Conservative minority 

Missoula City Council charts uncertain course

Even though progressives will have a slight majority on Missoula City Council come January, that doesn’t mean every vote before them will lean left, or that the game is up for conservative members. In fact, neither side has an agenda set in stone for the coming year.

“I think there is a higher likelihood of seven-five votes,” says Ward 3 councilor Bob Jaffe. “I can’t say, ‘We [progressives] have an agenda and this is what we’re doing.’ But I think more of what we’re going to see is that as issues come up, and where now it’s been 6-6 on more of these controversial issues, we’ll see things maybe ending 7-5. But you never know.”

Overall, the ideological divisions on Council seem most apparent with more symbolic issues, like the Pledge of Allegiance, but less obvious on the nitty-gritty details of running the city. For instance, the seven progressives on Council oppose the five conservatives on a proposed ordinance allowing domesticated chickens within city limits, a lifestyle issue with little bearing on the effective government of the town. The recent Hillview Way Special Improvement District, on the other hand, blurs the lines. When the Public Works Committee discussed the SID Nov. 7, it found support only from Ward 6’s Ed Childers, a member of the progressive-leaning bloc on Council.

Situations like this, while somewhat surprising, do not completely calm openly Republican Ward 5 councilor Dick Haines. He worries about the future.

“The enemy has won,” Haines jokes, although he concedes the inherent truth behind the humor. “I hope it isn’t true, but we’ve had so many gut-grinding debates down there right now as it is.”

Haines generally allies with the Council’s conservative bloc, which lost two incumbent Council members during the recent election. Ward 4 representative Jerry Ballas lost his bid for re-election to Lyn Hellegaard. However, she’s even more fiscally conservative than him on issues like Splash Missoula and Open Space Bonds, insisting throughout her campaign she would spend less money on those types of projects than Ballas. Ward 2 representative Don Nicholson fell to progressive challenger Pam Walzer.  Ward 5 Councilor-elect Renee Mitchell, who replaces Jack Reidy, seems poised to supplant Nicholson on the bloc as someone steadfastly anti-chicken, and still bothered by former Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas.

Contemplating Council’s new roster, Haines says he fears people will make a habit of misusing parliamentary rules like “calling for the question” or “point of order” to quash Council debate.

Calling for the question forces a vote on whether or not to end debate. If a supermajority (eight council members) votes to end the debate, the Council must vote immediately, without further discussion on the motion before them.

During several recent meetings both progressives and conservatives have used both tactics to suspend debate. Haines fears progressives on Council may employ these strategies, and others, in the coming year to suppress conservative points of view. Or they might take advantage of committee leadership positions to prevent agenda items from reaching the full Council.

Haines understands that as a whole Missoula leans left politically, but says Missoulians want to hear different ideas.

“I met people door to door during my campaign who didn’t have a nice thing to say about Republicans, but they wanted to at least talk over some of these issues,” he says. But he finds that same rousing absent from the Council, which falls victim to partisan bickering all too often. “It’s bad for us, and it’s bad for Missoula to have that,” Haines says.

Now as a clear minority, Haines says he’s looking for opportunities to reach across the aisle on the important issues he sees facing Missoula. Already he’s met with Ward 1 councilor-elect Jason Wiener to discuss the coming year. “Jason coming to talk to me gives me hope that we can actually get things done next year.”

Jaffe agrees that compromises can be made. “I think there’s definitely going to be an effort to see how we can [reach a consensus],” he says. “At least from our perspective we feel like any attempt to compromise gets us kicked in the teeth…I’m always optimistic. We all do have the same goals, you know, which is to help the community.”

Haines says he wants Council to focus on broad topics like road maintenance and transportation. He also wants Council to take the reins of the city’s budget. Currently, Haines says, Council has little to do with the actual shaping of the budget and merely rubber-stamps it. It’s actually something he and Jaffe agree on.

Whether or not the progressives and conservatives sitting on Council will agree on other issues, or can at least work effectively together and compromise, remains uncertain, at least until January, when the new Council convenes.

“I think the first meeting will be a fist fight,” says Haines.

Again, he’s joking.
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