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Helen Newton

Tables have turned during the past year for Sandpoint’s Helen Newton, not only health-wise but politically. Shortly after retiring in 2005, the longtime former Sandpoint City Clerk decided to try her hand in politics. That fall, she won a 4-year term on the City Council. 

Now, with more than a year’s experience under her belt, Newton maintains the same sense of responsibility and meticulous attention to detail which earned her accolades from several past mayors and current Mayor Ray Miller, whose term expires this year.

Serving, “on the other side” as an elected city official, however, Councillor Newton has encountered strikingly different roadblocks. In January, for example, she was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening disease, Guillain-Barre Syndrome which tested her determination to carry out her council duties. 

Newton shared her observations with me in this exclusive Q & A.

How do those with whom you’ve worked in the past react to you now that you’re a council member?

My perception is that it has been a difficult transition for some elected officials who held office while I was clerk to work with me as their peer rather than as their employee. Some department heads who worked with me as a peer now appear to see me differently because I can potentially influence how their departments operate through budget decisions. 

What was your biggest surprise/adjustment?

My biggest surprise/adjustment would have to be the way in which I have been treated by the mayor. During my 24 years as clerk while Ray Miller was on city council, I particularly respected him because I felt he frequently tried to represent the ordinary citizen – not special interests. I felt the respect between us was mutual and letters he wrote and had placed in my personnel file would attest to that. However, since my election to city council, any remnant of respect he once had for me has disappeared. I feel that even when people disagree on issues, they can still do so with respect.  

How do you find yourself acting differently now that you’re on the council?

As city clerk while I was entitled to my opinions on issues, I did not have any authority to act on those opinions by voting on laws or policies. Now, my opinions translate into votes, and those votes impact people. I take this responsibility very seriously. I know it is very important that I take the time to do my homework and cast my votes based upon informed opinions.

What are your assigned duties? 

Interestingly enough, what is written in Idaho Code and the Sandpoint Code concerning the duties and responsibilities of city council members would fill less than one type-written page. Council members should see attending all council meetings to vote on items of business as their basic duty. I have not missed a regular council meeting. 

In Sandpoint each council member is appointed by the mayor to serve on one of two council committees which meet monthly. I am on the public works committee and have missed one meeting when I was in Alaska with our daughter. 

In my 13 months on the council, I have also missed two “special” council meetings called by the mayor – one to fix the memorial Field bleachers (I was in Alaska) and the other while I was in the hospital in CDA recently and the city failed to provide the necessary connections for me to participate by phone. 

Explain how you prepare for meetings.

One: The time I take to prepare for a meeting depends on the items on the agenda. For example, a decision on the annual agreement with the Festival at Sandpoint takes very little time. The agreement hasn’t changed in years. We have a history with the Festival board and we have every reason to believe that they will meet the terms and conditions of our agreement. I don’t hear complaints from constituents about the event. Therefore, I have confidence that our arrangement is working so I don’t have to spend much time on it. 

Two: At the other end of the spectrum, matters relating to planning and zoning require the most work. I study the minutes of the commission meetings and the public testimony. I thoroughly review the site plan and I personally visit the site. I walk, bike or drive around the surrounding neighborhoods to get a feeling for what impact a new subdivision will have on the established neighborhoods. I carefully weigh testimony at the council meetings. I try to remember the mantra of Cecil Andrus from his years in government: “Who will this affect and how will it affect them?” 

Three: Because one of the tasks I performed as city clerk was to review all items that went into the city council packet, I continue to do that. As a consequence, I have found errors and inconsistencies in contracts, agreements and ordinances and I believe that correcting those before they are signed and/or published has saved the city money as well as embarrassment.

How do you keep in touch with your constituency?

I receive telephone calls, emails and visits from a number of people on a regular basis. On an issue-by-issue basis, I find that residents do not hesitate to call me to express their concerns or ideas. I think people know that I am open to listening to what they have to say and they appreciate that. Whenever any person suggests others I might want to talk with or material I might want to review, I do that as well. The network keeps growing and I think it serves both me and constituents well.

What messages do you get from voters? What frustrations do you encounter in trying to represent your constituency?

The one message I receive over and over is a variation of encouragement, support and appreciation from individuals whenever I speak out on issues that have mattered to them. This occurs particularly when the issue affects people’s pocket books. So few people will attend a meeting either because they feel uncomfortable speaking in public or they feel intimidated. That doesn’t mean they don’t care and they don’t have opinions. People appreciate having someone represent their opinions and I try to do that for them. The frustration comes from articulating those concerns and then having that message met with silence at council meetings. I think the public would be better served and the decisions more understandable if there were an actual debate of differences of opinions. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen very often. Now, that is frustrating! 

What strategies do you think could help overcome the frustrations you’ve seen so far, i.e., little debate among the council, respect from the mayor?

Your question prompts me to try to find ways to encourage the full council to engage in more conversation about issues. I am constantly thanked for expressing my opinions on issues - whether the person agrees with my position or not. I think if given options on the 2006 ballot, the voters will support people who are respectful of their constituents and peers and people who are inclined to be conversationally engaged when making decisions.

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Author info

Marianne Love Marianne Love is a freelance writer and former English teacher who enjoys telling the stories of her community. She has authored several books, the latest of which is "Lessons With Love."

Tagged as:

Festival at Sandpoint, Helen Newton, Mayor Ray Miller, planning and zoning

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