ATOMIC CITY — Magee’s was once a popular stopping off place west of Blackfoot on Highway 26, mainly catering to workers from what is now known as the Idaho National Laboratory.
Today, it’s a shell of its former self. It sits unoccupied along the highway, just a mile outside of Atomic City, population 30.
Atomic City has a city government, although it currently lacks a quorum after the seat of the president of the city council was vacated in September by Mayor Chris Polatis, leaving only two members of the council — Jared Mundell and Larry Fiedler — after they had already been looking for a fourth council member prior to September.
It has a volunteer fire department with an engine donated to the city recently by the City of Dubois, although that has been the subject of disagreements among city leaders even down to deciding who’s supposed to pay to keep its engine fueled.
Needless to say, its tax base is very small. The total value of the property in the city is around $750,000.
Atomic City has had its share of controversy in the recent past. In August 2018, a city councilman was voted off the panel by city residents after a clash between Polatis as mayor and Dave Sonnenberg as the councilman.
Today, the two men can sit across a table from each other and get along just fine. Time can have a way of healing some wounds.
That doesn’t mean controversy has gone away in Atomic City. Accusations of improprieties and threats — including accusations of death threats — float through the town, even seeping into the last city council meeting Aug. 20.
The city has issues:
- What some deem as junk cars — disputed by others — in what is said to be a violation of the city’s water protection impact zone and the city’s nuisance ordinance.
- Residents from outside the city tapping into city water lines without council approval.
- Not paying for garbage services, which Polatis says puts him in a position to shut off water services.
- What has been called a “refusal to support ordinances.”
Atomic City is fighting for survival ... literally. It stands a chance of being disincorporated.
Four protection orders were sought and four protection orders were issued Aug. 6 in 7th District Magistrate Court in cases showing serious contention in Atomic City.
Magistrate Judge Scott Hansen heard requests for protection orders from Anthony Bandiera who is in charge of the city’s water system and is the chief of the all-volunteer fire department, along with former council members Donald Sortor, Henri Nippert, and Sonnenberg, each of them against Blake Lyle.
Lyle is a major property owner in the Atomic City area, and he and his partner, Vickie O’Haro, operate Atomic Motor Raceway (AMR). O’Haro also owns the Atomic City Bar and she had been serving as president of the the Atomic City council until Polatis sent out a notice dated Sept. 11 saying she was not eligible to hold her council seat due to her moving outside city limits.
After hearing statements from the four seeking protection orders along with witness testimony from all sides, Hansen issued the orders. All of the protection orders are for one year. In the case involving Bandiera, the order covers 25 feet. In the cases involving Sortor, Nippert, and Sonnenberg, the orders are for 50 feet.
Testimony in the hearings surrounded back-and-forth arguments about city ordinances not being followed, fees not being paid and whether those services should have to be paid for, city services being provided without the city’s knowledge, leaving old cars sitting in front of a neighbor’s residence out of spite, slander, accusations of physical threats, lewd hand gestures being exchanged and verbal arguments ensuing, etc.
The list of charges and counter-charges has been long.
After hearing the final case, Hansen said he has a responsibility to keep people safe, to have people reasonably get along, and to enjoy their rights.
“I want you all to go about your business and to try to get along,” Hansen said.
In a meeting with O’Haro the next day at the Bingham County Chronicle office, O’Haro said she was angry that the four were given protection orders.
“(Lyle) hasn’t done anything to them,” she said. “It makes no sense. They gave in to them.”
All of this serves as background leading into the last city council meeting held Aug. 20, and the circumstances to follow.
Aside from its history and the faded voices that were once heard at Magee’s, the main thing that’s noticeable about the building now are two words spray-painted in white on the front.
It’s almost like it’s telling the mood in the area with the question mark.
What follows are notes taken directly from video recorded at the last city council meeting.
THE LAST MEETING
With O’Haro, Mundell, and Fiedler present, Polatis opened the meeting by saying that Steve Eckman was not interested in being on the council, having mentioned that he didn’t like arguing much, so the search continued for a fourth council member.
Bandiera mentioned that Dubois had donated a Type I structure engine to the city at no cost, with the only expense incurred being the fuel to get it to Atomic City. Bandiera said it is in good operating order, and he would be taking it to Idaho Falls to get the water pump certified.
O’Haro said she had a “massive concern” about the handling of the wildfire toward late July near the INL site that resulted in 113,000 acres being burned and INL facilities being closed.
O’Haro said Polatis put Bandiera in charge of declaring a voluntary evacuation if needed, saying he went around telling residents the fire “was creeping toward town and it was not, he said we were on high alert and we were not. He said he would let residents know if they needed to evacuate, then he left town. The fire was 10 miles from town, people in town were in a massive panic,” and people were going to her asking if they needed to evacuate.
