Amateur hour 

The Historic Preservation Commission's knock-down, drag-out fight

Last week, members of the Historic Preservation Commission postponed their decision on whether to permit demolition of the Missoula Mercantile building. The meeting lasted four hours.

In addition to the public comment period—during which one resident compared the real estate developer HomeBase Montana to ISIS, which has destroyed historic sites in Iraq and Syria—the commission addressed disagreement between city and state historic preservation officers, seemingly contradictory statements from engineer Tom Beaudette regarding the building's structural integrity and a contentious discussion of perceived bias among commissioners. Did I mention it was a long meeting?

"Most of this hearing tonight ... has nothing to do with our application," Andy Holloran of HomeBase complained. The Indy's Derek Brouwer reports that Holloran literally threw up his hands during this remark. His frustration is understandable. Whatever decision the commission arrives at, it is not inspiring confidence en route.

Just hours before last week's meeting, city attorney Jim Nugent recommended that four members—chair Mike Monsos, vice chair Steve Adler, Kate Kolwicz and Cheryl Cote—recuse themselves for bias. It turns out Monsos and Cote have signed a "Save the Merc" petition. Along with Adler, they have also liked multiple Save the Merc postings on Facebook.

Even more troublingly, city attorney Susan Firth found a February 2015 email indicating that Adler, an architect, had worked on a plan to develop residential condominiums in the Mercantile building. If he has indeed considered his own commercial development of the site, it is utterly inappropriate for him to rule on HomeBase's application.

Now is a good time to point out that the members of the Historic Preservation Commission are volunteers. They are not full-time city officials, which explains why they might interact on social media with advocates on one side of a permitting dispute or fail to report their own interests in the building at issue. That is unprofessional behavior, but the commissioners are, by definition, amateurs.

click to enlarge opinion_mercantile.jpg

If we think of the HPC as a work of amateur government, it goes a long way to explaining why the commission has met twice in the last two months and gotten so little done. Unlike other city officials, they haven't been trained in how to conduct public meetings. The members of the commission seem shaky on more than one aspect of Missoula government, including the function of the city attorney.

"I am still in shock that somehow we've been found guilty without any due process whatsoever," Adler told the Missoulian. I agree Nugent could have presented his request earlier and more discreetly, but talk of "guilt" and "due process" is not appropriate here.

The members of the commission whom Nugent asked to recuse themselves have not been found guilty of anything, nor were they tried. He merely advised them in his capacity as city attorney, and his advice was sound.

Several members of the commission have indeed shown the appearance of bias. Cote has recused herself, but the other three have not, paving the way for a lawsuit later. Should the developers' permit be rejected, they could argue plausibly that the commission treated them unfairly. Of all possible outcomes in this issue, that's the one the city most wants to avoid.

But what did we expect? It's not exactly shocking to learn that the volunteers on the HPC are biased in favor of preserving historic buildings. It's disappointing they haven't done a better job of acting like professional public officers, but it's not exactly something we can complain about. To do so would be like hiring the neighbor kid to paint the fence and then being outraged when he doesn't wear a respirator.

The problem here is not that a volunteer commission is unreasonable. It's that we're poisoning the neighbor kid, so to speak. A citizen HPC is fine for putting plaques on former mansions, but we're asking them to adjudicate a multimillion-dollar development deal—unpaid, using whatever information they can dig up, according to their own best guesses about how municipal officials ought to act.

That's a cost-effective way to do the city's business. It's not effective any other way, though, and in this case we seem to have gotten our money's worth.

I suppose it's a problem that will solve itself. If we demolish enough historic buildings, we won't need a commission to administer them. But this town is growing and there will come a time when we can't afford to wing it anymore. History is being made all around us, even faster than we can knock it down.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the perils of Facebook at combatblog.net.

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