Few surfaces are visible in Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent's downtown office. A bobble head doll of Mayor John Engen sits behind Nugent, not far from three rolls of duct tape; he uses the tape to reinforce everything from mountain bike accessories to the overstuffed pocket protector jutting out from the balding 62-year-old's chest pocket.
"It's saved a lot of shirts over the years," he says, shrugging.
With a bit of a paunch, Nugent looks deceptively like a curmudgeon. He's surrounded by law books tagged with a rainbow of sticky notes, and tall stacks of typewritten papers documenting every imaginable aspect of municipal minutia. The filing system extends from Nugent's desk to the tops of nearby bookcases, filing cabinets and boxes along the floor. His wife of 39 years, Janice Nugent, wouldn't approve of such a mess.
"My wife's going to kill me," he says.
Despite the clutter, Nugent knows exactly how to find what he needs. When just about any subject relating to Missoula's municipal discourse comes up—whether it's community growth plans, the city's lawsuit against Mountain Water in the 1980s or architectural diagrams for the new parking structure downtown—he scratches his head and thinks for a moment before reaching down several inches and extracting the relevant document with magician-like skill.
In many ways, the rambling office reflects Nugent's mind—an untidy, yet comprehensive, encyclopedia of Missoula's legal, social and institutional history.
When asked about, for instance, the rules governing how to replace Ward 2 Councilmember Roy Houseman, who resigned at the end of December, Nugent recites a stream of precedent before offering an extreme example.
"Stan Healey made a motion to approve John Toole," he says, recalling an unusual 1983 council vote, in which none of the people who applied for a vacant mayoral seat were selected.
Since appointed city attorney in 1977, Nugent has advised and defended seven mayors and worked alongside 18 different City Council incarnations. He's overseen the creation of roughly 1,500 of the city's 3,449 ordinances governing everything from discriminating against gay people to urinating in public. In addition, he's presented 21 cases to the Montana Supreme Court—suits that reached beyond Missoula law and had an impact on residents across the state.
Nugent acknowledges he's been busy, humbly calling each of his accomplishments "little building blocks" over the years. He speaks in reverential tones about "The City," but skips past how he helped to shape it—the overtime he logs nearly every week, and the vacation days he regularly forfeits or donates. He avoids publicity and deflects any individual praise to accomplishments chalked up by "the team." The casual observer would have no idea that Nugent, despite not being a politician, has been intricately tied to Missoula policies for more than three decades.
"There are different people that you meet, particularly in this business," says Alec Hansen, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns and Nugent's long-time friend and colleague. "There are the center-ring kind of guys that like the spotlight, and then there are the guys that do all of the work. He's one of the guys that does the work. And people like that, generally, would just rather do their work than talk about it. Those are the guys that make things happen. I'm convinced of that."
Most mornings Nugent wakes up before dawn, runs with his golden retriever, Max, grabs breakfast and then puts on his cycling gear to ride to his Spruce Street office. The cycling gear is hard to miss: a full-body yellowish green rain suit with reflective strips, and a stars and stripes helmet adorned with Evel Knievel's (factory printed) signature. He says the neighborhood kids call him the "Yellow Man." He's a bit like Missoula's version of a municipal Easy Rider.
"The helmet's part of the mystique," says Janice Nugent, who purchased the outfit for her husband two years ago. She wanted to find something durable and easy to spot, but also capable of protecting his business suit.
"This iteration of the rain suit is my fault," she says. "I have mixed feelings about it."
That said, Janice Nugent suspects the look is catching on. She's noticed recently that Bruce Bender, the city's chief administrative officer, has taken to wearing a yellow rain jacket that looks strikingly similar to her husband's.
"I think Jim kind of inspired Bruce Bender's suit," she says.
Nugent is an unlikely trendsetter. His office vets nearly every agreement the city signs off on, many of which don't make headlines: contracts initiating everything from sidewalk and road construction to the tennis lessons provided through Missoula's Parks and Recreation Department.
