The following is a guest opinion. The GUARDIAN will offer equal space to opposing views.
By KATIE FITE
North End Resident
An angry North End faction, bent on seizing control of the Neighborhood Association, has resorted to hiring a PR firm with a record of high fees and involvement in failed projects like the $100 million Safdie Library. The calculated use of hired opinion consultants to shape, manufacture, and steer public sentiment to desired ends increasingly plagues the civic sphere in Boise. The city ubiquitously uses expensive consultants to create what is often an illusion of public process. Now aggressive consultant tactics have surfaced at the local-most level in the North End Neighborhood Association (NENA) board election.
As a North End resident, I was taken aback to read news that a group of angry neighbors, hurling accusations and smearing sitting Board members, had moved to take control of the NENA Board in a chaotic October Zoom call election. NENA has long worked to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood. It helps neighbors facing traffic and other problems with the city and ACHD, provides input on innumerable development projects. assists struggling neighbors, and annually holds the Hyde Park Street Fair to raise funds for community projects. This all-volunteer non-profit has done an amazing amount of good work. 10,000 neighborhood residents are kept informed through a print newsletter hand delivered by volunteers to doorsteps, and through posts on social media.
Media reporting on the election was filled with the views of those claiming anger about Block 75, TRICA, and a tavern. These places are close together. Block 75 is owned by the First United Methodist Church – the community garden and parking area north of the Cathedral of the Rockies. Around 15 years ago, homes there were demolished for a controversial church plan to build a large apartment and parking complex that never materialized. NENA, hoping to find ways to defuse hostility, commissioned a report on the historical and social background of the site and its fraught history. Right now, nothing concrete is happening with Block 75. By fracturing NENA, the residents are undermining their own interests if faced with future development.
The TRICA childrens’ theater project has been going on for many years. Recent contention is over parking for expanded activities. The NENA board did not oppose activity expansion. The tavern is a non-issue, as the NENA board opposed it. This has been mis-reported by some media. Hostility here appears most aimed at outgoing NENA President Mark Baltes, who wrote a personal letter of support. He was not up for re-election, retains his Board seat, and had already planned to step aside as president. Mark has given countless hours to NENA. The North End would be a much less pleasant place to live without Mark’s ceaseless efforts over decades. Other NENA volunteers who had shouldered newsletter, media and other work have faced accusations and vitriol, and been driven or voted out.
Consultants Stirring NENA Turmoil
The events surrounding the October Board meeting were tantamount to a coup. An on-line post on the aftermath of the chaotic Zoom election revealed that the angry neighbor group was working with Atlas Strategic Communication consultants. Atlas Services include public meeting coordination, street team coordination, message development, geo-targeting, social media, crisis response, stakeholder engagement and other activities. Consultant profiles show Bill Shawver as its “strategic counselor” a military general, and former head of the Idaho Homeland Security Department and Idaho Power communications. I first encountered his name when he was involved in a murky non-profit associated with former Mayor Bieter’s failed attempt to base F-35s in Boise. A Guardian article“Gowen Strong” Is Private Non-Profit Using City Staff In Violation Of “Public Purpose Doctrine,” described lobbying, and “potential improprieties and deliberate deceptive moves”. Gowen Strong dissolved after its activities were spotlighted. Shawver later helped found Atlas.
Public Records related to the city council’s vote uprooting the historic Log Cabin to clear the way for the $100 million dollar Safdie Library/civic center project show the Library Foundation hired Atlas in a lucrative contract to try to sway public opinion in an effort to oppose a popular citizen ballot initiative underway. The project was resoundingly rejected by Boise voters, in part because citizens were fed up with slick attempts to manufacture consent making an end run around public process. Most recently, Atlas has a lucrative city contract rebranding sewer plants as “water renewal facilities” and pushing a plan including injection of partially treated sewage effluent into our aquifer, and discharge into the Farmer’s Union Canal, which could result in contamination plumes of PFAS “Forever Chemicals”, pharmaceuticals and other toxics across large areas of Ada County.
Petition for Special Meeting Under Bylaws
It is unclear when Atlas started working with the NENA coup faction, and who is funding them. The October election had been preceded by flyer distribution and posters in a small area of the neighborhood, accusations against board members, and promotion of a bloc of candidates. In the Zoom election, some participants refused to identify themselves, as chaotic maneuvering took place. After news broke of the election events, NENA members circulated a petition requesting a Special Meeting. These are legitimate mechanisms identified in the bylaws. The petition (signed by over 180 people) lists concerns about bloc voting, candidates spreading malicious information, intimidation, undisclosed familial relationships [brother/sister and husband/wife candidates], and an underlying agenda.
It states: “Our requested resolution is an invalidation of election results and a new election no earlier than January 2021, with candidates and biography information to be posted to the NENA website in advance of the election, so that all voting members may make educated choices in neighborhood representation. The new board members elected at the annual meeting on 10/27/20 were not fairly or honestly elected, do not share the values of the North End neighborhood, and would not appropriately represent the neighborhood at large. They have a documented agenda that is self-serving (see: TRICA, Block 75). Instead, we believe that board members should be elected based on their experience, qualifications, prior volunteer history, and dedication to the good of the entire neighborhood”.
Consultant E-mails About Special Meeting Bombard the City
I obtained city e-mails from Atlas’s Erin Hudson through a Public Records Request. Five documents were withheld, so the full extent of the interaction remains unknown.
On 11/19/20 Hudson e-mailed undisclosed recipients “Tell NENA to Ratify the Board Election” concerning the November Special Meeting held in response to the petition.
