April 3, 2009 in Idaho

Sun Valley feud brings Capitol dust-up

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

Wally Huffman, general manager of the Sun Valley Resort for the past 42 years, testifies to the Senate State Affairs Committee on Friday on a city consolidation bill, as Sun Valley City Council President Nils Ribi, left, and Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich look on. After the hearing, an angry Huffman had to be restrained by Capitol Annex security after he menaced a reporter.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - Tensions between influential folks from Sun Valley boiled over at the Idaho Legislature on Friday, ending with Capitol Annex security having to restrain the general manager of the Sun Valley Resort after he menaced a reporter.

The whole brouhaha was prompted by a bill regarding consolidation of cities that Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, described as “pretty innocent, but it pushed a button.” Currently, when two cities combine, Idaho law requires that they take the name of the larger city. Ketchum is larger than Sun Valley, which means that if the two combined, they’d be called Ketchum.

The bill, SB 1157, would’ve let voters decide the new name when they vote on combining cities. Jaquet said she thought that would take the emotion out of the debate over the consolidation issue - a similar proposal failed 20 years ago, she said, because of the name question.

But after a long, bitter hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee that pitted some Sun Valley city council members against others, the committee voted 5-3 to kill the bill.

Sun Valley City Councilwoman Joan Lamb testified in favor of it. “Sun Valley is the brand,” she told the committee. “That’s the name that has worldwide recognition.”

Sun Valley Resort General Manager Wally Huffman said that “brand” belongs to his business, and he said consolidation would be “a disaster for my company” because of changes it would bring in local development ordinances. “It is shameful in my mind … that the Legislature would be injected at this point into what is a local debate,” Huffman told the senators.

Exacerbating the tensions was the fact that the bill’s lead sponsor was Sen. Jon Thorson, D-Ketchum - a former mayor of Sun Valley who is filling in for the ill Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum. Thorson is a major proponent of combining the resort cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley, a prospect that’s highly controversial there.

“The city of Ketchum is Sun Valley’s downtown,” Thorson told the committee. “They are all one community.”

Sun Valley itself contains only the resort and residential areas; the two are adjacent.

But the mayor of Sun Valley, Wayne Willich, the city council president, Nils Ribi, and Huffman strenuously opposed the bill. Committee Chairman Curtis McKenzie, R-Nampa, had to reprimand Huffman at one point for questioning the motives of the legislative sponsors, who included both Thorson and Jaquet.

After the meeting, the silver-haired Willich confronted an Associated Press reporter outside the hearing room and told him told him to be sure to report that his city was the target of a “hostile takeover.” As the reporter was attempting to leave the hallway, Huffman’s wife called him “evil,” and the reporter responded with a retort about being insulted.

“That’s my wife you’re talking to!” Huffman could be heard declaring loudly, as he got into the reporter’s face and began daring him to hit him. As Huffman pursued the reporter into the second-floor foyer of the Capitol Annex, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis called in a large Capitol Annex security guard, who moved between Huffman and the reporter to put an end to the clash.

“This is over,” Davis declared.

Before the committee killed the bill, Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, commented, “The perception is crystal-clear that this injects the Legislature in the middle of a huge local feud.”

Jaquet said later, “I thought this should be fixed, so they can have a real discussion rather than fighting.” But that didn’t work, she said. “I think the idea is probably dead.”

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