TWIN FALLS — As Twin Falls grows, it continues to face the challenges of recruiting and retaining a workforce, maintaining its infrastructure and keeping its people safe.
City Council candidates weighed in on these issues and more Thursday night at a candidate forum hosted by the Times-News. Nine candidates competing for three seats appeared enlivened by the city’s growth as they talked about ways to foster pedestrian and bicycle safety, develop a recreation center and improve roads.
Beginning next week with early voting, Twin Falls residents will choose which three faces they want to represent them on the seven-member City Council for the next four years. Unlike in many other city elections, Twin Falls’ candidates run for a specific seat — although every seat represents the city at large.
In Seat No. 1, incumbent Suzanne Hawkins faces local businesswoman Liyah Babayan, former county commissioner Leon Mills and recreation center committee member Eric Smallwood.
In Seat No. 5, incumbent Greg Lanting is challenged by Air St. Luke’s helicopter pilot Tim Allen and fourth-generation Idahoan Larry Houser.
And in Seat. No. 6, Christopher Reid — who was appointed to the City Council earlier this year — is running against Brian Bell, a network and controls administrator for Amalgamated Sugar Co.
Candidates are split on the city’s tax philosophies, especially over the foregone balance — tax increases it has not taken in years past but could tax citizens for in the future.
Hawkins was one of the Council members opposed to taking any of the foregone balance this year.
“We don’t have the manpower to take on another project,” she said.
If the city considered taking foregone balance later, Babayan said, it needs to be more conscientious of how even a gradual increase affects those who are living in poverty. Landlords pass on the additional property tax to their renters, she said.
Smallwood thought the foregone balance should have gone into roads this year.
“Our roads took a beating last winter,” he said. And the cost to repair them will only increase, he added.
Mills, however, didn’t believe the city should have the ability to take money it hasn’t in years past. The shock to taxpayers, he said, is not fair.
“I don’t think we should put it into a savings account to tax the people later,” Mills said.
The candidates also talked about a future recreation center and other amenities that bring the city’s residents a sense of place — which could go a long ways toward workforce retention.
Smallwood saw trails and recreation as ways the city could improve life while addressing obesity and health problems.
“I see the recreation center as probably the biggest thing the city could do to attract talent,” he said.
Hawkins said she’d support a recreation center that addressed needs and fit within a city’s budget. But her personal dream has been to bring minor league baseball back to Twin Falls.
Babayan is running her campaign on the message that the Council should represent the people and their desires first. The members need to reach out to groups that aren’t being represented and get them on advisory committees, she said, while considering needs for better walking and biking routes throughout the city.
Mills noted his past involvement in a bike park, skate park and dog park — as well as his personal enjoyment of recreation.
“My past involvement will also be my current and future involvement,” he said.
In summarizing their strengths, Hawkins and Mills brought up their past experience in government and their forward-thinking. Babayan focused on bringing diversity to the City Council — she arrived in Twin Falls as a refugee 25 years ago. Smallwood said he would aim to fill in the city, verses spreading it out further, and would push to reroute Highway 30 away from downtown.
Lanting, Allen and Houser had different goals for how they could help make the city a better place as it grows.
The incumbent, who was on the City Council when the city recruited Chobani, now favors helping existing businesses grow in a time of low unemployment.
“Workforce development is definitely something that we’re going to need to talk about,” Lanting said.
The city could also do better on its streets as far as pedestrian and bicycle transportation, he said.
Houser thought the city should embrace the hemp industry to expand its tax revenue and pursue policies that would eventually allow marijuana establishments for medical use. He also proposed cleaning up and developing Rock Creek Canyon, and combining a future recreation center with an event center.
Allen hopes the city will keep expanding its parks and trails.
“The possibilities are endless,” he said.
In considering a potential pathway for pedestrians along Canyon Springs Road, Allen understood the cost would be great but recommended looking at other ways to make the grade safer.
In closing statements, Lanting said this would likely be his last term on the City Council. Allen, who looked forward to getting more involved in the city — win or lose — hoped he could help make it a better place to live. Houser felt as a Council member, he could help the city re-evaluate its policies.
