Q&A with Meridian Mayoral candidates

Boise Mayoral Election

Five people hope to replace longtime Meridian Mayor Tammy de Weerd. Gina Johnson, Joe Palmer, Anne Little Roberts, Robert Simison and Shaun Wardle all filed for the mayor’s seat.

As the filing deadline for the 2019 municipal races in Boise and Meridian closed, BoiseDev sent each of the candidates a set of 12 questions about the direction of each city.

Update: Oct. 25 – Shaun Wardle initially was listed as having opted out of the survey. Wardle said he didn’t receive this, and has added his answers – which now appear below.

From the most-pressing issue to their views on growth – to a description of their city in a single emoji, the answers are enlightening and informative.

Answers are not edited, with the exception of some minor capitalization and a few punctuation issues. We did not fix spelling or word use.

Election day is November 5th.

Read candidate Q&As

Boise: Mayor | Council 1 | Council 3 | Council 5
Meridian: Mayor | Council 1 | Council 3 | Council 5

What do you think of where Meridian is headed?

Gina Johnson: Meridian is heading into a path of growth-related terror if the City Government does not seek equal balance for all of its citizens.

Joe Palmer: Meridian is in a very strong position within the region but growth is at a cross road. If we are not careful Meridian might lose its identity. We’re at a crucial point where our city is growing at a huge rate, and we want to hold on to what makes it special while also having a clear vision for how to deal with the challenges and opportunities that come with so much growth. My commitment as your mayor will be to maintain and improve the quality of life for families, businesses and communities while preserving what past generations have accomplished.

Anne Little Roberts: Meridian has done many things well and our growth proves that. There are also many things that we can do better. The next Mayor and City Council will determine if we stay on the same course, change direction on some things or come to a screeching halt. Meridian has seen tremendous growth over the last decade and all signs point to that growth continuing. I believe that we are at a pivotal moment for Meridian and it is going to take strong leadership with a new vision for wise growth. While Meridian has done many things well, there are many things that we can do better. Meridian is already a desirable city to live and work, and we have to continue to make sure the quality of life for our citizens remains high.

Robert Simison: I have been part of the city’s leadership team for the last 12 years executing on the vision as a premier community and that is reflected in the services we deliver to our residents. As Mayor, I feel we need additional tools to address transportation and schools that we aren’t using now to continue our trajectory. We have seen employers choose to call Meridian home and bring family wage jobs to the community. Our commercial businesses continue to bring needed services closer to where people live. To remain a ‘best place’ to live (as we received this recognition again this week), it is critical we manage growth. We have just spent 14 months updating our Comprehensive Plan with an exciting vision that I have been a part of crafting with citizens and stakeholders. I know the job, the city directors, our city employees and the culture we have built, and have effective working relationships with our partners throughout the region.

Shaun Wardle: Meridian is headed in the wrong direction at an unsustainable speed. Growth is outpacing our community’s ability to deliver infrastructure. Traffic is congested and schools are crowded. Development is not paying for itself, and current taxpayers are picking up the tab. Taxes are constantly increasing without addressing unnecessary spending.

What is the most-pressing issue facing Meridian right now?

Gina Johnson: Growth, specifically how decisions the City makes, impacts the City citizen’s mental health.

Joe Palmer: Transportation is the most pressing issue for Meridian right now and must be addressed. As Chairman of the House Transportation committee, I’ve helped increase funding for roads by 70% statewide. As Mayor, I’d like to make sure these funds are used appropriately to create better, safer routes and reduce congestion long term.

Anne Little Roberts: The unintended consequences of growth – increased traffic, over-crowding in schools, and maintaining public safety are the most pressing issues in Meridian. As Mayor, I have the relationship with the road authorities (ACHD and ITD) to make sure that as Meridian grows, our roads keep pace and that we receive proper funding from our legislators. Schools are overcrowded. We must make sure that we have and adequate number of quality schools for our children. This again will require excellent relationships with legislators and our West Ada School District. Our police and fire departments are understaffed. We must have a strong community policing program and shorter response times for emergency calls.

Robert Simison: Growth is the most pressing overall issue, but it is more specific to roads/transportation and overcrowding in our schools.

Shaun Wardle: Growth. We have outgrown our infrastructure such as roads and schools. Meridian must get a handle on these issues before adding more cars to the streets and children to the classroom.

