Green vs. green 

County commission candidates talk open space, pocketbooks

Commissioner Paul Woods outside his Foothills home. - CHARLES FOREST
A wide shot of candidate Sharon Ullman's abode in the county. Ullman declined to be photographed for this story. - CHARLES FOREST
  • Charles Forest
  • A wide shot of candidate Sharon Ullman's abode in the county. Ullman declined to be photographed for this story.

Paul Woods loves the Foothills. His modest, one-story house is tucked neatly into the sagebrush folds that start just north of Hill Road and west of Bogus Basin Road.

His kids can walk to school and he can cycle or take the bus to his job on the Ada County Board of Commissioners. Woods, a Democrat, is battling to hold on to his seat this November. He's up against Republican Sharon Ullman, a former commissioner whom he defeated in a three-way race in 2006.

After living in the North End flats for 10 years, Woods and his young family decided this summer to edge up into a more spacious, and hilly, 1970s subdivision. They're renting for now while their future house, just up the hill, is renovated. Sitting on the back porch of his rented home, Woods gestured to his two energetic dogs and said how much he loves hiking and mountain biking on the nearby trails, and then heading to Highlands Hollow for a drink with friends. Boise's open spaces inspired him to fight for connectivity, smarter growth and better zoning: "To have a plan," he said. "Not to just kind of randomly come about trails and open space, but try to reach out there before it's all developed."

Ullman, who has six children between the ages of 4 and 22, has worked as a journalist, activist and has served on local committees and boards both in and out of government. In 1999 Ullman received an open government award from the Idaho Newspaper Foundation for an investigation of the Idaho Housing and Finance Association which led to the firing of then-director Rod Beck. She won a seat on the County Commission in 2000, serving one term.

Ullman is also the president of Northwest Knights Records, LLC, a record label she started about seven months ago.

Ullman declined a face-to-face interview with Boise Weekly, but according to public records, she now lives in unincorporated Ada County, many miles south and west of Boise. The closest bus stop to her apartment is about three miles north at Overland and Maple Grove. The drive to Ullman's place winds through a few older, smaller subdivisions before bursting out of the trees and into a development archipelago, each clump of tightly packed housing units flanked by giant "For Lease" signs and separated by ever-shrinking seas of agricultural fields. The busy two- lane roads are not conducive to walking to school or biking to work.

While Woods is well known for his passion for open space, Ullman declined to discuss the topic. She instead spoke repeatedly about what she said would be her main priority if elected. "The primary focus of my campaign is keeping more of your money in your pockets," she wrote in an e-mail, calling the $20 million budget increase from 2006 to 2008 "totally uncalled for." Ullman says her work on the commission from 2001 to 2003 saved Ada County taxpayers about $14 million.

Ullman, who only took questions by e-mail after two brief phone conversations, said that she plans to make government more open and accountable in several ways.

"The public often feels shut out of Ada County government and must be welcomed back in," she said. She suggests a Web site, "to communicate directly with the public ... rather than communicating through the media or a county PR person ... we're spending $182,000 a year to put out news releases that are basically spin. The public still doesn't know what county government does."

While not exactly open to meeting the press, Ullman did respond to questions about a run-in with a Gem County Sheriff's deputy in May. Ullman was briefly questioned and asked to take her activities elsewhere when a deputy discovered a "suspicious vehicle" parked at a monument in Emmett in which two adults "appeared to be involved in a sexual act."

"I was with a widowed friend," Ullman wrote. "[The deputy] expressed his concern for my welfare. I assured him that my male companion was a friend, with whom I was there voluntarily." Ullman said she appreciated the officer's concern, "even if his imagination and zealousness exceeded the needs of the occasion."

Woods is a civil engineer who worked for Boise City to acquire open space in the Foothills after the 2001 Foothills levy passed. His own subdivision was controversial when it was being built several decades ago, he said, when the area north of Hill Road was considered the middle of nowhere. As a commissioner, Woods said he works for better coordination between the county and its cities. He said his goal is to work more closely with cities to tie their open space and development plans to those of the county, something that historically has not happened.

"From a policy perspective, I have a real interest in seeing cities in the county working together, not competing with each other," he said, noting that he would not agree to a development that was within a city's comprehensive planning zone unless the city also agreed. That way, Woods said, the city can plan to grow toward that development rather than in competition with it.

"Require a path to annexation," he said. "It gets away from the creation of a second city, and gets them to agree with one city that will become a part of you. And you're giving the city veto power over that."

Ullman does agree with Woods that far-flung developments, those outside a city or its area of impact, are impractical.

"Although planned communities sound good in theory," she said, "some of those recently proposed in Ada County will clearly not function in a fully self-contained manner. It is paramount that planned communities be compatible with the surrounding areas, and not put an undue burden on neighboring communities and taxpayers." Ullman advocates that developers of these distant communities be required to pay for the community services they use such as water, sewer, police, fire and medical services.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the difference between the candidates is to reference their position on Boise's proposed detoxification center. For Ullman, it all comes down to the black-and-white letters of state code and the tax burden, while Woods defends the county's involvement in the center's construction as an approach that will save taxpayers money in the long run.

Ullman says that no portion of the county budget should fund a detox center because substance abuse is the bailiwick of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

"Every aspect of detox is the responsibility of the state, so the county in my mind should not be using local dollars. It doesn't really matter the source of those dollars. They're still public funds that have come down into the county level, which if they weren't going into this program, they could be given back to the taxpayers," she said.

But Woods says he's taking a long-term view. "Without the state doing anything about it, which they haven't, the county taxpayers are paying more through the emergency rooms in our community. Why wouldn't we try to do something that's a tenth of the cost, and has a better chance of breaking the cycle [than] just going to the ER for drunken or mental health crisis episodes?" he said.

"I can't say, 'Well I reduced county property tax,' when I stuck it to other modes of the tax segment to have to do things. That's part of the challenge—looking at it holistically and not saying 'Oh, I'm just going to do what's best for a particular jurisdiction. These things are all connected."

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