Another question at the forum asked candidates about the city’s recent pay increases for retaining police and firefighters — and what the ultimate solution is.
Reid, who works for Zions Bank, agreed that the city should consider what other communities are paying those employees and ensure it is competing fairly. But he also looked at making sure the community itself is livable and affordable.
“Money’s the easy part,” Bell said about the city changing its compensation rate for employees. “… The hard part is keeping them.”
Workers need to feel like they are a part of the community, he said. That could be difficult to address, but the city needs to find a way.
Regarding the city’s foregone balance, Bell did not support surprising taxpayers with larger increases later on.
“If we don’t use it, don’t tax it,” he said. “And leave it at that.”’
Reid said he would have voted to use foregone balance if the city had had any specific projects in mind for it. This year, he didn’t see the emergency-type projects — such as water line fixes and road repairs — that may have warranted using it.
On the topic of the recreation center, Bell said it would be a step in the right direction to get people off their phones. But Reid was highly concerned about the center’s costs.
“It’s a lot of money not only now but for our future generations to pay,” he said.
This is Reid’s second time running for City Council after losing a bid he made six years ago soon after moving here. He was appointed by Council to Don Hall’s seat.
Bell has not run for election before, but is a lifelong Magic Valley resident and “unabashedly a geek.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated Oct. 24 with a correction to Larry Houser's comments.
WENDELL — For the first time since 2003, Wendell School District will have a new superintendent next year.
After 14 years at the helm, Greg Lowe will retire at the end of this school year.
He made the announcement during an August school board meeting. Because of some confusion among employees who hadn’t heard the news or had questions, he sent out an email Wednesday to confirm he’s retiring.
Lowe plans to officially step down as superintendent June 30, 2018. He said Thursday he wanted to announce his retirement as early as possible.
“It’s a good thing, I think, for the school district,” he said. “It helps prepare. It helps plan as the year goes through.”
Wendell’s school board is conducting a nationwide search, school board chairwoman Tessa Yon said Thursday afternoon.
“Ideally, we’d like to have someone hired no later than March,” Yon said. “We are appreciative of all Greg has done for the Wendell community and the students in our district.”
Lowe isn’t the only Idaho superintendent nearing retirement age. Two-thirds of the state’s superintendents, 72 of 105, are 50 or older, according to the Idaho State Department of Education.
Here in south-central Idaho, Twin Falls’ Wiley Dobbs retired in September. Cassia County School District superintendent Gaylen Smyer announced in April he’ll retire at the end of this school year.
Lowe, who has been an Idaho educator for 40 years, started his career as a teacher in the Grace School District, where he spent 15 years.
“I taught sixth-grade almost every one of those years, which I loved,” he said. He also spent a few years as balancing both teaching and principal duties.
He served as school principal for 11 years in Mini-Cassia before becoming superintendent of the Wendell School District, which has about 1,200 students.
Lowe said his highlights as a superintendent include working with coworkers and the community, reviving the agriculture program at Wendell schools, and overseeing curriculum, including literacy.
Plus, a new elementary school opened in 2012 “that really is meeting the needs of the community and children so well,” he said. There was 77 percent approval for the $9.8 million bond measure, which voters approved in 2010.
When Paula Chapman was searching for her first school administrator job, she wanted to find a superintendent who’d support her. She said she found that in Wendell.
Now, she has been principal for five years at Wendell Elementary School.
Lowe has a wealth of knowledge as an instructional leader, she said, and provides leadership that’s impacted both her and the school district.
“He wants to see teachers grow as professionals,” Chapman said. “Education is his priority. He’s an educator first. “
He enjoys seeing students grow to their full potential, both academically and socially, Chapman said.
Lowe is frequently seen out and about in Wendell’s schools, and he conducts five-minute observations that he follows up with providing feedback.
“The teachers know who he is. He’s very active in their school day,” Chapman said.
He wants to know what’s happening in town, has an open door policy and wants to know what community members think of what’s happening in the school district, she said.
Chapman also described Lowe as an active listener and excellent communicator who takes suggestions open-heartedly.
One example of Lowe’s efforts to reach the community: He worked closely with the school board to organize “The Face of Wendell Schools Roadshow,” slated for 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the elementary school gymnasium. The event is intended to showcase school district programs, projects and people.
