COEUR d'ALENE - The lone city councilman who opposes the city's request for a judicial confirmation said his opposition to the issue earned him threats from the mayor and city attorney following a meeting late Tuesday - claims the two officials deny.
Steve Adams, the second-year councilman who opposes paying for $33 million in upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant, said City Attorney Mike Gridley told Adams to "(bleep) off" following the four-hour meeting and Mayor Sandi Bloem said she wanted to punch the councilman's nose off.
"For the City Attorney to verbally assault me, twice now, with inflammatory and derogatory comments, is a violation of his attorney code of ethics and, according to the city's personnel rules, is insubordination," Adams stated in a press release, calling for Gridley's termination and an apology from Bloem.
Bloem and Gridley said they didn't threaten the second-year councilman.
On Wednesday, Gridley called Adams "unstable" and "confused" and Bloem said Adams has created the most frustrated council she has seen in 12 years, because his sudden change of opinion on the wastewater treatment plant threatens years of planning to get the project this far.
"The only comment I have is that my frustration level after last evening is probably as great as it's ever been," she said, adding that years of work and financial resources devoted to the plant improvements has put the city on the brink of "getting us to a point we could actually have an agreement with the EPA.
"We could actually meet the requirements and we could actually do something that everyone wants us to do," she said. "And the sweep of one hand by one person and that could all fall apart."
Adams' position on the wastewater treatment issue has isolated him from the rest of the council as he is the only one who opposes the legal matter that is before a judge.
Adams originally voted with the rest of the council to seek the money through the courts, but then changed his mind unannounced to the rest of the council and spoke out against it in court.
Judicial confirmation means a judge rules the expenditures are ordinary and necessary, thereby voters don't need to approve the city taking on debt as they normally would.
First District Judge John Luster has taken Coeur d'Alene's request under advisement.
But Adams' change of heart led to Gridley telling Adams he couldn't represent Adams on the legal issue because Adams was now considered an adverse party, which prompted a public argument between the two last month - an issue on which the two still don't see eye-to-eye.
On Tuesday, the topic came up again. The city is considering putting the issue to a vote in May because Adams said he would appeal the judge's decision if the judge rules in favor of the city. Waiting for the city is a $7.7 million loan from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, with a fixed interest rate of 2 percent at 20 years. The city wants to capitalize on that rate and a court appeal could take a year to settle.
Instead of waiting for a court case, the city could just go to a vote, it said Tuesday night.
The change in plans weeks before the April 5 deadline for getting a ballot in the election frustrated Bloem, and a majority of the council. Adams also notified the council during the meeting that he filed a complaint to the Idaho Bar Association against Gridley for not including the councilman on legal discussions.
After the meeting, which ended after Press deadlines, Adams said Gridley asked for a copy of the complaint, which Adams didn't turn over.
"He then proceeded to get in my face and told me (I) was a 'moron,'" Adams stated. "I asked him if he was threatening me, he said no, but that in 30 years of practicing law he had never had anyone make a complaint against him, and again he told me I was 'moron.' He was still in my face at this point, just inches away, leaning in on me. I again asked if he was threatening me and he said no, but that I could (bleep) off you stupid moron."
Adams called 911, but police were still there having attended the meeting. He saw Bloem, he said, and pointed at her demanding she take action against Gridley.
Bloem told him she wouldn't, he said, and raised her fist and said she had "half a mind" to "punch" Adams's nose off his face. He called it "unprofessional" and "unbecoming" for the mayor.
Bloem said she didn't threaten Adams, but that it was frustrating to be pointed at and told how to do her job and that Adams' account of their conversation "was mostly true."
"Those aren't exactly the words I said," she said about the claim to knock the man's nose off.
She said that she couldn't recall the exact words she said but that she didn't want to delve into their private conversation, including whether she would apologize to him. She said she wanted to focus on securing the loan, and that if the EPA ordered a hookup moratorium on the non-compliant plant, as it could do, it would kill future business development.
"The difference between Steve and myself is I feel the conversations we have personally are just that," she said. "I haven't repeated stuff to the press or sent out press releases about what he's said to me."
Gridley, in an email in response to Adams' press release on Wednesday, stated:
"I have never threatened Steve Adams. Mr. Adams appears to me to be very unstable and confused. Because of this I believe that any further comment by me about him or his complaints will only increase his agitation and distract from more important issues."
Meanwhile, the city is waiting to seize the DEQ loan one way or another.
While a deadline on receiving the loan at a 2 percent interest rate isn't set, the same loan during the next fiscal year would be at an interest rate of 2.25 percent, according to MaryAnna Peavey, DEQ loan programs coordinator. Coeur d'Alene is considered a top priority for the loan in both years, she said.
The higher interest rate would equal around $173,000 compared to $154,000 on the $7.7 million figure.
"I want a 2 percent fixed rate," said Troy Tymesen, city finance director, adding that he could not secure that rate on the open market. "I never have to refinance that."
But Adams said the DEQ has been a good partner in the past and would continue to work with the city, including waiting for election results. He called the threats of fines "rhetoric," as was the possibility of the DEQ not allowing future development to tap into the sewer system should the city not comply in time. He said the water discharge level into the Spokane River isn't an immediate public safety hazard, so the city has time to put it on the ballot. And if it fails in May, they could run the issue again in November, he said, so long as they keep the DEQ abreast of the situation.
"That's not been the general practice of the EPA," he said of handing out fines - about a million dollars per month - while agencies try to work with them, a claim Wastewater Superintendent Sid Fredrickson disagreed with. "We have five more years to comply."
The city qualified for top priority for the DEQ loan in this fiscal year and next fiscal year because the project is shovel ready, according to Peavey. The city has $1.5 million worth of improvements for the first phase ready to go once the project is ready. Adams called spending the $1.5 million before an election secures all the funds "not good management."
Coeur d'Alene is not the only discharger on the hook for the tighter federal requirements.
The city of Hayden was awarded judicial confirmation Nov. 26 from First District Judge Benjamin Simpson for around $18 million to fix its plant because of the same requirements. Post Falls also discharges into the Spokane River and is about to seek confirmation, according to City Council President Ron Jacobson, for around $44 million next month.
Hayden City Administrator Stefan Chatwin and Jacobson said they didn't seek an election because the mandate seemed an ordinary and necessary expense on which a judge could rule, they said.
The other dischargers, along with Coeur d'Alene, had been in a lawsuit to fight the federal requirements after years of discussion but shelved the suit as the cities and agencies agreed on permitting levels.