Bandiera replied that he did not say there was a mandatory evacuation, he said the INL would let him know if there was any need to evacuate and that it was a possibility.
He said he told residents he would notify them if there was a need to evacuate, but if they didn’t hear from him they were fine.
“When the fire is that close, how can we trust him if he leaves town in the middle of it?” O’Haro said. “I don’t know, if you’re in the middle of something that massive and as fast as it was moving, how can you trust your acting fire chief when he leaves town in the middle of it? I don’t know where you’re at in the day, but ...”
“It’s called work, Vickie (resulting in mock surprise from O’Haro),” Bandiera responded. “I have a full-time job.”
Bandiera asked O’Haro to show him some respect after her mock reaction.
“No, I don’t need to,” she replied. Bandiera said he was called in to work on the day in question, and O’Haro said she remembered him being in court that day. Bandiera said he was also in court.
“Let’s get our story straight,” O’Haro said.
There was also debate over Bandiera running the fire department out of his home, with O’Haro saying it was zoned residential and had no business license and Bandiera saying his property was zoned multi-use.
Discussion then turned to hiring an attorney such as Garrett Sandow at a flat fee of $400 per month to answer the multiple legal questions the city was looking at.
“We are the only city in Bingham County without a lawyer appointed,” O’Haro said.
“We are the only city that has 30 people, and for a city with only 30 people we have a lot of problems,” Polatis said.
Fifteen minutes into the meeting, there was a discussion about water use by Lyle and O’Haro tying into not paying for garbage services, not following city ordinances.
“If you expect me to abide by all city rules and regulations, that would make me part of the city and I’m not part of the city,” O’Haro said in a remark that would later be referenced by the mayor to vacate that council seat. “The ordinances are fine the way they are. Why assume that all city ordinances have to be followed by someone who lives in the county?”
Polatis saw a need to ask for a city attorney to give an opinion on the issue of where old cars can be parked, arguing that cars were parked in a place in front of Sonnenberg’s property out of spite.
O’Haro said the cars were on their property and they can put what they want on their property.
Polatis said it appeared to him that the cars were placed where they were “deliberately to irritate and agitate.”
“So is having the cops called on us six times in two months,” O’Haro responded. “So is having protection orders. Yes, they’re there to agitate but it’s our property.”
Polatis said when people aren’t getting along “just to stir it up and make it worse it doesn’t help,” followed by a comment from O’Haro about “ridiculous protection orders.”
Twenty-two minutes into the meeting, Eckman came into the meeting. Polatis asked him for his thoughts on taking a position on the council.
- “I’m not going to take the position, I don’t want nothing to do with all the ping and arguing that’s going on here and not getting anything done,” Eckman said. “All it’s going to do is cause more grief than what it’s worth and I don’t want to be any part of it.
- “One thing that would help this town out a lot ... this was a country community, there’s no store, there’s no nothing out here. There’s no need for people in this town to not be able to have animals on their property that they want to have if they have the property to put them on. I can understand limiting how many animals, not having something like a pig farm, I can relate to that. But if it’s only one or two pigs for your own use, I see no harm in that, there’s no harm in horses, there’s no harm in any of those things. I don’t want any part of the ping and arguing.”
“That wouldn’t happen if we had an attorney to go to,” O’Haro said.
“The city needs to abolish some of those thing in place for animals, that is one thing that’s caused some strife in this town, and there’s a lot of other things we need to look back at,” Eckman said.
Twenty-four minutes into the meeting, the discussion turned to disincorporating the city.
“With only 30 people in this city, there’s no reason to keep it going the way we are going,” Polatis said. He said the city can’t afford to go out and mow because of the costs to keep a mower operating.
“I don’t like the job that I’m in but I don’t know anyone I’d be willing to step aside for and say you do it, which includes (O’Haro) because of the issues that we’ve had, the direction I think you would want to go.”
“Trying to save money for the city?” O’Haro responded.
“You want to be in the city when it’s convenient, you want to be out of the city when it’s convenient,” Polatis said.
The council discussed the process for disincorporation, needing signatures of city residents to put the issue on a ballot.
“I will say, though, I know there are people in this town trying to run us out, and if disincorporating is used as a way to close down the bar, it’s not going to happen,” O’Haro said. Polatis said he doesn’t think it would close her bar down, but O’Haro said under county regulations bars can only serve beer in the county, she couldn’t get a liquor license, and it would be closed on Sundays.
Polatis said he doesn’t think anything is being accomplished in council meetings of any significance. “There are a lot of questions about disincorporating, but I personally think that is what we need to do.”
