Pocatello Feb. 18, 2019 Town Hall Meeting (Generic Pocatello City Council)

The Pocatello City Council pictured in this February 2019 Idaho State Journal file photo.

Journal file photo | Idaho State Journal

POCATELLO — Two typically routine appointments to all-volunteer Pocatello committees became contentious during a City Council meeting last week after some council members raised objections.

Councilwoman Christine Stevens during a Wednesday phone interview with the Idaho State Journal addressed what some community members described as a racist objection she made last week to the appointment of Bhavisha Patel to the city’s Human Relations Advisory Committee solely on the concern that Patel was related to current committee members Rituraj “Raj” Yadav and Mohammad Safdar.

Additionally, the appointment of Jim Johnston, a former Pocatello city councilman, local Realtor and the former interim CEO of Bannock Development Corp., to the Pocatello Development Authority board required Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad to cast a tie-breaking vote after three of the six current City Council members objected.

Both appointment objections occurred during the City Council’s regular meeting on Jan. 7, which was hosted via Zoom with Blad appearing from City Hall and the six council members participating remotely.

When objecting to the appointment of Patel during the Jan. 7 meeting, Stevens asked, “Am I correct that we have two members of the committee currently that are part of the same extended family, being Raj and Muhammad. Are they not related?”

Blad, during the meeting, explained to Stevens that he did not believe Safdar and Yadav were related, also noting that the question she asked was one that is “not something we ask.”

Councilmember Linda Leeuwrik then said, “They are from two different countries.”

When contacted Wednesday to address her objection to Patel’s appointment to the city’s Human Relations Advisory Committee, Stevens said she was concerned both Safdar and Yadev were related to Pocatello philanthropist and kidney doctor Fahim Rahim, and, if true, could negatively impact the diversity of the committee.

Rahim on Wednesday described Stevens’ comments as racist and absurd.

“This is a perfect example of prejudice backed by power, which is the definition of racism,” Rahim said. “And when it is recurrently ingrained in the system of power then it’s called systemic or institutional racism.”

Fahim’s wife Beenish “Beena” Mannan, also a former Pocatello City Council member, said her 19-year-old daughter looked at her while they both watched the meeting live last week and rhetorically asked, “Did she really just say that?”

“Councilwoman Stevens isn’t alone in making such biased assumptions regarding people’s ethnicity, culture and race,” Mannan said. “Sadly, it happens quite often in our society and that is perhaps why it is imperative that our public officials and personnel must take on cultural dexterity and cultural sensitivity training. I, myself would have benefited from such training, as we all have to become better, more aware citizens and community members.

Mannan continued, “It wasn’t too long ago when we had a New York Times article signaling our community out for not being welcoming enough. This is a prime example of such behavior. Power combined with prejudice is what contributes to racism and bringing it into a public institution makes it institutional and systemic racism. This is exactly what our country is fighting against in all corners.”

Stevens said her objection “had nothing to do with skin color.”

“It has to do with making sure that we are representing and mirroring the constituencies of our community,” Stevens said. “I believe there are nine board positions and we have a number of diverse constituencies, including LGBTQ, well-to-do, impoverished, Native American, Southeast Asian, Latino, African American, elderly and young groups. I would have the same concerns if half the committee was my age. I was simply wondering if we were over-representing a particular constituent group.”

Following her objection, Stevens joined all council members in the unanimous vote to appoint Patel to serve on the Human Relations Advisory Committee.

Patel in 2019 was a presenter as part of Idaho State University’s Diversity Resource Center’s Brown Bag Series. ISU described her as “A woman warrior, daughter, sister, wife and foremost a mother. She is passionate about building collaborative strategies to normalize our Pocatello community.”

Patel was not immediately available for comment.

Councilmembers Stevens, Roger Bray, and Claudia Ortega raised concerns about Johnston’s appointment connected to his career as a local Realtor and the potential for any real or perceived conflict of interest related to the role he would fulfill on the PDA board.

The PDA is the city’s urban renewal agency and is mostly responsible for assisting in the development of Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, districts.

“This is a hard one for me because I appreciate Jim and respect him, but at the same time I wonder what we’re doing by just going to former councilmembers and putting them on (committees),” Bray said on Jan. 7. “That is an unusual precedent for us, especially when there are some undercurrents in the community about how this person may benefit from some of these positions by getting information. People are tired of Realtors continuing to dominate on a lot of these boards.”

Ortega echoed Bray’s sentiment, adding that she had some community members speak to her about the appearance of impropriety that would follow with Johnston’s appointment.

“These people are confused because Jim spoke on behalf of Bannock Development Corp. and now he wants to jump over to the PDA,” Ortega said on Jan. 7. “I am not saying that Jim would do anything inappropriate, but the appearance of impropriety is a big issue in this community. If we want to build trust with the people of the community, I think we need to shake the bushes and find somebody who doesn’t potentially stand to profit from the decision or information (associated with this appointment).”

During a phone interview this week, Blad said he doesn’t understand what type of insider information Johnston could receive working as a board member for the PDA that could serve to benefit his Realtor career. Further, Blad said he believes those who objected to Johnston’s appointment were not concerned about a conflict of interest, but simply objected because they don’t like Johnston.

Blad also said that he opted to extend the deadline to fill the vacancy on the PDA board for two weeks at the request of the three objecting councilmembers so that another candidate could apply.

“Sometimes it’s hard enough to get people to volunteer their time,” Blad said. “Johnston was the only person who applied for this vacancy during the first two weeks it was open. So I left it open for another two weeks. Those three said they did not have enough time to ask someone to apply. Some people are interested in volunteering their time and some are not. The reality is and what is so frustrating is that (Bray, Ortega and Stevens) just don’t like him. If there was a real legitimate concern about his appointment, then trust me, I would not have appointed him.”

The vote to appoint Johnston to the PDA board passed 4-3, with Blad, Leeuwrik, Rick Cheatum and Heidi Adamson voting in favor. Stevens, Bray and Ortega voted against it.

Johnston on Wednesday said he was “disappointed and dismayed” at the objections to his appointment.

“When you have someone that is willing to serve the community and is well-prepared to do so, then you should accept that appointment,” Johnston said. “I do not feel that the people understand why I even accepted the responsibility to be the interim director of Bannock Development Corp. I have not had a sale or listing for the last seven months because I have devoted all of my energies to Bannock Development. I was paid a little bit, yes, but not as much as I lost stopping my Realtor ventures.”

Johnston continued, “I don’t see in any way how I could stand to profit from my appointment to the PDA.”