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Residents unite to take on government in Coeur d'Alene

Residents unite to take on government in Coeur d'Alene

August 25, 2009
August 25, 2009

Conservative movements don't start by accident, or survive on automatic pilot.

The tide starts with people who give a damn about how government money is spent and the future of this country. It starts with people who don't think that government has all the answers to health care and the nation's economic crisis. It survives by people who want to make a difference by attending local government meetings, searching through public records and asking tough questions.

In Coeur d'Alene, the conservative movement is well under way and going strong thanks to a group of people who do not blindly accept what their local government leaders are telling them. Mary Souza, Bill McCrory and Dan Gookin, who started this effort about two years ago, are especially offended by the notion of non-elected people - specifically the Lake City Development Corporation - making decisions that have an impact on property taxes.

Soon, the group will announce that it has an official name (detractors call them CAVE people, which stands for Citizens Against Virtually Everything). Meanwhile, the group has a website (www.opencda.com) with plenty of spicy commentary, a growing number of followers and a generous amount of feedback from readers.

"It's easy for me to talk about being involved, because I'm retired," said McCrory, who spent 23 years with the U.S. Secret Service. "A lot of people don't have the time and I can understand that. I view our involvement as a way of contributing to the community, although local government officials don't see this as a contribution."

The three founders of opencda.com have different backgrounds and slightly different political philosophies. McCrory says he's an independent, Souza says she's a Republican and Gookin says he's a libertarian. What all three have in common is that they are conservative - but not in the CAVE sort of way. They're all for economic prosperity, good city services, a quality school system and well-maintained streets and roads. They just want to ensure that officials put thought into the process and are held accountable for their actions.

"Elected officials should be viewing questions from citizens in a positive way," said Gookin. "It helps having citizens reviewing policies. We have a right to ask elected officials questions. Asking questions is not being against everything."

Some gains have been made. LCDC, for instance, has started broadcasting meetings on the local cable television channel. The development corporation has hired a public relations agent to bolster its image - to the chagrin of those who object to tax dollars being spent to make LCDC look great.

"They pay attention to us," said Gookin, who two years ago came within 360 votes of winning a seat on the city council. "They know we're there, and they've changed the way they do business."

However, it's still not to the satisfaction of the Open CDA group. As they see it, the LCDC's mission is to leverage public money into private projects such as condominiums, townhouses and office buildings. The group asks: Is this a wise way of spending taxpayer dollars?

All three have become lightening rods of sorts. But Mary Souza, who for the last two years has produced newsletters and commentaries, has become the one that some people love and others love to hate. She doesn't have a journalism background; she is a local business owner. But she has what every newspaper columnist wants and few have - impact. Her writing style is easy to read and she pours on lots of salsa in her commentaries.

The LCDC is one of her favorite targets. Her role as a former member of the city's planning and zoning board gives her special insight.

In June, she wrote: "For the year 2008, the LCDC received a tax increment of almost $5 million dollars. The un-elected board of LCDC has complete control over how that public money is used and this district will go out to the year 2021."

In another commentary last February, she pointed out that the problem with urban renewal districts go beyond Coeur d'Alene.

"There's $3.6 billion in tax increment value controlled by urban renewal agencies in the state of Idaho. And this number will grow faster than the economy will recover. Taxpayers have a serious problem right now, because URAs are both rich and powerful. They use public tax increment money for lobbyists to stop any changes in the porous old laws. The vague legal language and loopholes, along with the complexity of the subject, keep most citizens, as well as many lawmakers, from taking the time to understand urban renewal. This reluctance helps ensure the stealth success of this little-known tax impact."

She goes after the local school board and issues such as property taxes and the federal stimulus package with the same kind of gusto.

Urban Renewal Districts were the main reason for the group forming, but not the only reason for existence. Souza, McCrory, Gookin and a growing list of others are pushing for accountability and transparency at all levels.

It's not an easy fight, but can be winnable over time - especially in the Coeur d'Alene area. Twenty years ago, the liberal Democratic Party machine had a stronghold on legislative seats in the Coeur d'Alene. In more recent years, liberals have been replaced by conservatives such as Sen. Mike Jorgenson and Reps. Jim Clark, Phil Hart and Bob Nonini. Rep. Marge Chadderdon, a Republican who is viewed in some circles as an easy target because of her quiet nature, has no problem winning elections.

The liberal faction in Coeur d'Alene hasn't gone away; it has merely migrated to the Coeur d'Alene City Council and other areas of local government. Souza and Gookin ran unsuccessfully for city council seats and Gookin's performance in the last election (46 percent) gives hope to conservatives. Tea party rallies (about 1,600 people showed up for one) offers evidence that people are paying attention.

"Our impact is hard to quantify," Souza said. "People are visiting our website and when I go to the store, or to meetings, people are stopping to talk with me."

The conservative movement in Coeur d'Alene has a way to go, but two things are clear: The number of people who give a damn is well beyond three and this effort is not going away anytime soon.

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