"I don't think you realize how boring it can be," Nugent says. "I'm more a drone."
Despite the monotony of a lot of the work, Nugent's thoroughness has become legendary—so much that city staffers have coined a verb for it. A document scrutinized by the city attorney is thought of as "Nuginized," or vetted. It's considered an accomplishment if a municipal employee receives work back from Nugent unblemished by edits made in red ink.
The value of Nugent's obsessive attention to detail is clear when looking at state law. Montana code governing how cities operate runs more than 1,400 pages. Much of it is contradictory. Many statutes lack clarity or are open to interpretation. Municipal attorneys are allowed a certain amount of flexibility when shaping local laws.
For instance, shortly after Nugent moved into the City Attorney's Office, he was struck by the fact that people caught urinating in public were cited on public indecency charges. Though a misdemeanor, the stigma associated with a public indecency citation impacted the offender's long-term employment and educational opportunities.
"You weren't able to be a teacher. You weren't able to get a federal government job," Nugent says. "It just wasn't appropriate."
Nugent didn't think the punishment fit the crime and, after brainstorming with then Police Chief Sabe Psau, helped craft what became the first public urination ordinance in the state.
Another precedent-setting, Nugent-shaped ordinance came at the request of University District homeowners in the mid-'80s. Authored by Nugent and Missoula Parking Commission staffers, and passed by the Missoula City Council, the new law forbade students who lived in other areas from parking around campus.
As one might expect, UM students weren't happy about the ordinance. The Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) filed a lawsuit in 1992 to stop the creation of a residential parking district. The case landed in the Montana Supreme Court, where ASUM asserted the ordinance privatized public streets and created a special class of people. The students argued the law should be deemed unconstitutional.
"(Missoula) cannot discriminate between residents and non-residents—especially where Montana's public streets are involved," read ASUM's brief. "Non-residents are treated as second class citizens."
The Montana Supreme Court sided with the city, and the decision reverberated throughout the state. Before long, homeowners around the Capitol in Helena wanted their own residential parking district.
"The people here around the Capitol, they see what happened in Missoula and they wanted a similar thing," Hansen says. "All of these things kind of work together."
But it takes someone with Nugent's vast knowledge to help kick-start the process.
"Jim is, a, familiar with all of [the precedent-setting lawsuits] and b, has been involved with many of them. That definitely gives him a leg up," says former Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas. "I don't think there's a better city attorney in the state."
Nugent grew up across from Missoula's Little McCormick Park in a white, two-story house with a wraparound porch on the corner of Alder and May. He learned about the law early on, watching his father, James Nugent Sr., work as a representative for two terms in the Montana Legislature and on the Missoula City Council.
James Nugent Sr. was a World War II pilot and a plumber by trade. Nugent's mom, Theresa, waited tables before she married Jim Nugent Sr. She later stayed at home with the kids, keeping an eye on all five children while they played in the nearby park.
Little McCormick Park actually catalyzed Jim Nugent Sr.'s involvement with city government. At the time, before construction of Interstate 90, Broadway was the Garden City's primary east-west thoroughfare. Little McCormick Park, just a couple of blocks away, offered travelers a shady and cool spot. But Nugent Sr. didn't like the fact that the park didn't have any benches or picnic tables. He felt the city wasn't being a good host, and it prompted him to lobby Missoula's Board of Parks and Recreation to install tables. Then he did one better—rather than simply lobby, he filled the board's vacant seat. In 1963, he moved up the local ranks and was elected to the Missoula City Council, serving there until 1969.
Nugent remembers family dinner table conversations full of tales about city politics. Where and how to build Missoula's City Hall was a controversial issue at the time, and constituents often showed up at the family's Westside home to bend his father's ear. Nugent soaked up his father's progressive ideas about what government should be, and those ideals linger today.