O’Haro told Polatis that when disincorporating came up two years ago, “You and I sat in my bar and we discussed what we could do if we took over the town council. We had ideas about making money for the general fund, changes in ordinances so people feel less restricted, all sorts of stuff, grants to improve the town. Now in the last year and a half you’re back on board with them on disincorporating. What happened to everybody that we wanted on the council ... doing it for the betterment of our residents?”
“For the same reason Steve doesn’t want to be on the council,” Polatis said.
Henri Nippert spoke, saying O’Haro had mentioned she was for improving the city. “If she really means that, they’d get all the junk cars out,” he said, leading to a disagreement on the value of the cars with people talking over each other.
“If we all really try, property value could come up, but the only thing that counts here is Blake and her,” Nippert said.
Polatis said there were other places the cars could go, but he felt Lyle left them intentionally in front of Sonnenberg’s property as a nuisance.
“(Lyle) dumping vehicles off where he did, that tells me something,” Polatis said. “That’s telling me ‘I don’t care about this whole town.’” Voices in the crowd were then saying Lyle had helped clean up property in the area, and Polatis said things he had done were “not all bad, but that was bad.”
With that discussion, O’Haro looked toward a window and door on the other side of the room, shook her head, whispered “no,” got up from the table and walked across the room to the door. A Bingham County Sheriff’s deputy was at the meeting to keep the peace.
Voices shouted, “Officer, arrest this man, he needs to leave or be arrested.” Lyle had shown up at the meeting, where people with protection orders against him were seated. O’Haro could be heard outside saying, “Everybody’s in there.”
A voice in the crowd spoke almost as if to settle things down.
“If you talk to someone who used to live here 30, 40 years ago, they didn’t solve the problems by creating more ordinances, they solved their problems by helping one another. I don’t understand why we need all these ordinances, they raise property values. What was attractive to me was the price of the home I bought, the expense incurred in maintaining what you have is not outrageous, but with more regulation and more laws, those prices go up.”
Heidi Nippert spoke from the audience in favor of disincorporating. “We do not have the finances, we don’t have the members of the community to support the city, we don’t have money for repairs, we don’t have the money for attorneys. We are constantly going down in revenues, we’re going to be bankrupt.”
She spoke of the city’s gravel roads enduring wear and tear where other communities that are unincorporated in the county have paved roads. There was disagreement and shaking of heads on that.
“Okay, I don’t see much kumbaya,” Polatis commented.
As the meeting was drawing to a close there was the item of paying bills, including $75 to gas up the fire truck. There was disagreement over none of that money coming out of city funds. O’Haro made a motion to pay all bills except reimbursement for fuel and chemicals, asking to split those bills up. Polatis refused.
Polatis asked and waited for a second to the motion on paying the bills, and no one spoke.
- “’Cause I don’t really give a rat’s a, I’ll finish signing those checks and I’ll pay those bills,” a frustrated Polatis said, adjourning the meeting after nearly an hour.
“He gets mad when you come to the meetings,” O’Haro said.
THE VACATED SEAT
Polatis’ notice of Sept. 11 to council members and city residents on the vacated council seat says, “This letter serves as notice that Vickie O’Haro is not eligible to hold the office of City Council Seat #4 in Atomic City. Ineligibility is due to her moving out of ... Atomic City. At the last meeting Vickie said ‘If you expect me to abide by all City rules and regulations that would make me a part of the City, and I’m not part of the City.’ Idaho Statutes Title 50-402 (d-4) covers a portion of the ineligibility which states ‘If a qualified elector moves outside the city, with the intentions of making it his permanent home, he shall be considered to have lost his residence in the city.’ I also refer you to Title 50-702.
“Now that both Seat #3 and Seat #4 are vacated, it is not possible to form a quorum as required by Idaho Statute. I will therefore endeavor to find suitable city residents to fill those two seats. Until that happens we will not have the regularly scheduled meetings.”
In a written response dated Sept. 12, O’Haro said, “My lawyer has advised me to write a formal letter disputing your decision to vacate my seat. You attached the State Statutes and highlighted 50-402 section 4 stating ‘with the intentions of making it his permanent home’ to said letter. The statute specifically states ‘with the intention.’ I have not declared (nor) implied to anybody that the home located on the Atomic Motor Raceway property would be my permanent residence. As you are well aware of we own a lot of property within the city limits of Atomic City and although we have not (run) the plan (past) you we do plan on building on it.
“You took a conversation about a specific piece of property and twisted it to fit your needs then wrote a letter to the residents of town without giving the full truth. You have made assumptions based on something that simply is not true so your decision to vacate my seat is wrong and should be considered invalid by everybody involved. I am still a resident of Atomic City and will be for many years to come.”