Holding out hope 

How an illegal \ncampaign ousted Chet Hope from the Whitefish City Council and exposed the state’s inability to control the flow of money into \nsmall-town politics. \nby David Madison

On the last election day of his life, Chet Hope rose early, then decamped from his home on the banks of the Whitefish River. His son Jared and daughter Kendra came along. All three headed for the Wildwood Bakery across town. After a light breakfast, they moved on to City Hall, where the two kids cast votes for their dad.

Councilman Hope did no last-minute campaigning at the polls that day. In fact, in his nine-year career as a progressive force on the Whitefish City Council, he never campaigned. At least not in the official, glad-handing, money-pumping, back-slapping sense. Chet Hope’s Whitefish was too small for that.

“You could not go to the grocery store with him,” says his son-in-law Paul Sheehan. “That was his way of campaigning. And he didn’t think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to stop and talk to these people because I’m campaigning.’ He didn’t have that machine mentality.”

After casting his own ballot and departing City Hall, Dr. Chester Hope drove over to the Columbia Falls clinic where he practiced family medicine for nearly three decades. It was a place where patients sometimes waited alone in the examining room for Dr. Hope to finish up a phone call with the mayor or some constituent.

When gaps appeared in his appointment book, Chet would don a wetsuit and take off for the nearby Flathead River. There, even in the depths of winter, he swam where the current kept the surface from freezing. He wore prescription goggles and between strokes he’d scan the river bottom for whitefish lures. Eventually, he’d collect enough to decorate a small Christmas tree.

After a vigorous swim, Chet would return to the clinic where his partner regularly noted signs of hypothermia. He’d help Chet strip out of his wetsuit and usher him into the clinic’s steam room.

Chet needed this downtime—away from work and the Council and other community commitments. Everything in his political life was speeding up. His tenure as a city councilman was coinciding with Whitefish’s rapid evolution from a small town to a resort town. A real estate boom was on and widespread development—which Chet and the other councilors did their best to regulate—was threatening to strip Whitefish of its village charm.

At least that’s the way Chet saw things, a little more than a year ago on election day 2001. When he awoke the next morning and heard the news of his defeat, he had little doubt who was behind the upset. Chet and fellow progressive councilor Shirley Jacobson had been publicly criticized by a group called Citizens For An Informed Public (CFAIP) in the final weeks of the campaign. The last-minute blitz was orchestrated by a politically savvy camp of business and property owners, and it successfully helped to install a slate of three new candidates on the Whitefish City Council.

For the first time in anyone’s memory, negative campaigning and political donations had influenced the outcome of a Whitefish City Council race. Councilors Hope and Jacobson were the targets this time, but CFAIP vowed to take on the mayor and at least one other councilor in 2003.

With millions of dollars riding on an assortment of development projects in Whitefish, it’s not surprising that a political action committee would form to protect the interests of the town’s conservative business owners. What is surprising, say those who began researching CFAIP following the 2001 election, is that the group knowingly violated state election laws in its efforts to oust a pair of progressive councilors.

When the violations came to light in the days following the 2001 election, a former council member and ally of Hope and Jacobson filed a complaint with the state’s Commissioner of Political Practices—one that remains under investigation by the Attorney General’s office.

In addition to filing the complaint, friends of Chet Hope also decided to sue Citizens For An Informed Public for campaign finance violations.

Just this past December, that lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial. But due to a variety of circumstances—including the tragic death of Chet Hope—the suit lost steam. As it fizzled, Whitefish and the state of Montana missed a chance to close an election loophole that gives political action committees the ability to launch illegal surprise campaigns with impunity. Critics of the current law say PACs can do whatever they want, as long as they’re willing to absorb the modest fines that come with playing outside of the rules, and Chet Hope’s case supports the point.

Political war chests were never part of Dr. Chet Hope’s career in public service. Now everyone in Whitefish knows he was one of a vanishing breed.

In the early spring of 1977, when Dr. Hope was wrapping up his residency in Lusk, Wyo., he and colleague Doug Pitman went looking for a place to start a practice. One of the first they considered was Price, Utah. The blue-collar coal mining town sits tucked into a crease of the Beehive state where a high alpine plateau descends into the red rock desert. It could have been a beautiful place, but years of mining and isolation had left it with the residual debris of hard use. Billboards line its approaches, and while downtown Price has a faded glimmer of charm, it’s flanked by unsightly strip development.

