Meridian City Council held its first hearing on an ordinance to switch city council seats 1 and 2.
Starting in 2023, Meridian City Council members will be elected by geographic district. The council recently approved new districts, one for each council seat. Previously, candidates ran for a specific seat, but that seat didn’t reflect a specific city area.
“To me this is the way to fully implement representative government as quickly as possible,” Mayor Robert Simison said. “In my opinion, it reflects the will of the people from the last election.”
Currently, District 1 is in northwest Meridian, District 4 is in northeastern Meridian, both Districts 5 and 6 are predominantly south of Interstate 84 and Districts 2 and 3 are north of I-84.
As established, current city Councilmember Treg Bernt would be in District 4, and Joe Borton would be in District 1. Both Liz Strader and Brad Hoaglun would be in District 2, and both Luke Cavener and Jessica Perreault would be in District 6.
However, voters reelected three incumbents in 2021 for four-year terms. One of the three, Borton, lives in District 1 but was elected to seat 2. His term won’t be done until 2025, which means seat 2 wouldn’t have a council member from that district until then.
But in 2020, the Legislature passed HB 413, requiring cities with over 100,000 residents to elect council members by geographic district. Meridian held off in the 2021 election because its population count was unofficial until 2020 census data was released.
In 2021, the City of Boise elected half its council members to two-year terms instead of the usual four-year terms. This means that all six council seats will be up for election by district in Boise in 2023.
City Attorney Bill Nary said the Meridian council is not required to make the change, but if the council does nothing, then Meridian won’t have fully by-district representation until the November 2025 election.
“Other cities have chosen a different path that we did not choose to go down because we didn’t find the same comfort level of state law support,” Nary said.
Tuesday was the first reading of the ordinance to switch seats 1 and 2. The second reading will be on Aug. 9 and there will be a third opportunity for the public to comment after that.
Not an ‘oops,’ city says
Nary gave a presentation to the council which he started off by responding to a news story written about the situation.
“The title of it was ‘Oops,’ like we missed something. No one missed anything,” Nary said. “The committee that we asked to volunteer their time to create these districts, pursuant to state code, did exactly what they were asked to do.”
The committee was supposed to base the districts entirely on population and precincts, as required by state law, Nary said.
The districts are not being changed or sent back to committee.
“The impression I got from reading the news story about it was that someone erred and now we’re trying to fix an error,” Nary said. “What we’re proposing is to change seat numbers.”
State law allows the city clerk to designate seat numbers, he said.
The districts were decided on by the City of Meridian districting committee, which city staff have previously said was not to take into consideration where current members or future candidates might live.
If the council switches the districts, then districts 1, 2, 4 and 6 would have one or more city council members as an incumbent lives in each geographical district.
“We’re meeting the intent of the state law sooner,” Nary said. “The intent of the code was to have representative government by districts. The sooner, the better.”
Change in election schedule
The ordinance will also change when seats are up for election. Currently, three seats are up each election, alternating between 1, 3, and 5 and 2, 4, and 6. This ordinance would switch seats 1 and 2.
Councilmember Liz Strader, who currently lives in District 2, said she would be abstaining from any vote on the issue.
“I do think this is very positive for the residents of what is currently designated as District 2 but I cannot ignore the fact, after thinking about this … that this change would benefit me directly,” Strader said. “It would specifically allow me to run for office two years earlier.”
However, Councilmember Brad Hoaglun, who also lives in District 2, disagreed with how she felt.
“I see it completely different,” Hoaglun said. “ This allows the voters of the district to make that decision right away, instead of having someone who lives out of the district be their representative. They get to vote immediately on who they want, whether it’s Councilmember Strader, me or someone else. That’s their decision.”
A few people who attended the meeting spoke in opposition. Meridian resident Michael Luis said he thought the council should just stick with the already approved plan. And another resident, Philip Reynolds, said the plan would not help citizens.
“It’s going to benefit council members but it has no positive or negative impact on the citizens,” Reynolds said. “So please do the right thing. Please do not support this.”