If elected, what will be your first priorities in the job?

Gina Johnson: I will address the mental health elements of growth-related decisions by putting together a committee made up of all ages, professions, income levels. I will work with the ACHD to implement a improved tax incentive plan for residents/employers to use carpooling services. I will also address public safety on our roads by helping to fund public transportation through speed trap ticket scanning cameras – similar to the ones used by City of London- at many intersections, and school bus routes. For other growth issues, I will lead the action of rezoning lands in the City that are being considered for development or redevelopment. Specifically to rezone them to some form of residential/commercial mixed-use plots so that it makes it easier for developers, investors, and residents to commute to work, play, and address shopping without making transportation worse.

Joe Palmer: Along with transportation, I believe its critical government is transparent and courteous to all residents of the city. I’ll have an open-door policy with anyone who needs help. It’s a tough job but I’m not afraid to take the good with the bad as Mayor.

Anne Little Roberts: We have got to work more collaboratively with the cities around us as well as Ada County. The growth we’ve experienced and the growth that is yet to come also bring concerns about our traffic. In my position on the City Council, I’ve been a strong advocate for road improvement and road construction to help improve the flow of traffic. As Mayor, I will work closely with Ada County Highway District and Idaho Department of Transportation to create smoother commutes and better traffic flow for our residents. I will also work with other communities in our valley to develop user-friendly public transportation that’s economically feasible. Wise growth also includes the need for quality schools. West Ada school district is doing a phenomenal job, but from time-to-time, I’ve seen where communication between the district and city hall can be better. As Mayor, I will strengthen communications between the city and the school district. As we grow, I will make sure we stay on top of what is needed to match our growth. Meridian has grown to be a beautiful city – our many parks, the Village, and the renewal of our downtown have made Meridian a wonderful place to live. However, all that we’ve done in the last several decades will start to crumble if our community is not safe. As Mayor, I will work to increase the size of our police force. The size of our police force has not kept pace with our population growth. We are currently staffed with a dozen fewer officers than a city of our size needs. My heartfelt desire is to ensure to the safety of our citizens, and so adequate police staffing is a priority for me. I will also make sure that our city has enough fire stations. We need station houses situated throughout our communities to provide the best possible response times. Again, because of our growth, our city needs more of them. As Mayor, I will insist on a sufficient number of fire stations and a proper-sized police force, because these are vital for our community safety.

Robert Simison: My top three priorities are to:
– Continue to provide the best possible services to the community, meeting its needs as we grow and evolve. I am passionate about the well-being of Meridian and our citizens; this is a primary function we can never lose sight of. We must not lose our focus on being a safe community.
– Connect and build our infrastructure to make it easier to get from ‘Point A to Point B’ for the more than 115,000 people who call Meridian home today. We can do more by prioritizing the use of city funds to construct needed road improvements, pathways, and sidewalks to fill existing gaps in our transportation network.
– Take greater responsibility to ensure all aspects of public services are met, regardless of who delivers them. I would build on the relationships and develop public plans in collaboration with Ada County Highway District, West Ada School District, ITD and others in determining how best to serve Meridian.

Shaun Wardle: Transparency: My administration will form the first independent office of Government Accountability in Meridian. The people of our community deserve not just information, but the ability to have their concerns addressed through an accessible process.
Traffic: Meridian is a suburban environment in need of traffic mitigation. Wider streets and intersection improvements are required to solve the problems associated with congestion.
Efficiency: As a business owner, I believe productive operations are imperative. The City needs to look at all opportunities to save tax dollars, while maintaining or increasing levels of service. Meridian had over $1.25 million in overtime for the year 2018, those overages need addressed.

Increasingly, Meridian is part of the fabric of a larger metro area. As mayor, what will you do to foster collaboration with other jurisdictions?

Meridian seen from the air this summer. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

Gina Johnson: Putting together a task force that meets 2x/month that has representatives from each city (and surrounding city) department, as a way to improve cooperation for citizens who travel between two points of the Treasure Valley area.

Joe Palmer: As State Representative serving Meridian, I have a strong relationship with members of the legislature as well as state and local transportation departments. I’ll use these relationships to keep Meridian’s positive momentum. I think it’s critical to work with the state, county, and cities to maintain a balance but I will not lose sight of Meridian being my top priority.

