Chief Counsel 

For more than 30 years, City Attorney Jim Nugent has helped shape Missoula—and the state. (He'd prefer that you didn't make a fuss about it.)

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"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.

click to enlarge “The old thing about James Brown being the hardest working man in show business,” says Executive Director of Montana League of Cities and Towns Alec Hansen, “Jim Nugent is the hardest working man in municipal government.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • “The old thing about James Brown being the hardest working man in show business,” says Executive Director of Montana League of Cities and Towns Alec Hansen, “Jim Nugent is the hardest working man in municipal government.”

"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."

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