City election manual allows advisory votes any year, but state law says only even years

Lindsay Atkinson Articles

Since the February 19 Boise City Council meeting, there has been much public confusion on if and when a city can initiate an advisory vote—like an advisory vote on the library and stadium projects in Boise.

The foundation of this confusion for me has primarily been conflicting information between state law and the contents of a city election manual, on the City of Boise’s official website.

The election manual was prepared in 2017 by the Association of Idaho Cities and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney. The manual states multiple times that a city-level advisory vote can be put on a county election ballot in May or November of any year.

On page 1 of the election manual, a responsibility of a city clerk is described to be: “Transmitting to the county elections office ballot language for any questions to be included on the ballot, such as recall, initiative/referendum, advisory questions, bonds or levies, etc.”

On page 8 the manual reads: “City bond, levy, liquor by the drink, advisory ballot and other elections may be held in May or November in any year.”

And on page 32, the manual clarifies that cities are capable of enacting resolutions that order an advisory vote: “Cities are responsible for costs associated with drafting of ordinances/resolutions calling for an election (such as a bond ordinance or resolution ordering an advisory vote), as well as publication of hearing notices prior to the time the election is called.”

The manual even directly asks and answers the question that Boise city councilors currently have before them, on page 107: “When can city bond, levy, initiative, referendum and advisory question elections be held?” The election manual states: “City elections on bonds, levies, and advisory questions may be held on the May or November dates in any year.”

But, at a city council meeting on February 19, Mayor Bieter commented: “Part of the discussion [tonight] we had anticipated being the possibility of an advisory vote…[but] advisory votes are limited to even-numbered years and we are obviously not in one.”

So, it stands to reason, Bieter is asserting that the election manual, written by the Association of Idaho Cities and the Idaho Secretary of State, published on the city’s official website, is wrong.

Upon my contact with Ada County officials, it turns out this is true. The contents of the election manual are not fully supported by state law. Ada County officials pointed me towards Title 31, Chapter 7 of Idaho law, where it is established that “county commissioners shall have the authority to place a question on the ballot pertaining to any issue before the citizens of that county during a primary or general election.” This law was added in 1994—23 years before the city election manual was written.

No section of Idaho law mentions city councilors having this same authority.

However, this law does not mean that an advisory vote cannot take place—it only changes through whom and when. A city-related advisory question can be placed on a ballot by county commissioners, instead of city council, in an even numbered year.

This simply diverts the plan to an advisory vote—it does not stop it. This new pathway to an advisory vote is simple: Boise city councilors should hold off on any further action for both the stadium and library projects until May 2020. At that point, county commissioners can put advisory questions on the ballot to gauge the public interest on the library and stadium projects, and give Boise residents a platform for voter input that they deserve.