Doctors Hope and Pitman decided immediately that Price didn’t meet their shared vision of a dream town. Price lacked certain amenities—pristine skiing and fishing—and for that, it became the butt of their own inside joke.

The pair decided to make a home movie mocking the town. Viewers see Chet pretending to fish the trash-lined Price River, then watch as he hops down some mine tailings as if on skis. They titled their movie “Not At Any Price.”

A few months later, Pitman and Hope made exploratory trips to Whitefish, a place they’d read about in cross-country ski magazines. At the time, a doctor in Columbia Falls was retiring, so the pair seized on the chance to assume his practice.

Commuting from Whitefish every morning, Dr. Hope left his home and drove out Highway 93 South before turning east toward Columbia Falls. Over the years, he watched as the two-lane road ballooned into a five-lane swath of fast food restaurants, motels and auto lots. Maybe it started to remind him of Price.

“He was always concerned about 93 South,” says Chet’s daughter Kendra. “What got him into politics was trying to keep Whitefish the way it was—as nice as it was when he got here—or nicer.”

Entering town from the south on Highway 93, motorists crest a rise just above Happy Valley to be greeted by views of the Whitefish Range, Big Mountain ski area and the kind of sky that sells a lot of real estate. In the bottom half of the picture, a bland strip of development unfurls like a highway exit. It’s a landscape dominated by the apostrophe “s”: Wendy’s, Denny’s, Taco John’s.

Highway 93 South was so unlike Chet’s favorite places, but he’d wind up spending a lot of time there. Especially last year, when business owners along the strip rose up to end Chet’s political career.

Dr. Hope’s volunteer service in city government began in 1993 when he was appointed to City Council by then-Mayor Ray Boksich. Up until then, Hope’s only overtly political act in Whitefish was protesting the shipment of nuclear materials by train through town.

Chet came about his defiant streak from his parents, Dutch immigrants who during World War II hid a Jewish family in their attic. When Nazis came to question Chet’s father, the elder Hope hid with the family while Chet’s mother spoke to the soldiers at the door. They were never found out.

Chet probably told that story over beers at the Bulldog, a sports pub located just a few paces away from City Hall. That’s where Chet and others went to talk shop and socialize after Council meetings. He’d sip beer and munch peanuts, and when the nuts were all gone, he’d suck the salty shells. All the while Chet would listen and debate, laugh and frown about the incredible growth that was transforming his community.

There was no slowing the feverish pace of development that ramped up during Chet’s time on Council. Amid the frenzy, Councilor Hope applied remedies and guidance to projects as they moved through the process. At Big Mountain, he pushed for the phased construction of Glacier Village, a project that could eventually triple the size of the resort. In the hills surrounding Whitefish, Chet participated in the annexation of Iron Horse; the colossal golf community expanded the town’s borders by a third, which confused migrating grizzly bears used to woodsy crossings up and down the ridgelines.

Thanks partly to Chet, mountain bikers and hikers continue to cross through Iron Horse on their way to and from popular trailheads. Hope routinely supported public access at a time when the new neighborhoods of Whitefish were trying to close their gates.

From these new developments flow SUVs packed with second-home owners and plenty of disposable income. The newcomers are attracted by the shops and restaurants on Central Avenue, where pedestrian traffic drives a thriving local economy.

At one end of Central stand the public library and the O’Shaughnessy Cultural Arts Center, two big-dollar developments that enjoy universal community support. Chet pushed both projects through with the help of others who feared the city was becoming distracted by the unprecedented growth on its outskirts.

“He understood that our economy in the Flathead is tied to the amenities,” says Greg Sullivan, former chairman of the Whitefish City-County Planning Board. During the 1990s, development in Whitefish was occurring at a rate that was “higher than ever,” says Sullivan. Local businesses boomed, but still some considered Councilman Hope an obstacle to growth.

“It was easy for people to say that, because they really didn’t understand his perspective,” explains Sullivan. “He was looking at quality of life issues and how people really live in Whitefish.”

Hope won both friends and enemies as a champion for constructing a bike path along the Whitefish River. His backing of a restrictive sign ordinance—which he hoped would clean up the billboard clutter along 93 South—was equally controversial.

Leading up to the 2001 election, opposition to the sign ordinance was building among business owners who felt that it unfairly forced them to foot the bill for newer, smaller signs. The Whitefish Rotary Club became the center of discontent, where complaints about City Council often revolved around Councilor Hope.

