When it comes to changing local government, and the specific proposals on tap from the Missoula City Local Government Study Commission, two questions beg for answers: Would the changes be good for Missoula? And are they legal?
As the weeks leading up to the November election melt away, both the public and city officials are beginning to evaluate those questions. If and when voters get behind the commission’s recommendations, the city will be charged with enacting the changes and citizens will commence with the joy or pain of living with them. In the meantime, the commission’s increasingly tangible ideas are raising both the volume and the stakes of the discussion. City Attorney Jim Nugent has cautioned that state law is foggy and open to interpretation on the commission’s major proposal, and that has raised the already-pitched tone of the commission’s minority and its citizen allies. Though these developments don’t speak to the viability of the commission’s proposals—that’s something that only an election can establish—they do illustrate the heat of the debate.
The five-member majority of the study commission—including Chairwoman Sue Malek, Bob Oaks, Susie Reber Orr, Pam Walzer and Sarah Van de Wetering—has set forth three proposed changes to improve Missoula’s government. Voters will weigh in come November, providing the commission’s opinion doesn’t change between its May 3 tentative report and its late-July final report. First, the majority suggests decreasing City Council’s size from 12 to nine members by increasing the number of wards from six to nine and electing one representative per ward, rather than two. Second, the commission’s majority would have Missoula return to partisan elections, where candidates’ political party affiliations appear on the ballot in City Council and mayoral races. Third, City Council would be authorized to hire legislative staff to help draft local laws. A fourth and as yet undefined recommendation would “clean up” language in Missoula’s charter that conflicts with current law. Overall, the message broadcast by the commission’s majority is that 18 months of study have revealed a local government structure with a sound foundation in need of minor adjustments to improve its functionality and citizen satisfaction.
The two-member minority of the commission—Jane Rectenwald and Alan Ault—could hardly portray a more different Missoula in their report, which won’t appear on the ballot. Rectenwald repeatedly insists that everything from aquatics to zoning in this town is symptomatic of a dysfunctional government that constitutes “the stuff of revolutions.” The only solution, the minority report holds, is a wholesale change in the form of government that would supplant the mayor’s broad authority with a “professional” city manager. This single change, they contend, would resolve Missoula’s burning problems, unlike any of the majority’s suggestions.
The majority report sums up arguments in favor of reducing Council’s size, its most prominent, substantive recommendation: Smaller, more numerous wards would reduce the number of people each Council member must represent; an odd number of wards would reduce the mayor’s ability to break ties, which would encourage cooperation; fewer Council members and personalities will result in less bickering and more consensus.
City Council President Ed Childers understands that reasoning but sees arguments against the recommended change, too. While the chief driving force behind reducing Council seems to be the desire for less bickering, one only has to look as far as the seven-member study commission itself and its frequent battles to recognize that small size doesn’t necessarily equal harmony, Childers says. And as far as nine, smaller, one-Council member wards equating to better representation, he says, citizens would still lose three elected officials overall. Having two representatives with staggered terms creates continuity of neighborhood leadership and political recourse when citizens disagree with one representative.
Mayor John Engen sees good points in both arguments and says he’s not “particularly passionate” about it either way.
However, the city should rapidly become more interested in the issue once the commission finalizes its recommendations. At that point, real-life factors like how to accomplish any transitions and at what cost will become more pressing. During the final draft’s comment period, Engen says, the city will likely offer its perspective on financial and legal implications, which still need exploring. The commission, too, will provide a transition plan.
A February legal opinion by City Attorney Nugent cautioned that conflicting state statutes could imperil the bid to shift from two representatives per ward to one. While some statutes give study commissions wide-ranging authority to alter government structure, others subject local government to “all laws regulating the election of local officials.” And since one statute states “the electors of the city or town must elect two aldermen from each ward,” Nugent says, it’s unclear whether the courts would consider that provision an election law or a structural law.
“It’s so ambiguous that I couldn’t say one way or another,” Nugent says. “What people want to try and sue for is only limited by their resources and their ingenuity.”
UM political science professor Jim Lopach, who’s worked with study commissions across the state since the ’70s, agrees with Nugent that there exists a statutory conflict. However, he says, the state constitution’s framers bestowed great latitude on study commissions intentionally, and he believes a court would uphold their recommendations. Furthermore, he says, commissioners shouldn’t be cowed into backing down from their findings by the specter of litigation.
Commissioner Pam Walzer, who argued that same point at a June 1 meeting with Ault and Rectenwald, says laws are rarely crystal clear and that the recommendation falls squarely within the commission’s scope.
“Threat of a lawsuit should not be a reason to throw away all these months of study and decision-making,” Walzer says. “We shouldn’t be held hostage by some dissenters, because that’s not a way to run a democracy.”
That said, she recognizes the public may be nervous about the ambiguity, and says the commission will work to explain its reasoning.
“We hope we can convince [the public] this is a legal and proper thing to do, and if they don’t like it they can vote against it,” Walzer says.