"Governments are, in my opinion, intended to assist and further the interests of the people, generally," Nugent says. "Now you don't please every single person, obviously. But as a community, as a consensus, or, as a majority, you tend to. And your governments can be a very valuable tool in not only providing protection like the police and fire or the streets and the roads, but even branching out into the urban renewal, the parks and the open space, and even the Currents facilities, and Splash! Montana. Those come from a community and a council, a majority of the council wanting to improve the quality of life. And I think local government, city government, can really assist in providing a better quality of life for the community."
Nugent found his budding social awareness bolstered by the Jesuit priests at Loyola High School in Missoula. His instructors drilled into him a strong sense of social justice that he hasn't forgotten.
"We're all human beings," he says. "There's no basis for discriminating against anyone, whether they're Native American, whether they're African American, female, male. In those days, there wasn't any focus on the gay-lesbian thing, but it would hold over today as well."
Nugent become the first member of his family to graduate from college, in 1971, with a bachelor's degree in finance. His father died earlier that year at age 47.
Around the same time, he started to spend an increasing amount of time with Janice Driscoll. The two met at a retreat hosted by Christ the King Church, and Janice recalls Jim had a full head of hair then, as well as bushy sideburns. He was also quick to crack a joke.
"He wasn't one bit shy," she recalls.
On Valentine's Day in 1971, Nugent presented Janice with a giant cutout cardboard heart, painted red with white and blue lettering: "Will you be my wife?"
She said yes.
Janice Nugent, now a speech therapist completing a doctorate in special education, has always acted as her husband's sounding board. Today, when he comes home late from Monday night City Council meetings, he likes to talk about the evening's events. She watches the meeting on television so she can keep up with what's going on.
The routine has been basically the same ever since the couple met, with a few exceptions. In the '70s, when the couple lived in a perennially chilly apartment on the corner of Rawlins and Addison, and Jim was attending law school, they'd often talk local politics. There was no public access television at the time, but there was a set of beaded curtains in the doorway—a mark of the era, Janice says, as was the couple's idealism.
"We really had an optimistic feeling for what we could do and how we could make the world better," Janice Nugent says. "I think that's part of who Jim is."
Within weeks of graduating from UM's Law School in 1975, a fresh-faced but already balding Nugent was hired as a prosecutor for Missoula's Municipal Court. His tenure there didn't last long. In 1977, Mayor William "Bill" Cregg hired the 29-year-old Nugent as city attorney.
Of particular concern for Cregg when Nugent assumed his position was the fact that large swatches of densely populated land surrounding the city's urban core remained un-annexed. Residents of those neighborhoods didn't pay city taxes, but they used the city's services.
"Mayor Cregg used to call them 'The Freeloaders,'" Nugent says.
Nugent was tasked with creating new legal mechanisms to expand city boundaries and, therefore, its tax base. However, state law at the time made it difficult for cities to annex land. Those challenges prompted Nugent, along with Alec Hansen and the Montana League of Cities and Towns, to push for streamlining annexation laws in the courts and at the legislature.
By 1989, the efforts had begun to pan out. That was fortunate timing for Dan Kemmis—a leader who, like Cregg, liked to push the envelope. By the time Kemmis was elected mayor in 1990, Nugent, along with previous Missoula administrators and the League of Cities and Towns, had already begun paving the way for expansion.
"Because of the very restrictive nature of Montana annexation law, it was a great challenge to bring in those neighborhoods that clearly were part of the city," Kemmis says. "They only existed because the city was here, but they lay right next to the city and were not part of it. So, eventually, we began to break through those barriers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And Jim was absolutely instrumental in that work."
After three Montana Supreme Court cases—Missoula's Rural Fire District wasn't exactly happy about losing pieces of its tax base—Missoula's boundaries grew. The city annexed land between Russell and Reserve streets stretching from Brooks Street to the Clark Fork River. The Wapakia and Bellevue areas were incorporated, as were pieces of the Rattlesnake Valley. New Missoula residents paid taxes, bringing in revenue that helped the city invest in community amenities like water parks, open space and the Riverfront Trail System. Caras Park was built. Bus service expanded.