The man most upset with Hope was Gary Elliott, a partner in local real estate developments and former owner of the popular Bierstube bar. Elliott is a regular at local civic meetings. He’s used to bending ears, and in the election season of 2001, he was busier than ever.

At Rotary meetings and over the phone, Elliott approached business owners up and down the Highway 93 strip. He blamed the Council for a lot, but one cinder smoldered hottest in Elliott’s gut. It had to do with a complicated deal to extend sewer and water service to a business park Elliott was helping to build—a business park that happened to be on Highway 93 South.

By 2001, the controversial sewer and water deal had degenerated into an all-out feud between Elliott and Hope. It gained momentum as Elliott joined forces with opponents of the city’s sign ordinance and proposed bike path. Elliott wanted to do something about these Hope-backed agenda items, but he additionally claimed to be offended by what he described as Hope’s “rude” and “snide” behavior.

Elliott finally decided it was time to form a watch-dog group to videotape and broadcast City Council meetings on local television, seeking accountability through publicity. On Sept. 27, the group met to kick around names: Citizens for Polite Action, Citizens’ Voice, Whitefish Speaks.

They settled on Citizens For An Informed Public.

When it came time to officially create CFAIP, Elliott was required by law to register with the Commissioner of Political Practices office in Helena. Election rules are designed to give the public a window into the who-and-why driving the politics of the moment. That’s why political action groups are required to file promptly with the state. No gray area allows PACs to wait until the election is over.

Elliot would have known this.

According to newly elected Councilman Erik Garberg, Elliott and CFAIP sought advice about election rules from Whitefish lawyer Jack Quatman. The attorney was present at a meeting of CFAIP in October, less than a month before the 2001 election.

“There was an attorney there advising them on what they needed to do,” says Garberg. (Quatman says he attended the meeting, but offered no advice regarding election rules).

Soon afterward, Elliott called the Commissioner of Political Practices and was sent a packet of materials CFAIP needed to file. He looked over the forms, then—by his own account—decided it was “beyond, you know, something I wanted to deal with at the time.”

Citizens For An Informed Public was not officially registered with the state as a political action committee, but that didn’t stop it from going on the political offensive. In late October, CFAIP started making headlines in the local papers. At the time, Elliott told reporters his group was busy trying to set up regular broadcasts of Council meetings on local television. This was CFAIP’s top priority, says Elliott’s attorney, describing the group’s mission.

But the group’s accounting records show that from the beginning, CFAIP’s main focus was the 2001 election. Of the $3,600 raised by CFAIP, $450 was spent on a line item described as “video taping of City Counsel (sic) Meetings.”

Asked why he supported CFAIP with a $200 check on Oct. 19, 2001, Republican state Sen. Bob DePratu says he “wanted to see a change on the Council.”

DePratu, who owns DePratu Ford on 93 South, wholeheartedly welcomed the sight of three challengers in the 2001 Council race. The political newcomers—Erik Garberg, Mark Wagner and Doug Adams—received CFAIP’s endorsement in their campaigns to fill three open seats. One sitting councilor was retiring and the terms of Jacobson and Hope were about to expire.

Chet’s daughter Kendra says her dad had planned to leave the Council at the end of his term in 2001, but “then he saw the line-up of candidates and he decided to run.”

For Hope, that meant filing as a candidate and going about the daily routines of life: chatting on the phone, attending meetings and stopping in the produce section at Safeway to answer questions from a neighbor.

Meanwhile, CFAIP was preparing to unload on Hope and Jacobson. In the final weeks leading up to election day, the advertising came in waves. There were radio ads and a full-page spread in The Whitefish Pilot. The ads accused the sitting Council of abusing taxpayer money and “rude behavior.” (Elliott would later say he was called a “son-of-a-bitch” by Councilor Hope.)

CFAIP wound up spending $3,100 dollars on its eleventh-hour campaign. Add the nearly $5,000 in combined spending by Hope and Jacobson’s opponents, and the 2001 election instantly breaks all records for campaign spending in a Whitefish city race.

That’s no crime, says Sen. DePratu, wondering why money should be—by itself—an unwelcome addition to Whitefish politics. “Are you to say that small towns aren’t to have campaigns? Is that what you think small towns should do?”

