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BF mayor resigns due to conflict of interest, nepotism

by EMILY BONSANT
Hagadone News Network | October 1, 2023 1:00 AM

BONNERS FERRY — James “Dick” R. Staples resigned as Bonners Ferry mayor Friday, Sept. 22, due to the possibility a family member may receive a job at the city, creating a conflict of interest and violating Idaho nepotism law.

However, the resignation falls under the lines of a “temporary leave of office” as Staples said he still plans to run for the position in the upcoming election, for which he is unopposed and will be sworn in as mayor in January 2024.

At this time the city is now operating under the provisions provided in Idaho Code 50-608, which reads in part that “In case of a temporary vacancy in the office of mayor due to absence or disability, the president of the council shall exercise the office of mayor during such disability or temporary absence, and until the mayor shall return.”

Staple has not pulled his declaration of candidacy for the Nov. 7, 2023, mayoral election, according to elections officials. The last day to pull his candidacy was Sept. 22 — the day he resigned as mayor.

Staples told the Herald that his son, Ben, was one of four applicants for manager of the Mirror Lake Golf Course. The younger Staples was recommended for the position by the city’s golf committee as PGA Ralph Lotspeich has retired from the role.

The recommendation must first be given to the city council before a contract for the position is issued.

Staples said it is unlikely the council will vote against the golf committee’s recommendation.

City Councilor Valerie Thomspon told the Herald the golf committee has not updated the council on the applicant search. She said that she was unaware of who the recommended applicant is for the position.

Adding to the conflict of interest posed by hiring a family member, the golf manager reports to the mayor — adding another layer of concern, Staples said.

Per Idaho Code 18-1359: Any mayor or council member cannot vote nor appoint a relative by blood or marriage within the second degree to any clerkship, office, position, employment, or duty when the salary, wages, pay, or compensation is paid out of public funds.

“First-degree” relatives include parents, siblings or children. “Second-degree” relatives include grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and first cousins.

Staples said after speaking with a legal council for the Association of Idaho Cities, he was informed it would be “best if he resigned immediately” due to the likelihood that his son will be offered, and accept, the position.

If Staples is mayor at the time of the hire, he could be guilty of a misdemeanor and face a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail, per Idaho Code 18-1360.

Normally, when there is a conflict of interest, such as an acquaintance or relative applying to fulfill a bid, an elected official may be allowed to declare a conflict and abstain from discussion and voting. In some cases, elected officials may even leave the room, per Idaho Code 74-404.

Since this situation involves hiring someone, Staples said abstaining isn’t an option.

As council president Rick Alonzo can fill in as mayor at meetings and has in the past if the mayor is absent.

Because Staples is the only candidate for mayor in the Nov. 7 election, the election will not take place.

Staples claims that on Jan. 2, 2024, he will be sworn in as mayor for his third term — the day after his son could take over as golf course manager.

Staples told the Herald that by resigning until his next term, he believes the conflict of interest will be resolved as he will not be participating in the hiring process and since his son would already be hired prior to his being sworn in. He added that hopefully, the council in his absence would amend the golf manager’s job description to have a different supervisor than the mayor.

Per Idaho Code 18-1359 (5a) an employee of a governmental entity holding a position prior to the election of a relative within the second degree “shall be entitled to retain his or her position.”

Boundary County’s Prosecuting Attorney Andrakay Pluid, who also serves as the city’s legal counsel, was asked if Staples' resignation in lieu of his son’s possible position at the city would still constitute nepotism if Staples still intends to be a candidate for mayor this November.

“The short answer is, I agree that it still violates nepotism, the state statutory prohibition on self-interested contracts, as well as city policy,” Pluid said.

“I have provided that opinion to the now former mayor and council. If the council decides to proceed forward with negotiating a contract with Dick Staples' son, it will require an additional contract provision, which makes the contract terminate immediately if any member of his family within the second degree serves as mayor or council,” Pluid said.

The Herald contacted Garron Cassidy at the Elections Compliance Specialist Office of the Idaho Secretary of State on how the resignation fits into Idaho Code.

After skimming Idaho Code, Cassidy said, there didn’t appear to be anything preventing Staples from running after a family member is hired, but that legal would be contacted for an opinion especially since the resignation of Staples is due to the position his son may hold in the future.

Thompson said she did not know about Staples’ intent to resign before it was announced. Nor did she know that he had not pulled his declaration of candidacy when he announced his resignation on Sept. 22.

“I believe laws are there for a reason,” she said. “The spirit of the law is just as important as the letter of the law.”

The council does make any decisions before meeting, rather during meetings they make honest decisions within the legal parameters as a council when they legally convene at a meeting, she said. Thompson added that she is not willing to “conspire” and that Staples' decision has put the council in a “moral dilemma.”

“The right thing to do when resigning is to resign from the position instead of using a technicality,” Thompson said.

Thompson said as a member of the council, all she can do at this time is contact the city’s legal counsel and write a memo, which she has.

“In light of Mayor Staples stepping down, the city staff wants our community and neighbors to know that we expect none of the services at the city to be affected by a change in leadership,” said Bonners Ferry City Administrator Lisa Ailport.

“We are steadfast in our commitment to community, and will continue to provide the highest level of service expected by our citizens. We thank Mayor Staples for his duty while the mayor of Bonners Ferry and look forward to continuing the good work of our citizenship under the next mayor,” she said.