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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.