"My approach was always, we need to get as many of us working together as we can," Kemmis says. "We need to make the city a real city. And I think, in effect, that's what we did."
Nugent loves seeing Missoula residents enjoy the products of the work he undertook with his colleagues. When he spots people listening to music at Caras Park and exploring open space, the attorney is reminded of why he has dedicated his entire professional life to Missoula.
"People are excited," he says. "You can hear them sometimes having a good time. I think that's one of the cool things, hearing people having a good time, whether it's down at Caras Park, or whether it's over at Splash! Montana, or whether it's over at the fairgrounds. Those are important to the community's mental health as well as their physical health."
Nugent, like his progressive father, enjoys being a member of the team responsible for not simply maintaining but actually improving Missoula's quality of life.
"That's kind of what makes it fun to be in government—public service," he says. "You have to be somewhat progressive moving forward in society."
The nature of Nugent's job means he makes enemies. Making law can be contentious, emotional and downright unpleasant work. Former Missoula City Councilman Jerry Ballas attests to that.
Ballas, who represented Ward 4 between 2000 and 2007, disagreed with Nugent in a high-profile legal battle. In 2003, Ballas and his wife grew alarmed watching their South Avenue neighbors, Jake and Beth Terzo, ask the city for permission to adjust property boundaries on their two-lot parcel. The Terzos wanted to build a second home. Without the boundary line adjustment, however, the second house would not comply with zoning requirements.
City officials had been signing off on boundary-line adjustments for years. But Ballas, who's an architect, suspected the practice violated state law. He says that belief prompted him, before and after the city approved the Terzo's adjustment, to ask Nugent to further scrutinize the practice. Ballas says Nugent disregarded his requests.
"I got frustrated because there was nobody at the city that would give any contradictory opinions," Ballas says. "Nugent wouldn't even go to the attorney general to ask for an attorney general's opinion, because he didn't want anybody reviewing his decision, in my opinion."
The Ballases filed a lawsuit. Six years and roughly $40,000 in legal fees later, they won. By the time Missoula's Fourth Judicial Court handed down its opinion, the city had already changed its boundary-line protocol. Despite the fact that the city was forced to pay his legal costs, Ballas says a primary problem that stemmed from his lawsuit remains: Nugent doesn't deviate from the administration's policy, even if it's legally questionable.
"Jim Nugent as city attorney does not represent the citizens of Missoula, and he does not even represent the council," Ballas says. "He works for the mayor and the city administration. His basic determinations and his law decisions are formulated to protect the city and the administrators."
Despite the fact that Nugent is called upon to serve multiple masters—the mayor, council and the public—Ballas asserts the average person with a legal gripe against the city is simply out of luck.
"The only way citizens—whether they're on the City Council or they're just ordinary citizens—the only way they have of challenging City Hall is to file a lawsuit," he says. "Because there's nobody looking out for their interest or their positions."
Ballas isn't the only one who accuses Nugent of ignoring certain constituents. Dallas Erickson, co-founder of the group Not My Bathroom (NMB), shared a fair amount of legal correspondence with the city attorney last year, much of it a similar theme: Nugent wasn't allowing locals to have their say.
The Erickson-Nugent dust-up started after the Missoula City Council approved last year a civil rights ordinance that now makes it illegal to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation or gender expression. The law passed by a 10–2 vote.
Erickson contends the City Council and American Civil Liberties Union snuck the ordinance past voters, despite opposition.
"The people didn't choose it, believe me," Erickson says. "I think if it went to a vote of the people it would have been thrown out."
After the council vote, Erickson and ally Tei Nash attempted multiple times to initiate a voter referendum that would put the new law to a citywide vote. However, each time NMB and another incarnation of the group, Right to Vote Missoula, filed a petition to initiate a referendum, Nugent found flaws in the request.
Erickson says the city attorney intentionally shot down the petitions, effectively stifling citizens' voices.
"He intended to stop that petition no matter what," Erickson says. "And he did."
