When Bob Flowers was a student at Post Falls High School, the town had fewer than 3,000 people.
Now it’s upward of 33,000, and the latest projections say it’ll almost triple again to a whopping 91,000 by the year 2035.
“I don’t know where those folks are going to live or what they’re going to do for a living,” said Flowers, 61, who’s long worked in the construction trades and says he gets up at 4:30 every morning and goes to work. So after years of attending city meetings and stewing, he signed up to run for the City Council this year – and found himself in a six-way race for a single open seat.
“You may be asking yourself why some ordinary guy wants to run for City Council,” Flowers said at a recent “Meet the Candidates” forum at Post Falls City Hall. “Well I’ll tell you: It’s development.”
That’s a common theme among the half-dozen candidates, who are vying in one of North Idaho’s few crowded, contested races in this fall’s city elections.
“It’s just too much,” said candidate Bobby Wilhelm, a fourth-generation Post Falls resident with a colorful past and a family-owned bar. “Somebody has to step up and save the prairie here. Somebody’s got to have a no vote in there once in a while.”
Four of the six candidates are making their first run for elective office; Flowers ran unsuccessfully eight years ago. The sixth, former City Councilman Joe Bodman, is a former three-term Post Falls council member who lost to Betty Ann Henderson eight years ago; she’s now retiring, and it’s her open seat that’s up for grabs.
Bodman is the Spokane County sheriff’s deputy who struck a 15-year-old boy on a bike with his patrol car in 2014, killing him. The county ended up paying the family of Ryan Holyk $1 million in a settlement in March, a week before their wrongful death lawsuit was set to go to trial. “It was three years of hell, and I still deal with it,” Bodman said.
He said he’s planning to retire from the sheriff’s department this year, and for the past eight months has worked in the training unit, rather than on patrol.
The other candidates include the longtime city parks and recreation director for the city of Coeur d’Alene, Steve Anthony, who’s now retired and living in Post Falls and wants to make sure green spaces are accounted for as the city grows; retired Texas police officer Rick Whitehead, who moved to Post Falls seven years ago and recalls watching Austin try, and fail, to stymie growth; and James Steffensen, a 37-year-old banker who moved to Post Falls six years ago in part to get away from the big city.
“We lived in the big city already, and don’t want to do that again,” said Steffensen, a married father of two whose wife grew up in Coeur d’Alene.
Despite the crowd of candidates running for the single open seat, three other races in Post Falls this fall are uncontested. Mayor Ron Jacobson and city councilors Alan Wolfe and Linda Wilhelm all are running unopposed for re-election.
“I believe they’re all doing a good job,” Flowers said.
Steffensen agreed. “I didn’t want to go up against the other council people because I think they’re doing a fine job – I like a lot of the things they say and they do.”
Wilhelm, who doesn’t mince words, said, “To me, this may sound odd, but Post Falls is actually ran too good. Everybody wants to move here. I mean, paradise is lost. It’s going to look like Los Angeles out here on the prairie the way it’s going, and everyone’s going to wake up some day and go, ‘What happened?’”
Jacobson, who’s been mayor for the past four years and on the council since 1999, and served on various city boards and commissions before that, says growth is absolutely the city’s top issue.
“We have the land – that’s the reason,” he said. “Coeur d’Alene doesn’t have that much land available, because they’re bordered by different communities.”
Post Falls takes in 14 square miles – it’s a big place, that stretches from scenic riverfront parks and thriving businesses out onto the Rathdrum Prairie.
The city has been working on growth issues; that’s why the big population growth prediction came out. It’s part of planning for ways that people will get around in the growing city into the future, from roads and intersections to bike trails, bus routes and roundabouts.
“Post Falls has become the place to build,” said Anthony, the former longtime Coeur d’Alene parks chief. “And it’s been affordable for young families. It’s strategically located between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, so it’s just a natural. And I know there’s concerns about growing too fast.”
Jacobson said, “There are those who want to see no growth. And those who say the city approves every subdivision without applying common sense, analysis and planning. I strongly disagree. Without growth, cities will die. Nothing is rubber-stamped, and all aspects of our codes and master plans are applied. Any and all developments are properly vetted.”