I hope this email finds you in good health. My name is Erin Hudson and I’m helping out a group of residents in Boise’s North End who have been made aware that the North End Neighborhood Association’s (NENA) board is attempting to delegitimize the recent board election. The Idaho Press covered the initial election at the end of October. As educators and administrators who work in schools in the North End, you are members of the association and have a vested interest in the outcome of this election …”. The e-mail went on to summarize Atlas’ spin on election events. Hudson continued: “We know that as educators, these values are important to you and are a part of the lessons you teach every day. We are asking educators in the North End who want to see NENA respect the democratic process …
1. Participate in the upcoming meeting on Tuesday, November 24
2. Share messaging on social …
What kind of sleazy operation tries to turn teachers against the parents of their students potentially on the NENA board, and cast suspicion over an NA?
On 11/20/20, Hudson sent a long reminder of the Special Meeting to the City’s Melinda McGoldrick spinning in detail the coup faction’s version of the election confusion and chaos:
I hope you’re doing well and staying healthy! I am working with a group of North End residents who have expressed concerns with the North End Neighborhood Association board. They held a board election on October 27, where 6 seats were filled replacing two at-large board members. Based on an online petition and comments on social media, it appears it is the intention of the board to not ratify the results of the election at their upcoming meeting.
… As a leader in the Energize Team that manages the neighborhood associations in Boise, we felt it was important you were aware of the situation. We understand the City’s role in Neighborhood Associations is largely neutral, but this is outside the normal expectations of how these boards operate and sets a dangerous precedent for future generations of the board, as well as other neighborhood associations …”
It turns out that Hudson would be very familiar with city staff working with neighborhoods because she was recently employed at the city for two years, including in community outreach. Then she briefly was with the Bloomberg campaign as its Idaho Communications person, under close Bieter aide and fundraiser Amber Pence, who ran the short-lived Idaho office. After Bloomberg folded, Hudson moved on to Atlas.
During the NENA Special Meeting, attorney Tim Tyree identified himself as a lawyer representing Ms. Spengler. On-line searches show he’s the legal counsel for the Boise Regional Realtors Association and had previously worked for Hawley-Troxell. Her e-mail above also referenced Tory Spengler, part of the angry neighbor faction. On-line searches indicate Spengler’s husband works for a A-10 Capital, a commercial real estate finance business.
On 11/20/20 the city’s McGoldrick replied that they would observe the Special Meeting.
On 11/24/20 Hudson sent a “reminder” to undisclosed recipients about the NENA Special Meeting:
… As members of the association, we felt it was important for you to be aware of the actions of the NENA board and to encourage you to attend the meeting … If you need any additional information or have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out”.
After the Special Meeting, Hudson sent yet another e-mail to the city’s McGoldrick complaining it was “one-sided” and prodding the city for additional oversight.
We wanted to thank you and Deanna for taking time out of your evenings to listen in on the NENA Board meeting. It was important to have city representation to observe what happened.
The residents we have been working with are concerned with what happened at the meeting and the action taken to ensure the vote could not be ratified at the meeting. From their perspective, the overall tone of the meeting felt very one-sided in favor of the petitioners and the acting board. I understand that there is little the city can do to intervene. However, it might be appropriate for a representative from the city to observe the planned mediation between parties to continue to ensure there is transparency in the process of resolving this matter …”.
Full Court Press of Development Pressures Face the North End and other Boise Neighborhoods as NA Is Weakened
The NENA sliming and general chaos are taking place as a city-wide Housing Bonus Ordinance is being fast-tracked. The ordinance would cut out public process for new multi-unit developments, with an imminent Dec. 14 P&Z hearing date. A large city-wide Upzoning code change process is also underway. Right now, a 7-story high density apartment building is proposed for the 16th Street area, also with a Dec. 14th P&Z hearing. This is in addition to many other projects in the neighborhood. An Urban Renewal District expansion has also been floated for north of State Street into the North End by Boise High and the Y.
Questions Swirling Around the NENA Coup Effort and Agendas
What are the ethical issues with a recent city community relations employee, now the point person for consultant agitation surrounding a prominent NA, bombarding the city with e-mails undermining the NA’s integrity? The consultants hold lucrative city contracts yet their work for the coup faction is casting aspersion on local volunteer leaders who routinely interact with the city. Souring relations between the city and NENA could impact projects for the public good, affect grants provided to NAs for community projects, and reduce the perceived legitimacy of NA input on development and other issues.
What are the actual motives of the angry parties? Perhaps some are sincere, but others may have deeper financial or vindictive motives, and this needs to be investigated.
What does this mean for NENA’s effectiveness as a voice for everyone in the neighborhood, and its ability to act on many complex issues— in the midst of the Pandemic? The angry parties have minimal experience with the time and work it takes to do all that NENA does. Some never participated in the organization.
Will Boise be seeing similar moves in other NAs? If so, will consultants be involved in hostile takeover efforts? A dysfunctional NA and uncertainty make it easier for developers to swoop in and rapidly transform a neighborhood. Chaos also smooths the way for implementation of Upzoning plans that would profoundly alter neighborhoods.
Is this related to the disturbing national trend of Wall Street investment firms speculating on the urban real estate market, and rapid gentrification that drives people out of their homes as taxes and costs escalate? Strong NAs can be a local impediment to Wall Street designs.
The overarching concern is that NENA is broken. How do we fix it?
A mediation meeting on the election events is being held on December 13th.
North End Resident
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