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Idaho Capitol sparks public space dispute

BOISE — Capitol renovations aren’t yet complete, but a dustup has already erupted over a rule limiting public exhibitions to a single floor — and the spat boils down to who’s in charge.

The nine-member Idaho Capitol Commission, which oversees the Capitol, voted in August to restrict events to the fourth floor once it reopens Jan. 9 after two years and $122 million in taxpayer-funded expense.

The panel hopes to avoid the crowding of past shows in which exhibitors filled the rotunda with 100 or more booths, duct-taped cords to the marble floors and created a fire risk.

“It’s chaos,” said Dolores Crow, a former state lawmaker and Capitol Commission member, at its meeting last month. “I’m not in favor of turning that building over to what it has been in the past.”

The new guidelines also forbid attaching posters, stickers and banners to the walls, pillars, floors, staircases, statues, portraits or anything else. Loud or noisy events are prohibited, too.

The rules don’t sit well with Buy Idaho, a nonprofit group with 1,100 members that normally spreads out on all four rotunda floors for its annual display of Gem State goods and services.

Director Dale Peterson said being banished to one floor will hamper spreading the word about Idaho products to lawmakers, something he finds especially galling amid the deepest recession in decades.

“We find it difficult to understand why we’re not being welcomed with open arms into the people’s house,” Peterson said. “There’s been no damage in 17 years. Why would there be this time?”

Buy Idaho’s event is set for Feb. 17 and the group rejected a counteroffer to use the fourth floor for an entire week, saying it needs more room.

Mike Gwartney, director of the Department of Administration, which maintains the Capitol, initially supported the rule as a Capitol Commission member. But he’s also a close friend of Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, who founded Buy Idaho 20 years ago.

So when the panel’s majority declined to make an exception for the group at its Oct. 21 meeting, Gwartney armed himself with a legal opinion from his staff attorney concluding he had final say over the Capitol’s public space. Last Thursday, he told Peterson the event could proceed.

“In extreme cases there may be a necessity for exceptions,” Gwartney informed commission members in an e-mail. “Therefore, with all due respect, I am going to overrule the Commission’s recommendation.”

Not so fast, said Jeff Youtz, Legislative Services director and also a Capitol Commission member who favors the limits.

Gwartney’s agency oversees the building’s upkeep but it’s up to the Capitol Commission to review and approve permanent or temporary exhibits, Youtz said.

The Legislature is now entering the fray.

By law, its presiding officers govern all space in the Capitol basement and on the first, third and fourth floors, while Otter controls the second floor, where his offices are located.

Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes and House Speaker Lawerence Denney hope to settle the dispute at the Nov. 18 Capitol Commission meeting. In an interview Tuesday, Geddes said he was sympathetic to Buy Idaho’s concerns but doesn’t want to jeopardize the recent renovations.

“Certainly, as we go forward, we need to make sure they understand if they are granted use in the Capitol, we’re going to be watching very closely,” he said.

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