“It demonstrates his philosophy that we’re not a standalone school district,” Chapman said. “We need our community.”
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress demanded answers Thursday two weeks after an ambush in the African nation of Niger killed four U.S. soldiers, with one top lawmaker even threatening subpoenas. The White House defended the slow pace of information, saying an investigation would eventually offer clarity about a tragedy that has morphed into a political dispute in the United States.
Among the unresolved inquiries: Why were the Americans apparently caught by surprise? Why did it take two additional days to recover one of the four bodies after the shooting stopped? Was the Islamic State responsible?
The confusion over what happened in a remote corner of Niger, where few Americans travel, has increasingly dogged President Donald Trump, who was silent about the deaths for more than a week.
Asked why, Trump on Monday turned the topic into a political tussle by crediting himself with doing more to honor the dead and console their families than any of his predecessors. His subsequent boast that he reaches out personally to all families of the fallen was contradicted by interviews with family members, some of whom had not heard from Trump at all.
And then the aunt of an Army sergeant killed in Niger, who raised the soldier as her son, said Wednesday that Trump had shown “disrespect” to the soldier’s loved ones as he telephoned to extend condolences while family members were driving to the Miami airport to receive his body. Sgt. La David Johnson was one of the four Americans killed Oct. 4 in southwest Niger; Trump called the families of all four Tuesday.
In an extraordinary White House briefing, John Kelly, the former Marine general who is Trump’s chief of staff, described himself as “stunned” and “brokenhearted” by the criticism of Trump. He also invoked his son serving in Iraq to explain why American soldiers operate in dangerous parts of the world, saying their efforts to train local forces mean the U.S. doesn’t have to undertake large-scale invasions of its own. Kelly’s other son, Robert, was killed in combat in Afghanistan seven years ago.
The deadly ambush in Niger occurred as Islamic militants on motorcycles, toting rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, seized on a U.S. convoy and shattered the windows of their unarmored trucks. In addition to those killed, two Americans were wounded. No extremist group has claimed responsibility.
The attack is under official military investigation, as is normal for a deadly incident.
What is abnormal, according to Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the Trump administration’s slow response to requests for information. He said Thursday it may take a subpoena to shake loose more information.
“They are not forthcoming with that information,” McCain told reporters.
Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said members of Congress have been provided with some information about the attack, “but not what we should.”
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pushed back, saying it naturally takes time to verify information about a combat engagement. He promised to provide accurate information as soon as it’s available, but offered no timetable.
“The loss of our troops is under investigation,” he said. “We in the Department of Defense like to know what we’re talking about before we talk.”
Mattis did not offer details about the circumstances under which the Americans were traveling but said contact with hostile forces had been “considered unlikely.”
That would explain why the Americans, who were traveling in unarmored vehicles with Nigerien counterparts, lacked access to medical support and had no immediate air cover, although Mattis said French aircraft were called to the scene quickly. He said contract aircraft flew out the bodies of three Americans shortly after the firefight. Local Nigeriens found Johnson’s body and returned it Oct. 6.
It’s not clear why Johnson was not found with the three others Oct. 4.
Dana W. White, a spokeswoman for Mattis, said Johnson had become “separated.” Speaking at a news conference with her, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, said he knew more about what had happened to Johnson but was not willing to share it. He said U.S., Nigerien and French forces remained in the area searching for Johnson until he was found, so it would be wrong to say he was “left behind.”
Mattis said the U.S. has about 1,000 troops in that part of Africa to support a French-led mission to disrupt and destroy extremist elements. He said the U.S. provides aerial refueling, intelligence and reconnaissance support, and ground troops to engage with local leaders.
“In this specific case, contact (with hostile forces) was considered unlikely, but the reason we had U.S. Army soldiers there and not the Peace Corps, it’s because we carry guns.”
McKenzie said last week that U.S. troops in that area had done 29 similar missions over the previous six months without encountering enemy forces.
Underlining how the attack and its response have rattled the White House this week, Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, also joined the defense. He said Thursday that it would be wrong for the Pentagon to provide details of the tragedy before it had fully verified them in the course of an in-depth investigation.