The arrival of money alone is one thing, says former Council member Jan Metzmaker. It’s quite another for money to infiltrate local politics under the radar. By not filing with the state, CFAIP was able to hide from voters the names of its supporters and the amounts they donated.

“Now there’s a lot at stake and money talks, especially in a small town,” says Metzmaker, who recalls that during her time in Whitefish politics, “Nobody really ran campaigns, and no one ran mudslinging, negative campaigns. This time, it was so backdoor. It was so last minute. There really wasn’t any time for anyone to respond. That’s what made me so mad.”

In the days following the 2001 election, it was Metzmaker who called the Commissioner of Political Practices to learn more about CFAIP. The Commissioner’s office told her that the group had not filed with the state. Over the next few days, allies of ousted Councilors Hope and Jacobson buzzed with the news.

“Chet and I were really interested in who was a part of this group,” says Jacobson, who linked up with attorney John Lacey.

Lacey went to work researching Montana election law. Within weeks of the election, he had gathered enough material to file a lawsuit. A pair of Hope’s neighbors signed on as plaintiffs and suddenly the results of the 2001 city election were open to the scrutiny of a District Judge.

From the beginning, Judge Stewart Stadler wasn’t happy with the case, believing the courts shouldn’t meddle with election results. “We’re starting to almost micro-manage what is supposed to be a legislative process,” he says.

But that very process, attorney Lacey argued, had been corrupted by Citizens For An Informed Public when it failed to register with the state. Nothing the group did—sending out mailers and actively campaigning for its three candidates—was by itself illegal. But by not being registered with the state, the group made it impossible for the public to know who was backing the effort to unseat Hope and Jacobson.

“[Elliott] always knew what the rules were,” says plaintiff Richard Hildner, a civics teacher at Flathead High School who lives across the alley from the Hope residence. “It’s a question of fairness, of having all the cards out there, so you can see who has the agenda here. He knew the rules and he ignored them and that really rankles me.”

Judge Stadler says he sympathized with the plaintiffs’ right to file a suit, but he did little to speed up the trial. A date for the jury-less proceeding was finally set more than a year later. If Lacey could prove that CFAIP had illegally affected the outcome of the 2001 race, then Judge Stadler could order a new election.

“That’s hard to prove,” says Stadler. “If clearly, somebody stole this election, then it should be set aside. But if you say any illegal act voids an election, then you’re in a mess. These days, 52 percent to 48 percent is a big win. In that group, you find a mad attorney and a mad candidate and all of a sudden we’re off to the races.”

In this case, the plaintiffs barely got out of the starting blocks. They named Gary Elliott and his PAC as defendants, but Judge Stadler decided to release Elliott, CFAIP and the three newly elected council members from the suit. Stadler left the city of Whitefish as the sole defendant on the theory that the city is the only entity that can hold a new election.

With Stadler’s decision, the case awkwardly became a contest between City Attorney John Phelps and those calling for a new election. They were on opposite sides of a contentious lawsuit, but Phelps and plaintiff attorney Lacey agreed on a lot.

“As I better understood how the system worked,” says Phelps. “I came to understand that these are serious violations. These were not technicalities.”

Candidates—at least those beyond Whitefish—are accustomed to checking the campaign filings of their opponents. It’s a basic chore of the process, one the Commissioner of Political Practices facilitates by providing regular updates about the financial backing of political action committees.

“This wasn’t benign,” says Lacey, noting that Elliott has violated campaign rules before. A last-minute attempt in 1997 to install himself and others on a local sewer board was declared illegal and the election was overturned when it was discovered that Elliott and his cohorts had not properly registered as write-in candidates.

“If you want to get involved, that’s fine,” continues Lacey. “But you can’t do it in a cheatful, sneaky way.”

At trial, Lacey hoped to persuade Judge Stadler with testimony from Samantha Sanchez, who directs Helena’s National Institute on Money in State Politics.

In her deposition, Sanchez explained how campaign disclosure laws help protect the voters’ right to fair elections.

“The data about where money comes from in supporting a political candidate is extremely important information because it’s probably the only information a voter gets that’s honest. No political consultant has massaged it. Nobody has spun it. It’s just straight-out who supports that candidate. And in these days of content-free political advertising, this is probably the best information that voters get.”

Especially since, as Sanchez noted, the names of political action groups can be misleading. One, for instance—Montanans for Common Sense Water Laws—was found to be entirely funded by a Canadian mining interest.

