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Frustration boils over during City Council meeting; councilwomen respond to recall petition


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The Pocatello City Council discussed councilman Roger Bray and censuring him at Thursday’s council meeting. | Kalama Hines,

POCATELLO — Tensions approached boiling points multiple times during Thursday’s Pocatello City Council meeting.

By the time the meeting was adjourned, Councilman Roger Bray had been censured, Councilwoman Claudia Ortega had already left council chambers and several members of the audience were trying to calm others down.

A discussion before the vote for censuring Bray lasted nearly 40 minutes and included Ortega demanding Pocatello Police Chief Roger Schei’s immediate resignation. The same discussion included several heated exchanges between Mayor Brian Blad and Ortega and Chris Stevens, as well as one brief exchange between Ortega and Pocatello Police Sgt. Akilah Lacey, who was in the audience.

Blad interacted with council members several times during the lengthy discussion but held his statement until just before opening the resolution to a vote. In that statement, he called the entire need for the discussion and the comments made “deplorable.”

“Before we vote I just need to say a few words,” Blad said. “Maybe I shouldn’t say anything because it’s difficult. I can’t think of a worse thing to be discussing in city leadership right now than racial diversity.”

RELATED | Council votes to censure member over ‘racial slurs,’ reaffirms Pocatello as ‘welcoming community’

The discussion arose after comments were made regarding diversity at both July council meetings.

During a budget meeting on July 7, Bray argued against the city’s need for two additional police officers, proposed by Schei. Bray said that the current number of officers has been sufficient “because we are not as diverse a community as some.”

After he was challenged on that statement by two board members of the Pocatello branch of the NAACP at the July 21 council meeting, Bray engaged those board members in discussion.

Exactly what happened during that discussion has been left to hearsay.

Some who claim to have been present, including Councilman Josh Mansfield and Blad, have said that Bray argued in favor of his point, escalating the situation. Others, including Ortega and Stevens, have said that the argument was forced by outside antagonizers, which Ortega claims included Schei and other police officers. requested comment from the NAACP Pocatello branch but did not receive a response.

REALTED | Calls for city council member’s resignation increase following diversity comments

Council President Rick Cheatum said he “feels strongly” that the council has an obligation to the citizens of Pocatello to condemn Bray’s comments. And that is what a censure amounts to — the public and official condemnation of statements made by an offical.

“We need to say, through this censure, that we disagree with Roger, that that is not the policy and that is not the official feelings of our city and this City Council,” Cheatum said.

Roger Bray
Roger Bray

During her statement, Ortega read a line from a grant application filed by Schei. In the application, Schei referenced the Northgate expansion and “transient” construction workers putting added wear on department resources.

Ortega claimed that statement to be racist and equal to the ones made by Bray. She then addressed Lacey, the police sergeant, asking if his frustration toward Bray for these comments were matched by his anger toward Schei’s.

As Lacey responded, he redirected to the July 21 meeting and an exchange he had with Bray while also broaching an op-ed piece written by Bray for the Idaho State Journal, in which Bray stated that diversity can mean many things and that he was being targeted without being allowed to explain.

“I asked him a question, ‘Does diversity mean if there were more black people or more Asian people here?’, and he said yes,'” Lacey said. “I asked him to clarify diversity.”

Lacey also said that the word “transient” did not refer to race. Ortega had previously argued that by “transient day laborers,” Schei was referring to the “minority day laborers” that make up a “majority” of those transient workers.

As she was targeting Schei’s comments in the grant application, Ortega publicly called for the police chief’s resignation.

“Since we all agree that racism is bad, it’s ignorant and it’s abhorrent, I call for the immediate resignation of the chief of police for his racist comments,” she said. “If he won’t resign, I’m going to call for a special meeting to discuss his removal.”

Following the extensive back-and-forth and Blad’s closing comments, the council voted in favor of both the reaffirmation of Pocatello as a welcoming city and the censure of Bray.

