society. As many of us were taught in our social studies classes, a free press keeps government officials on their toes. It is this scrutiny that tends to ensure that government processes also are open, fair, honest, transparent, etc.

Yet in recent years, the rise of online news media—both filtered and unfiltered—has driven small-but-effective news outlets—primarily print media—out of business or at least forced them into a diminished role with fewer reporters and constricted operations. Unfortunately, we have seen this play out across our own state.

With fewer reporters/journalists, our city and others across the state have a new role to assume–that of helping to share information that local media does not otherwise have the resources to obtain as they had before. This is in large part why Idaho Falls has over 25 active social media accounts and three Public Information Officers (PIOs). Without these efforts, much of what the city does would be less known and citizens would have to work harder to be informed community members.

In sum, the media are vital to a successful government. My administration always will welcome the assistance of reporters and journalists in keeping the public informed and with investigations aimed at rooting out problems.

Romero: Media is important, but it needs to be fact based.

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

Romero: Right now, I believe that choice is still most important. If extreme mandates are put in place then it limits the bodily autonomy of the people.

Casper: Heretofore, the city has not felt the need to take official action to legislate in matters involving management of public health. First and foremost, that is primarily the jurisdiction of the District 7 Board of Health. When this board has taken action, the city has sought to respect and uphold those orders. This has been done out of respect for the rule of law. I do not foresee a drastic change in the city’s approach going forward.

To a certain extent, the larger question before us rests in figuring out what we may have learned throughout the pandemic that will allow our community once again o interact fully and successfully. Wide-scale vaccination is by far the easiest path, and the one I heartily endorse. But short of that we must find other, effective and equitable ways to mitigate risk for vulnerable citizen populations. I ask that we bear in mind that risk for some is merely the risk of an inconvenient illness, whereas for others it is the risk of life itself. With enough old-fashioned kindness and thoughtfulness, along with a healthy dose of civic responsibility, I am certain we can obtain amiable compromises to see this community through the present moment and beyond. I look forward to a time when city leaders can move beyond this relatively straightforward proposition and turn our attention and energy to city infrastructure, and vital services.

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?

Casper: A grant would be a wonderful stroke of luck! We could do much with it. As one-time money (i.e. a funding source that is not ongoing year-after-year), the grant would need to be spent on one-time, and not on ongoing expenses.

I’d first purchase a new ambulance to assist our EMS professionals in continuing to provide timely service in the face of rapidly rising calls for service owing to growth in the region. “After that, there are many existing city properties and aspects of city infrastructure that are due for expansion, repair, and/or replacement. This list
might include:”

  • Continuing renovations at the civic center for the performing arts;
  • Further expansion of well-used biking and waking trails; and
  • Development of a currently unused portion of the Sandy Downs into RV parking/encampment spaces to support events held there.

If any of the grant monies remained after this, I’d encourage city officials to divide the remainder and place it into two funds—one for a new pool and one for a second sheet of ice to meet the burgeoning demand for more space for ice sports. I am happy to defend or explain any or all of the above should anyone have questions or concerns.

Romero: I would put it towards the departments that need it the most. Firstly the police department needing proper training, their station, and the officers needed to keep this city safe as the crime rate goes up.

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