Missoula's Fourth Judicial Court ruled in June in favor of the city. Judge Douglas Harkin found that Right to Vote and NMB never complied with legal requirements necessary to put the issue up for vote.
Erickson is now working through the Montana Legislature to overturn the ordinance. As for Ballas, he says winning the lawsuit against the city brought little satisfaction. It's clear from his perspective that the administration needs to make some changes. Specifically, Ballas thinks if Nugent had to face the voters every couple of years, rather than being appointed by the mayor, he would be more responsive to the little guy.
"If he faced election once in a while, he would at least feel like there was some obligation," Ballas says.
Nugent may shun the spotlight, but he's not bashful about one thing: He likes to win lawsuits. Nugent actually chuckles discussing some of the debate that took place during the contentious anti-discrimination discussion.
One woman who testified during the April public hearing first addressed council, then turned her attention to pastor Harris Himes of Big Sky Christian Center in Hamilton. Himes has a history of imprinting his values through the legislative process in communities across the state, and he opposed the ordinance. The woman, apparently, recognized Himes and perceived his Missoula appearance as a challenge.
"That was one of the most humorous moments I think I've ever seen at a public hearing," Nugent says. "She was testifying that she doesn't know what all this stuff about the bathrooms is, because she can't imagine men wanting to stand in those long lines at the women's bathrooms. And then, suddenly, she turned on Mr. Himes and says, 'You're the one from Darby that was involved in the creationism. We beat you there. And we're going to beat you here.'"
In an unusually boastful disclosure, Nugent admits he's proud of fending off challenges to Missoula's anti-discrimination ordinance. Perhaps it's a lingering remnant of lessons instilled by his Jesuit teachers decades before.
"Everyone deserves to be treated equally—everyone. Period," he says. "Some of that stuck, I guess."
The case with NMB was cut and dry for Nugent. The group never complied with the law when submitting petitions for referendum. But his job isn't always so simple, especially when there are rifts on the council, as when Ballas filed his lawsuit. It's an example of how his mandate to serve multiple masters sometimes puts him in a tough spot.
"There's some inherent conflicts between them," he says.
When friction arises among members of Missoula's governing body, as is frequently the case, Nugent says he focuses on interpreting law for the majority and steering clear of political posturing.
"You just have to realize it's all part of the political fishbowl you're in," he says. "You just can't let it affect your judgment."
In fact, he says that's the benefit of having his position be by appointment rather than election. Elected representatives are too vulnerable to political pressure.
"I think that's potentially one of the drawbacks, or flaws, with respect to some of those elected positions," Nugent says. "I don't think the legal decision of the community should be subject to political pressures."
Current Missoula Mayor John Engen has worked with Nugent for more than nine years—five as mayor and four as a councilman—and respects Nugent's perspective on tough political issues. He says one of the most touching professional moments of his time at City Hall was triggered by an e-mail from the city attorney.
"Jim said something to the effect of, 'I believe you have the potential to be a very good mayor.'" Engen recalls. "It's Jim's way of saying, 'Giddy up, welcome to the team."
It can be tough not to take heated discussions and debates about lawmaking personally, Engen says. But Nugent's ability to work alongside people with drastically different political affiliations, personality types and philosophical perspectives, while still keeping his own character and principles intact, serves as a model for others in local government.
"He's a constant, and there's a lot to be said for that," Engen says.
Nugent plans to remain a constant. He has no intention of retiring any time soon. He isn't ready to leave, largely because as Nugent helps shape Missoula's government, the institution shapes him. After more than three decades, the two are deeply intertwined.
Former Mayor Dan Kemmis says Missoula is fortunate to have him.
"Whereas mayors have come and gone, and city councils have come and gone, Jim has been there for the long haul," Kemmis says. "And so, some of us, myself included, have come into office, have had certain things that we thought it was important to accomplish, like making the shape of the city correspond to what the city really is. While some of us have worked hard to do that during our tenure, nobody has been there as long as Jim. And, therefore, nobody has had as consistent an influence in shaping the city as Jim has had."