As has so often been the case with this council, though, the vote itself was a debate.

After a failed motion to separate the reaffirmation and censure, Ortega and Stevens both refused to vote for the two items as one. Both voted in favor of the reaffirmation but against the censure.

Blad tried to take Ortega’s vote as a yes to both parts of the agenda item, but Ortega once again challenged the mayor, saying, “No, I’m not voting for the censure. Don’t put words in my mouth.”

City Attorney Jared Johnson ended the debate by stating that the vote would be cast as Ortega and Stevens had stated in the council’s minutes — that they voted against it.

Because Bray was not in attendance, having tested positive for COVID, the censure vote passed, 3-2. The reaffirmation received a unanimous 5-0 vote.

The final agenda item called for public comments. By rule, those comments should not pertain to anything discussed by the council at that meeting.

Lacey spoke first. Instead of talking about Bray and the censure, he spoke about Thursday being the 20-year anniversary of his moving to Idaho to play football at Idaho State University. He talked about being sucked into Pocatello — what he called a vacuum — and pursuing his own piece of the American dream in his adopted home.

“I’m proud of who I represent, and I’m proud of this city,” he concluded.

Ali Khan, another resident, also spoke during this portion of the meeting. However, he started his comments by addressing Bray.

“I was going to address Councilmember Bray,” Khan said, “but since I was told he’s sick, I hope and pray he gets better really soon — and come back and sit on his seat so he can resign.”

As he continued to address the city’s diversity and Bray’s piece in the Journal, Stevens challenged Blad to halt the comments as they were in regards to an item discussed by the council at that meeting.

Blad decided to allow the comments, claiming that they were not related to the agenda item.

“You just keep making the rules up as long as it suits your political purpose, Brian. You’re ridiculous,” Ortega said as she stood from her seat and walked out of the council chambers to applause.

Recall reactions

A petition recently filed with the Bannock Council Elections Office demands the recall of council members Bray, Ortega and Stevens.

The petition, which now requires some 6,000 signatures for a recall vote to be planned, cites an “accumulation of belligerent behavior” by the three council members.

“Things such as a (hostile) work environment for employees, Bray’s and Ortega’s decision to break quorum on May 19, Ortega’s famous ‘hit list,’ Bray’s attracting fellow council members and Stevens bullying of city staff has caused a dysfunctional city council,” the petition says. “The citizens of Pocatello are sick and tired of this situation. Changes need to be made.”

RELATED | Petition filed demanding recall of three Pocatello City Council members

Before Thursday’s meeting, Ortega told that she acknowledges the petitioners’ right to request a recall.

“I just know what the basis for my actions and my words are, and I am comfortable with that,” she said. “I can sleep at night, and I can look in the mirror. I have never once compromised my integrity.”

The petition claims that Stevens has worked contrary to her campaign platform.

She disputed that.

“I have pursued every goal that was in the platform I ran on, and I have a clear conscience,” she said.

“We ran to try to get more transparency, we ran to get more restraint with regard to spending, and we’ve been fighting for that for two and a half years now,” Ortega added.

Both councilwomen said they have fought for transparency and fiscal restraint, but they have been clipped in their attempts.

During a recent meeting, Stevens requested payroll information for city staff — for review, she said.

On Thursday, having not yet received that information, she once again made the request. After an agitated exchange with Blad, Stevens said she would file a public records request, since Blad and the city would not provide that information.

Regarding the petition and the notion that Ortega’s and Stevens’ efforts have not been for the betterment of the city, Ortega responded, “Attitude reflects leadership.”

“Part of the problem is that the powers that be don’t like to be questioned. They like things to continue the way they’ve always continued, which is by just getting things rubber-stamped. They resent the fact that two women aren’t subservient enough to do that. … Like I said, attitude reflects leadership — and by that, I’m talking about the mayor,” Ortega said.

The petitioners have 75 days from the filing date to collect the required signatures. If the requisite signatures are collected, a recall vote will be scheduled by the county.