Lacey says Citizens For An Informed Public is equally mis-named.

“The irony is thick,” he says, wondering why a group ostensibly working to inform the public chose to operate in secret. “We planned to make the most of that at trial.”

But with a year passed since election day and worries about forcing the city to run up steep legal bills, the suit was settled out of court a week before trial. On Dec. 6, the sitting council and presiding attorneys signed a statement of principles acknowledging the mistakes made in 2001.

“Since campaign dollars in fact do make a tremendous, if not the single determinative difference in election outcomes, accurate and timely disclosure must be held in equally high regard,” reads the statement, which goes on to formally chastise Elliott.

When called about the settlement and the latest news from CFAIP, Elliott declined comment on the advice of his attorney.

The lawsuit has been settled, but Elliott still faces the possibility of fines from the Commissioner of Political Practices, which continues to investigate the original complaint filed by former Council member Metzmaker.

The highest penalty Elliott could receive from the Commissioner’s office is a fine of three times the amount illegally spent by Citizens For An Informed Public. That would be a meaningless punishment, say critics of the law, because it would do nothing to prevent interest groups from buying elections.

Attorney Lacey says Montana’s campaign finance law is considered to be among the strictest in the nation. But the law lacks “express provisions” for the regulation of political action committees, a force that’s clearly arrived in Whitefish.

“Look, in 2000 and 2001, Whitefish issued $45 million in building permits,” says Mayor Andy Feury. “If I’m Joe Developer and I can get a slate of friendly candidates on City Council and I can do that for $3,000, plus another $9,000 or so in political fines, that’s a cheap expenditure.”

Even if Lacey had succeeded in having the 2001 election overturned, Chet Hope’s name would not have appeared on the new ballot. That’s because on the night of Feb. 10, 2002, Hope’s oldest son Jared shot and killed both he and his wife Carol. Jared, who suffered from bipolar disorder, then killed himself.

The tragedy united a divided community if only in its shared admiration for the veteran councilman. In his memory, Council passed an ordinance changing the official start time for its meetings from 7:00 p.m. to 7:10. The extra 10 minutes were tacked on in tribute to Chet, whose obsession with winter snorkeling and devotion to his family usually made him a little late to Council meetings.

The last time they met, unseated Councilors Hope and Jacobson chatted at the Bulldog over beers. “We talked it all out,” says Jacobson. “About next time, putting money in and running as a team.”

They decided they were going to join the fundraising game and actually campaign.

“It isn’t a small town situation anymore. It’s a money situation,” says Jacobson. “I guess you might say the innocence is taken out of it.”

Newly elected Councilor Doug Adams thinks Jacobson and supporters of the recently settled lawsuit have overplayed their hand. He questions the motives of those who brought the suit, noting that Lacey, the lead attorney, is also a member of the liberal-minded group Citizens For A Better Flathead.

“I was dragged through the process needlessly,” says Adams. “Philosophically, if somebody is trying to force an agenda and they are deceiving people, I think that is wrong. But I didn’t see that here.”

As for the future of city elections, Adams says, “It could get into a muckraking war and I hope that doesn’t happen in Whitefish.”

Councilman Hope felt the same way. He loved Whitefish for all it had—the mountains, the close-knit community, the great fishing—and for all it lacked: anonymous concrete sprawl and money-driven politics. It’s that identity, and the rarified individuality of Whitefish, that Hope wanted to protect.

“He wanted people in Whitefish to look out and say, ‘Gee, somebody was thinking,’” says Mayor Feury. “He was concerned that we remained a community.”

Within this burgeoning community, the political wrangling continues. Some worry the new Council is preparing to pull the teeth out of the city’s sign ordinance and scuttle plans for a bike path along the river. Debate over these issues will likely continue into the fall when Whitefish holds its next election.

“Now, suddenly,” says Mayor Feury, “the stakes are greater and we have to come to grips with that.”

Coming to terms with the loss of Jared, Carol and Chet Hope is another matter. Some months ago, a group of mutual friends gathered to watch some old home movies, including the infamous “Not At Any Price.”

“It’s so stupid it’s funny,” says Dr. Pitman, remembering his late partner as he was back in 1977, shock of blond hair whipping in the breeze and a big smile across his face.

“When we discovered Whitefish, it was such a special place,” says Pitman. “Chet wanted to maintain that specialness. But he was never a politician. He just wanted to maintain the town’s integrity.”

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