We understand that most of you came to Missoula because you've always wanted to fish blue ribbon streams and ski big mountains. That's fantastic and we love that you love the outdoors. But unfortunately, nature's playground comes with certain responsibilities, and we're not talking about owning a dog or planting a garden. Nope. Missoula's dirty little secret is this: If you live here, you shall care about local politics. Everybody does. And everybody has an opinion. To make sure you can hold your own in the blogosphere or at the barstool, we offer you the following primer to local issues that actually matter.
In many cities, locals struggle just to name the mayor. But in Missoula, Mayor John Engen and the 12 City Council members are well-known figureheads. In November, six of those positions are up for re-election, with two underscoring many of the ideals Missoulians hold dear.
In Ward 1, incumbent Dave Strohmaier and challenger Ryan Morton come from opposite camps. Strohmaier scored a perfect 100 percent on the Montana Conservation Voters' latest scorecard for his green votes. He's a thoughtful and prolific legislator but he occasionally nudges Montana's Libertarians with proposed cell phone bans and a homeless panhandling ordinance—and hears about it. Morton is young, hip, smart, and extremely eloquent. The daily newspaper recently profiled his faux hawk haircut. Morton's also the former spokesman for the Missoula Building Industry Association, which means he occasionally rubs Missoula's anti-development community the wrong way. The winner of this race will speak volumes about the politics of the Rattlesnake.
In Ward 2, incumbent John Hendrickson—one of the more vocal members of council's conservative minority—faces challenger Roy Houseman, the affable 28-year-old president of the local steelworkers' union. Ward 2, which stretches east from Scott Street and north from the Clark Fork River, is perhaps the most diverse ward in the city, making the race a toss-up.
If you want to fit into Missoula, we recommend you read up on the issues as the debates heat up and pick a horse before November.
Reading zoning laws sounds about as exciting as watching paint dry, and yet the city's effort to revamp its outdated zoning ordinance has drawn more attention than any other issue this year. Spirited constituents will stand in line for hours to voice their thoughts about granny suites, lot line houses, neighborhood character overlays and R3 zoning districts.
A good portion of the current debate centers on whether the Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) has conducted the process legally. The five conservative members of council have voiced the loudest concern, and three of them—Dick Haines, Lyn Hellegaard and Renee Mitchell—filed suit against the city on July 10 in hopes of resolving the issue. Any time you have council members suing the city—or basically suing themselves—things get interesting.
Everyone owns a dog in Missoula, or at least it seems that way. Therefore, any laws pertaining to dogs are bound to draw attention. Last year, City Council effectively barred pooches from running free on Blue Mountain and in the city's North Hills—expanding the scope of the city's already stringent leash law. The idea was to protect the fragile wildlife in the areas, but angry dog owners showed up en masse to complain about the ordinance at council meetings. They started a Facebook group. They wrote letters to the editor. And, finally, after intense public outrage, Engen vetoed the ordinance. The lesson here is that if you want to upset a local, mess with his or her dog.
The next time you happen by the Badlander on a weekend evening, notice the cavalcade of bikes locked to every available sturdy object within a three-block radius. City Council recognized the potential for bikes to improve the environment and public health and they've gone out of their way to improve and build bike paths and public trails throughout the city.
Just this summer, the council teamed with various community and business leaders to ask the Montana Department of Transportation to paint bike lanes along state routes as they wind through town. This is no easy feat for an agency that Engen has called "the Department of Highways." It's also a sign of how influential Missoula's many biking organizations can be on city policy.
Locavores thrive in Missoula. For instance, if you're invited to a potluck, it's good form to show up with something you harvested, brewed or killed yourself. Anything from Costco is out of the question.
To City Council's credit, they've realized the importance of local agriculture to the community and attempted to preserve quality soil. In fact, council recently derailed a subdivision until the developer agreed to set aside a portion for agriculture. The measure sparked a public debate about the balance of development with local farming, and it's a debate that should continue on a case-by-case basis for a long time.
In case you didn't know, arguably the third most powerful person in the country hails from Montana. U.S. Sen. Max Baucus chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which means that he decides what federal programs get paid and what programs get the ax. Currently, the controversial Democrat is riding point in the effort to fulfill President Obama's campaign promise to overhaul the nation's ailing health care system. Baucus' critics point out that 90 percent of the senator's campaign contributions come from pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies. It's your job to decide whether Baucus is a good Democrat who truly wants to offer everybody affordable health care, or if he's a corporate sellout working for special interests.