Boise residents deserve, at the very least, an advisory vote on big-budget projects

Lindsay Atkinson Articles, SMART Boise

Recently, Boise city attorney Natalie Mendoza asserted that a direct vote on the library and stadium projects would be unconstitutional, based on state law. This statement came as feedback on the ballot initiative submitted to the city by Boise Working Together—a group that wants voter input on two big-budget projects.

Her reason for claiming unconstitutionality: To have a binding vote on whether or not the city could proceed with the library or stadium projects would be unlawful because money has already been allocated to these projects. So, a “no” vote, if that were the consensus of the voters, would amend the city’s budget, which a ballot initiative cannot do.

Related: Tell Boise City councilors you want to vote! Sign this petition now

This seems like an argument to bypass voter input, but let’s go with it for a second. If voters cannot amend a city budget, clearly city councilors can. Case in point, Boise city councilors are scheduled February 12 to amend the city budget for this fiscal year.

Thus, the city has a pretty simple alternative to this supposedly unconstitutional direct vote: Hold an advisory vote.

In other words, with an advisory vote, these projects would show up on an upcoming ballot in the form of two simple questions, to which voters can respond “in favor of” or “against.” Questions like: Do you support the creation of a new main Boise library? And: Do you support the use of taxpayer money to help build a sports park in Boise?

City councilors can then take the outcome of this vote as advice, even though the actual vote would not approve or shutdown these projects.

In reality, an advisory vote should be just as influential as a binding vote. If city officials actually want to follow the will of the people, this gives them an opportunity to follow the advice directly given to them.

City officials who care about the wishes of their residents should follow an advisory vote—and this type of vote keeps each party (voters and city council) within their supposed constitutional powers.

Plus, this type of vote is pretty common. Just this past election, several municipalities around Idaho used an advisory vote for feedback on major issues and projects in their areas.

For example, Idaho County had three subjects under advisory vote on November 6, 2018. One sought input on the addition of more wilderness acres to Idaho County. Another advisory question wanted to gauge voter support for the addition of more wild and scenic river segments. And the third asked if the Ridge Runner Fire District should be a taxing district.

Valley County also held an advisory vote in November. For this vote, officials specifically sought input on a highway and bridge levy. This levy was within county commissioners’ authority to implement, but Valley County officials also wanted input from voters—not just to assert their power without advice.

Boise can take a note from these two, recent examples. Some city councilors have already expressed that they are willing to consider an advisory vote at an upcoming city council work session. Thus, there are at least two options here: 1) Let Boise Working Together gather enough signatures to get a binding measure on an upcoming ballot, or, 2) Use an advisory vote. Either way, Boiseans should have an opportunity, one way or another, to vote on these projects come election day.