Coeur d'Alene mayor candidates trade jabs

Souza, Widmyer answer questions; Kunka does not attend luncheon

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City of Coeur d'Alene mayoral candidate Mary Souza speaks as opponent Steve Widmyer makes notations Friday during a debate, hosted by the Kootenai County Democrats, at Iron Horse Bar and Grill.

COEUR d'ALENE - A few jabs were traded between Coeur d'Alene mayoral candidates Mary Souza and Steve Widmyer at the Kootenai County Democrats luncheon on Friday, but Joe Kunka was a no show.

Tamara Poelstra, who moderated the event, said Kunka did not respond to repeated requests.

Souza and Widmyer responded to 17 questions ranging from whether they will support the Arts Commission - which they both said they would - to how they differ from their opponents. Those differences were probably best illustrated when the candidates debated over the city's anti-discrimination ordinance which followed Poelstra's question about their positions on it and whether they believe the ordinance creates a special protected class.

Souza said she had a couple of issues with the ordinance. She said the process used to pass the ordinance was rushed, and should have included more public input.

She would have preferred holding workshops to study the issue more thoroughly before putting it to a vote of the council.

"Let's involve people in workshops, and then let's really evaluate this decision," she said. "But the decision went forward."

The second issue Souza had with the ordinance was the lack of a privacy clause. She said at the state level discrimination complaints are kept confidential until an investigation is completed.

"If you complain about a doctor to the state board, they will not make it public until an investigation is done, but this ordinance does not have that," she said. "If someone complains about - let's make up a place, Joe's Barbecue - it could be on the front page of The Press the next morning, and Joe's Barbecue could be out of business before the investigation is even done."

She said the city needs "an ordinance that is fair to everyone."

Widmyer said the city ordinance is already fair to everyone. He read a passage from the ordinance that said: "It is the intent of this ordinance that all persons are treated fairly and equally in the city of Coeur d'Alene."

"And I agree with that," he said. "But I am going to have to disagree with Mary's assertion that she made about Joe's Barbecue."

Widmyer said he talked directly with City Attorney Mike Gridley about the specific scenario Souza is concerned about.

"I said, 'Can this happen?' and he said, 'No, it cannot happen,'" Widmyer said. "He said it had to go through an investigation first. It would not be front page material on the very next day after it was filed."

He suggested Souza have another conversation with Gridley because there seems to be a misunderstanding of the issue.

Souza fired back, saying she has already discussed the issue with the city attorney's office. Shortly after the ordinance passed, Souza said she emailed a list of questions to Deputy Attorney Warren Wilson.

One of her questions specifically addressed the privacy issue.

She asked Wilson, "If there is a complaint filed will it be considered a public record immediately?" she told the audience. "And his email answer, which I have in writing, is yes."

Widmyer responded, saying they should both contact Gridley to clear up the misunderstanding.

Contacted Friday afternoon, Gridley confirmed that both Souza and Widmyer contacted his office about the ordinance.

He told Widmyer that all complaints of that nature are kept confidential just as domestic violence cases are confidential until they are investigated.

"When something may not be true, we want to investigate before we make that public," he said. "You don't want to ring the bell too soon because you can't unring it."

He also confirmed that Wilson did respond to Souza's email, saying the information is a matter of public record, but it may also be exempt from disclosure for investigative purposes.

"Everything is a public record including Mary Souza's personnel file," he said. "But some things are exempt from public disclosure, like personnel files."

In the email Souza referenced, Wilson did say the information is public record, but he added the complaint could be exempt while under investigation.

"Will the complaint be a public record as soon as it is filed?" Souza asked in the email.

"Yes. However, investigatory records may be exempt from disclosure under I.C. 9-335 and 9-340B," Wilson responded.

After the debate, Souza acknowledged that Wilson's response wasn't a simple "yes" and, in fact, included the investigation caveat, but she said that the laws the attorney cited didn't conclusively keep the complaints confidential.

"Those don't say necessarily that it will be kept quiet, in fact, not at all," she said. "A privacy clause could be inserted in it to make it more fair to all - that's my point."

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