Anne Little Roberts: I am a strong believer in collaboration. As I mentioned earlier, the cities and county must all be working together on the items that impact us all, especially traffic and schools. I think Boise Valley Economic Partnership (BVEP) is an excellent example of collaboration between public entities, and private as well. In my role as President and CEO of the Meridian Chamber of Commerce and as a member of the Meridian City Council, I have been a strong supporter of BVEP and will continue to work closely with them. I will support other entities such as COMPASS to continue collaboration and encourage others to form working groups to share ideas and keeps others informed of their own efforts. When I was president and CEO of the Meridian Chamber, I also served as president of the Idaho Chamber Alliance (ICA), where I worked closely with chambers throughout the state of Idaho. The ICA spearheaded the successful effort of directing workforce training funds to career technical education – and many Meridian businesses directly benefited from that effort. The collaboration of the Chambers across the state was critical to that success.

Robert Simison: Meridian is not just a part of the fabric of the metro area, it is also the center. It is essential that we collaborate with other cities, partner agencies, and service providers if we are to function effectively. Our police and fire departments need to work and train with other cities to provide essential services which aren’t limited to borders maintaining our mutual aid agreements. Expanding bus service throughout the valley will need to connect in and around Meridian. If we do not work collaboratively with others, Meridian can hamper these and other services which require working together to be successful. Over the last 12 years, I have been working with our existing partners and have developed relationships from elected officials to key staff members so that we can work together on substance abuse, air quality, animal control and other issues. Holding joint meetings as elected bodies, participating in regional/state organizations, and meeting one-on-one at the executive level creates dialogue, trust and opportunity for collaboration. Meridian has been active in these critical discussions and has initiated many of the needed discussions. We need to continue these conversations and constantly evaluate our efforts in this area.

Shaun Wardle: I was involved with the Blueprint for Good Growth project and saw politics derail those collaborative efforts. We must find common ground and work together on regional issues. Meridian must advocate for our community goals and be honest with our neighbors and partners.

What do you think of Meridian’s relationship with the Ada County Highway District? What would you like to see change, if anything?

Gina Johnson: Meridian is not taking advantage of many financing opportunities to improve transportation infrastructure, and to use newer, less expensive methods to reduce the need for constructing or replacing that infrastructure. I would work with ACHD on addressing these needs by having Meridian experiment with those strategies/technologies. This would hopefully lead the rest of the ACHD cities with a pathway to help them address their own ACHD insecurities.

Joe Palmer: There is always room to have stronger relationships with ACHD and agencies that impact Meridian. I’ll do by best to work with them, not around them, for the common good to get results.

Anne Little Roberts: Meridian has a wonderful relationship with the Ada County Highway District. I believe that even good things can be better. I would work closely with ACHD to make sure that our citizens needs are met to the best of our abilities. The road improvements that are necessary for traffic flow can make things difficult for citizens during construction. I worked closely with ACHD during the split-corridor construction in downtown Meridian to keep our businesses informed during that difficult time period.

Robert Simison: Meridian traditionally has had a strong relationship with Ada County Highway District. ACHD has proven to be an effective road maintenance organization. But the roads they plan and manage are the number one complaint we have from the community due to ACHD’s funding challenges to keep up with growth. ACHD should maximize the tools they have, and request additional tools from the legislature to find a way to fund long overdue road improvements. In addition, ACHD should give more deference to the cities so we can choose our roadway priorities and set design standards that match our needs as a community.

Shaun Wardle: Meridian needs to receive more than just our proportionate share of funding. The entire valley’s traffic drives through Meridian, and we need additional resources to catch up. My proposal to STOP chip seal will probably not be popular with ACHD, but I can tell you many in our community agree that this is not the solution for our urban environment.

When it comes to transportation and urban planning, what is your philosophy?

Eagle Rd. is one of the state’s busiest corridors as it runs through Meridian. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

Gina Johnson: Learn from all of history, not just our own. Take the elements that has worked for us in the past, but improve the ones that haven’t by looking to apply prototyped solutions that have worked for other fast growing worldwide regions. Understand that everyone – not just investors, employers, residents, students, etc.- is affected, so find a solution that works for everyone by making sure we don’t sacrifice the “little guy’s” requests.

Joe Palmer: Having lived my entire life in Meridian I’ve seen it all. From the farmland to small businesses, young families to retirees, we have a lot of great people. We need to have a system in place that provides for everyone to have a strong quality of life with the lightest possible hand of government.

