We don’t envy the people who serve on the Missoula City Council. It’s demanding, often aggravating work that doesn’t usually stimulate much in the way of praise or appreciation. Council members sit through endless sleepy meetings punctuated by excessively dramatic objections to perfectly reasonable decisions. Entrenched bureaucracy can impede efficient progress. And some people don’t really get it. Ill-informed blowhards get pretty aggressive with their criticism—not just citizens, mind you, but the council members themselves.
The normally simmering antagonism between council members came to a boil last week when Ward 2 representative John Hendrickson complained that certain council members have been e-mailing each other during meetings to discuss everything from when they’d be home, to the wording of an amendment, to the character flaws of their not-so-esteemed colleagues. Some members say the e-mails are innocuous, others say they break Montana open meeting laws.
Questions of legality and propriety aside, the e-mail controversy has goosed the tension level of an already wary council, which has displayed a less than collegial tone of late.
At last week’s meeting of the Public, Health and Safety committee, Hendrickson taped signs to his laptop computer reading “Sermons given free” and “Moron,” in reference to derisive e-mail comments made by Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler—not exactly the mature path to conflict resolution.
Then at Monday’s meeting council president Ed Childers needled those who questioned the private messaging (mainly Hendrickson and the media) by sarcastically informing council members they were prohibited from emailing, whispering, passing notes or signaling with their hands.
Clever stuff, but that little jibe probably undermined Childers’ authority when he scolded Hendrickson later in the meeting for failing to abide council’s rules against ad hominem personal attacks.
With elections on the horizon and some members struggling to keep their seats, it may seem excusable that civil discourse has suffered. The problem is that there are serious issues facing council—the Hillview Way SID, impact fee increases, growth, inadequate facilities for the police, and the Riverfront Triangle—not to mention the routinely demanding business of running the city.
Jack Reidy of Ward 5 used his comment time on Monday to voice concern for the institution he’s been a part of for more than 20 years.
“It used to be fun to come here on a Monday night, but not anymore; not with things the way they are,” he said. “We’re the laughing stock of city.”
There are certainly few chuckles to be had at the council’s expense this week, and we suspect that most voters feel an exasperating mix of disappointment and amusement. That’s too bad, because the council members put in too much time and effort for any of us to enjoy watching them fall on their faces.