Everyone talks about wanting to change government, but one group is actually doing something about it: The city’s local government study commission met Dec. 21 to give its members an opportunity to present suggestions for tinkering with Missoula’s government structure. Ultimately, the group’s recommendations—if any—will show up on the ballot next year for voters’ endorsement or rejection.
The range of the commission members’ visions reflects the disparate personalities and approaches found throughout Missoula’s body politic, but all eight members built their presentations on the supposition that Missoulians are happy by and large—a supposition recently supported by a study that found 93 percent of locals think Missoula is a good place to live. Still, a handful of changes, most say, could help make them feel more satisfied and better connected to their representatives.
The question lurking behind such suggestions, of course, is whether change will improve things or just create new and different problems. Over the course of some 60 meetings last year, the commission heard from plenty of experts who cautioned that any structure has advantages and disadvantages, and that no one variety guarantees good government. The particular people involved in any given form of government will always prove the most influential variable.
The most drastic of the proposed modifications—fervently advocated by commission member Jane Rectenwald—would require the ditching of our citizen mayor and the hiring of a professional city manager. Rectenwald and others seem to blame most of Missoula’s problems—from planning troubles to budget management to Council bickering to citizen frustration—on the fact that average citizens are given power, via elections, over local government functions.
An opposing vision comes from North-Missoula Community Development Corporation Director Bob Oaks, whose grassroots work has taught him that “citizens can solve their own problems—we don’t always need professional help.”
Oaks and other commission members advocate increasing the role of neighborhood councils, created 10 years ago by the last government study commission, to give citizens more input in planning and other critical decisions.
Much of the commission supports reducing the size of Council to one representative per ward instead of two, and some favor adding more wards, or perhaps at-large Council representatives, as the city expands. Another widely supported recommendation is the hiring of a full-time communications officer or an ombudsman to interact with the public.
At the next commission meeting, Jan. 18, the group will hash out which individual recommendations to throw its weight behind. After that, meetings will gauge public opinion before any concrete changes show up on the ballot.
In the meantime, here’s plenty of change afoot at City Hall: Mayor-elect John Engen and six new City Council members will be sworn into office Dec. 30. They’ll assume their new posts Monday, Jan. 2.