Anne Little Roberts: We must collaborate. It will take all of us across the Treasure Valley to make the necessary transportation changes for our citizens. I am excited about the new comprehensive plan moving forward in Meridian. It has had a great deal of input from our citizens. We must be strategic about our growth, and this will provide the playbook to do that. As we continue to develop downtown into a thriving live, work and play space – we again must be collaborative and strategic. Downtown is an opportunity to keep the community feel of our rural heritage alive.

Robert Simison: I believe that land use and transportation must be fully integrated through short and long range plans. This is a challenge for the city because we do not plan our own roads. We have worked diligently to have our transportation partners intimately involved in every aspect of planning.

Shaun Wardle: Drive density to downtown Meridian where it can create an urban environment. Let’s focus on the immediate traffic mitigation needs and create solutions – wider roads and signalized intersections. Until we solve congestion, let’s put conversations about a train on pause.

What opportunities and challenges are most pressing when it comes to growth?

Gina Johnson: Like all things, the one most important decision is Making everyone happy. It sometimes can be impossible job, but finding a solution where everyone can agree to something as long as everyone sacrifices something for that agreement can help improve relationships when facing growth and other opportunities.

Joe Palmer: Meridian and its economy is ever-changing and growth is both good and bad. If you’re not growing some will say you’re dying. The Mayor and the City Councils’ job is to help collect as much information as they can to separate the good growth from bad growth where appropriate.

Anne Little Roberts: Meridian has the opportunity to grow wisely. To work with our developers, businesses, our neighboring cities, road and school authorities and our citizens to continue to make Meridian the place we want to live, work and raise our families. We have a tremendous opportunity to add more open space and neighborhood parks as new developments are added. We have the opportunity to develop our downtown and keep the same home town feel that everyone loves now. We have the opportunity to bring high paying jobs to the area through economic planning and outreach for new businesses and existing ones. We have the opportunity to ease traffic congestion if we can get Hwy.16 to continue to I-84 The challenge is making it happen and as Mayor I accept that challenge and can’t wait to get going.

Robert Simison: Growth is important! We have one chance to get it right. Growth, and how we grow, is the underlying issue in this election as it impacts what people are concerned about: transportation/traffic and schools. Growth needs to be responsible, which means the city, government partners, development community, and residents need to be on the same page and working together on a plan. Responsible growth needs to add value and add to a premier community, not take away from it. That is the lens through which I will look at growth in our community. The best ways to help address growth in Meridian are as follows: • Implement the publicly adopted Comprehensive Plan and grow to the plan while ensuring the city, and its partner agencies, can effectively serve it once approved • Only consider Comprehensive Plan amendments every six months for the next five years. • Encourage infill development projects to slow the rate of development on city’s edge. • Support economic development efforts to locate family wage jobs and services closer to where people live.

Shaun Wardle: Growth in Meridian is out of control. Many in our community have been here for generations, paying for roads, schools, and fire stations. We need to make sure that everyone is paying their fair share. I propose that out of state home buyers wait 3 years before being granted a homeowner’s exemption.

What concrete steps can the mayor take to help address the cost of living and housing?

Village at Meridian
A new apartment complex is planned for the Village at Meridian. Via Brighton Corp.

Gina Johnson: The Mayor needs to understand why HOAs, Developers, Investors, land/building owners need to have the ability to make cash, but put themselves in the shoes of those so that residents won’t pay the price when it comes to those Cost of Living relationships. Just using mixed use zoning, green technologies, and tax increases isn’t a solution unless all sides get a equal share, not a unbalanced one.

Joe Palmer: We need to keep tight restraints on government spending in order to keep property taxes at a minimum.

Anne Little Roberts: As Mayor, I would continue to support the work that the nonprofits do in working in collaboration with our Community Development Block Grant. I would encourage private enterprise to help use creative ways to provide a variety of housing types. I think there are other avenues that we can examine to help keep long time Meridian residents on fixed incomes in their homes.