Each of the hopefuls for the open council seat has spoken out on growth in Post Falls how the city should handle it. Each also brings something unique to the race. Here’s a look:
“We need more rooftops to get some big company here on this side of the county,” said Bodman, who’s pro-growth. “I think right now they’re dealing with it just fine. … My top issue is getting more businesses here and developing some of the property that is sitting empty in certain places.” He added, “We’re not going to stop it.”
Bodman noted that having served 12 years on the council previously, he’s the most experienced among the candidates. “My family’s here, all my kids are here, my grandkids are here,” he said. Noting his 32 years of law enforcement experience, he said, “I want them to grow up in a safe area and be safe.”
Flowers says, “The people of Post Falls are not listened to like they should be. The council tries, but they’re business men and women who really don’t understand what this uncontrolled growth is doing to the everyday citizens of Post Falls. … We need jobs. We need jobs that pay a living wage.”
Flowers, whose grandparents settled near Sandpoint in 1941, has spent most of his life in North Idaho. He said he believes ordinary folks in town need to get more involved. “Instead of just sitting back and complaining, they should get out and at least exercise their rights,” he said.
Wilhelm’s interest was piqued when he fought a development near his home. “Three months ago I had no idea – I’ve never had any ambitions to run for political office,” he said. “You can’t stop it, I’m not saying that. But you’ve got to save the prairie – it just cannot be a sea of homes from here to Rathdrum.”
Wilhelm, whose family long has owned Bob’s 21 Club, served 16 years in prison on drug charges, after a wild early life as a drug dealer and hell-raiser. He was released 11 years ago. “It was probably the best thing for me, and when I got out, I just said, ‘No more,’ ” he said. “And I turned my life around, and I’ve been clean for over 20 years. I haven’t had a sip of alcohol or any drugs for over 20 years.”
He told his story in his book “Bobby Convict,” available at Costco. It’s “a real turn-your-life-around story,” Wilhelm said.
Anthony said he’s had some pushback from people who noted how long he lived and worked in Coeur d’Alene, but said he’d like to bring his long municipal experience to bear to help his current hometown, where his son also lives. “Coeur d’Alene’s landlocked, basically, so a lot of people are building out here,” he said. “It just has to be done right.”
“You can’t cluster people too close together – they need room,” he said. “The kids need places to play. I’m an advocate of open space.”
Anthony said he’s had lots of experience with collaboration, including when he worked with Post Falls on joint recreation projects for kids with special needs and when he persuaded school districts in Coeur d’Alene to partner with the city to build full gyms, rather than just multipurpose rooms, at five schools – allowing them to serve both the schools and the city. “It worked out great,” he said, “and they do get a lot of use.”
“I think my experience could help add to the quality of life in Post Falls and keep it as a great place to be able to raise your family,” he said.
Whitehead said he’s heard as he’s campaigned that people are concerned that developers are getting exemptions from city rules. “I fully believe in growth, and you can’t stifle any property owner from selling his property and a developer buying it and wanting to grow,” he said. But rules should be enforced, said the longtime law enforcement officer.
Whitehead said he saw the city of Austin, Texas, try to stop growth, even as it was swelling from several hundred thousand people to over a million. “Austin has a collection of problems today that exist because they tried to prevent growth, which can’t be done,” he said. “It needs to be managed intelligently.”
“If we actually get to that 90,000, what happens at 90,000?” Steffensen said. “Some people think the roads are already overcrowded, that the city’s already too crowded. We have to figure out how we’re going to address that, because I think the growth is coming.”
He said he and his young family moved from near Washington, D.C., just over six years ago for a better place to raise their kids. “We bought a house, had another child here, we’re settled here – we like it,” he said. “We have to be able to grow it, but at a responsible rate, and bring in the right kind of growth, bring in businesses … so we have citizens that are living in Post Falls, working there, and that’s also where they play.”
Steffensen said he’s gratified that there’s so much interest in the race, unlike neighboring Coeur d’Alene, where every seat that’s on the ballot is unopposed this year, or Heutter and Harrison, where council seats are open but no one’s filed to run. “I didn’t think it’d be six people, but that’s fine,” he said. “People want to get involved.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.