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Packaging a narrative: Inside the Boise Stadium push

ICCU: Business Unusual

NEWS ANALYSIS

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Boise Mayor Dave Bieter hopes a stadium will be built in his downtown.

In the past ten days, in coordination with public agencies in which he has control or large influence, a carefully laid out plan has rolled out to sell it to the public.

First, a carefully pitched story in the Statesman.

Next, a jolly public hearing.

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Then, a Facebook post on the City’s public page (followed by misleading information, more on that in a moment).

On Thursday, a quick window of public feedback.

Precise. Tight. Simple.

It follows a pattern I’ve observed over the past year for projects that include the City of Boise, Capital City Development Corporation, Greater Boise Auditorium District and others.

Leaders toil very quietly for months – working hard to keep their work from public view.  When the time is right, they uncork the plan and move as swiftly as possible. Public feedback is generally nominal – and sometimes later presented in a misleading way. 

In a diminished media era with little to no scrutiny on City Hall and related agencies – it’s more straightforward than ever to move forward a preset agenda.

Public leaders do everything they can to avoid scrutiny before they are ready.

As readers of BoiseDev know, many stories and scoops are borne from public records. In fact, most are.

That doesn’t mean we don’t engage with spokespeople, business leaders and others – but good stories are more often found in public meetings and records than in “access journalism,” which comes from writing positive stories in order to get more tips and scoops  

I don’t get a ton of access. In fact, I get the distinct impression some folks wish they didn’t have to deal with the scrutiny. Sometimes emails go without response. I’ve been derisively called “our friend Don” in interagency emails, and had emails go back and forth with code like “DD” and “a local journalist” so the public records are harder to find. I’ve also observed evidence that officials are using their private emails to conduct public business.

That’s all a bit agitating at times – but it’s an easy reminder that journalists work for their readers and not for public officials whose salaries are paid with tax dollars.

After our initial story on the stadium last February, a member of the CCDC board and Boise City Council, Scot Ludwig, went to a another news outlet with full details on the stadium. 

The move startled folks with both of those agencies – with a flurry of emails traded back-and-forth essentially saying “it wasn’t us.” It also surprised the developer – who told me at the time he wasn’t expecting the story.

I had inquired about the stadium, requested documents and been given very little information – due in part perhaps to coverage of the Boise streetcar and other municipal issues that took a more critical look than is often found elsewhere.

Two sources with knowledge of the situation say the story was rushed to another reporter because they were fearful of a more critical dig into the issue.

Extensive public records requests this year show public officials work to shield things from view, or decide how to frame them. When I began looking at a hush hush closed-door meeting with top business leaders on the stadium last month, I was not provided with documents but instead had to ask for them in a formal request. The City, by state law, can delay handing them out for up to ten days.

As soon as the request was made – a note went from the folks who handle the public records request to city spokespeople – cc’ed up to and including the mayor – noting the request came in and that they would “have to turn it over after ten days.”

The document existed and would have been an easy email forward.  But by working the mechanics of the process, they were able to keep the public in the dark until they were ready to run their plan.  

Back to that Facebook post.

Several commentors noted they weren’t happy that tax dollars were being used.

The City of Boise official account noted “there will be zero impact on personal taxes.”

This is untrue.

After I commented pointing this out — noting that the $3 million comes from the City of Boise General Fund – an account which is made up of tax collections, the City backtracked.

“Don and David, our apologies if we came across misleading. Yes, the $3 million is from the general fund which does come from tax payer dollars, however, your taxes will not see an increase for this project.”

Citizens will have to make up their own mind if public tax dollars should be used for a private development. But the only way this can happen is if leaders are forthcoming and honest.  

There are many additional angles to the Boise Stadium story that deserve public scrutiny.  There is a significant opposition group that is forming – and though its motives aren’t fully clear, they appear ready to dig in and fight at a level perhaps unseen in local government in a while.

I’ll keep digging. (And if you know something, I always appreciate your tips – don@boisedev.com is easy-to-remember!)

Edited to remove a couple of paragraphs that may have caused confusion.

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Don Day
Don is the founder and editor of BoiseDev. He is a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Stanford University John S. Knight Fellow.

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