Robert Simison: Meridian has been the main provider of new housing in the Treasure Valley for the last two decades. First, the housing we build should be in alignment with, and follow, our Comprehensive Plan. We should not sacrifice what is best long-term for our community health with short-term solutions. Affordability is as much of an economic development strategy as anything. By adding more family wage jobs to the community, reducing the costs of services such as transportation by effective public transit, and encouraging density where services are available to support it, we enable home ownership as home prices are set by market demand. Also, once people get into their homes, we need to take a look at the policies that exist which are increasing the costs of homeownership, as we want people to stay in their homes. Due to placing a cap on the homeowners exemption and the rising values of homes, we are seeing more costs being shifted onto residential owners and off of commercial. For our seniors, we should examine the circuit breaker and determine if changes should be made so that those on fixed incomes can continue to enjoy the benefit of home ownership and not priced out if their own homes.

Shaun Wardle: Halt the rise of property taxes.

What do you think of Meridian’s plans to redevelop the downtown area?

Gina Johnson: More can be done to preserve the history and improve the transportation of Downtown Meridian. However other then a couple changes, I plan on continuing a majority of what Mayor Tammy DeWeerd has done so far with the local Downtown Business/residential region.

Joe Palmer: Meridian is not Boise, we have a unique community spread over almost 30 square miles with wonderful distinct communities. Generations have helped to create one of the best places to live in the west and I’ll continue to encourage that. I’m not an advocate for increasing taxes on citizens to develope more government-controlled buildings in downtown at the expense of others.

Anne Little Roberts: I am thrilled with the plans that have begun for downtown Meridian. It has been a great collaborative effort between the City, the Meridian Development Corporation (MDC) and private enterprise. I am excited to see what happens with the new City Block RFP (Request for Proposal) that the City and MDC currently have out for consideration. A great downtown needs to be a place where people want to hang out, have a good meal, conduct their daily business and live. Downtown Meridian needs to have a great vibe and be accessible to walkers, bikers and commuters.

Robert Simison: I support the current efforts where the city has been able to take key pieces of property, work with the Meridian Development Corporation and private sector, to pursue projects that will be cornerstones for downtown bringing that live/work balance. The mixed use projects in process (or being discussed) will provide residential housing to support existing and future downtown businesses, bring new employers, and provide gathering places in our downtown. This will help create the vibrant heart the community has been asking for in downtown Meridian.

Shaun Wardle: I have been a champion of redevelopment in downtown Meridian and remain committed to achieving that success. It is encouraging to finally see progress on new projects. Meridian must have a vibrant, walkable urban core that encourages business innovation and investment. We must refocus efforts to solve the impending parking crisis in downtown and provide congestion relief by connecting Broadway to Locust Grove. Our future planning needs to include revitalization of the 3 aging shopping centers at the northern entrance of Main St. – Fairview Ave – Meridian Rd. – Cherry Ln.

What do you think of the state of local politics? What, if anything, would you like to see change?

Gina Johnson: Mayor Tammy DeWeerd took bipartisanship to a better level, but the citizens don’t just want to be heard. They look to officials to make decisions that take into everyone’s situation. Not just the investors, developers, and employers. Having somebody like the Mayor actually be the “little guy” at the political table would help bring perspective and improve that political bipartisanship that Mayor Tammy developed. Meridian is at a cross roads where that can happen.

Joe Palmer: Throughout Idaho, we have hundreds or hard-working public servants on both sides of the aisle. We have accomplished a lot making Idaho, and many of the cities within, the best place to live, work and raise a family. I’m proud to serve in the Idaho Legislature and have taken part in that success.

Anne Little Roberts: In my opinion, local politics and the running of city government needs to be as close to the people as possible. The business of city government needs to be for the people and with open input from the citizens. City government officials and staff need to work for the citizens. Our city employees are some of the very best and we must take good care of them and respect the jobs that they do every day. As Mayor, City Hall will be known as a place of integrity and efficiency.

Robert Simison: We should try to keep politics out of the local government decision-making process. . Local government is closest to the people and should be solely focused on the people we serve. As far as a change, I would like to further examine the possibility of electing City Council members in Meridian by districts and would like to put this on the ballot for Meridian residents to decide in 2020.

Shaun Wardle: I believe there is a perception and potential reality that special interests control our local elections; this needs to change. Politics should be about ideas. Present something new and we can have discussions as a community, instead of doing the same things over and over.

Describe Meridian in one emoji.

Gina Johnson: 🤔

Joe Palmer: 👪

Anne Little Roberts: 😊👍

Robert Simison: 👪

Shaun Wardle: 💡

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