Tennessee developer Bucky Wolford wants to build the largest mall in Montana just outside of Kalispell. His colossal Glacier Mall project is currently awaiting approval from the Flathead County Commissioners. None of the commissioners are up for election this year, but the mall—and potential development on school trust land near Whitefish—looms large in municipal races in the Flathead this year. Everyone knows that eventually the Kalispell City Council will have to deal with the Glacier Mall if the county approves it—either through annexation or extended sewer service or a strategy to deal with all that traffic bottlenecking on the edge of town.
Voters also perceive that Wolford Development doesn’t care to bother with downtown Kalispell or the vacant commercial spaces found throughout the city. Likewise, voters in Whitefish sense that the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation—which manages the school trust lands next to Whitefish—doesn’t seem motivated by the economic benefits of preserving open space around this resort town.
The following endorsements back candidates who do care—candidates who see the bigger picture and can nourish private business interests while protecting the county’s greatest assets.
KALISPELL CITY COUNCIL
Ward 1: Northwest Kalispell
Jean Johnson’s credentials for the job are outstanding. He’s done tours of duty as president of the Flathead City-County Planning Board and the Kalispell Board of Adjustment, and lost a close race in the last mayoral election. He’d be a “go-to” guy when it came time for the city to hammer out deals with companies looking to invest in Kalispell.
And therein lies the problem. While Johnson’s an intelligent and accomplished manager, he’s closely allied with Wolford Development. Johnson considers Wolford a friend, and Johnson’s firm worked on Wolford’s initial plan to build his mammoth mall in Evergreen. Now is not the time for Wolford to have such a close associate on the Council.
So the open seat in Ward 1 should fall to Kari Gabriel, a first-time candidate with lots of political experience. She’s worked on U.S. Senate and gubernatorial campaigns in South Dakota, and in the Flathead she spent six years as the spokesperson for Flathead Valley Community College.
FVCC works as an economic catalyst in the Flathead, and that’s a trait Gabriel wants to carry onto the Council. But it might be what Gabriel lacks that makes her most appealing. “I don’t have any attachments to any group,” she says. We hope the voters are listening.
Ward 2: Northeast Kalispell
This is the hottest race in the county. Insurance salesman Bob Herron is taking on incumbent Fred Leistiko, and the tone of city politics seems to hang in the balance. Leistiko brings a thoughtful style and reasoned manner to the Council. He doesn’t blast the Glacier Mall proposal, saying instead, “Retail space is not a pressing issue.” That’s a keen grasp of the obvious that Leistiko’s opponent does not share.
A gadfly who is clearly dedicated to civic efforts, Herron comes off to many as a blowhard. Leistiko says Herron “called all those people against the mall ‘socialists.’” The challenger returns fire, suggesting Leistiko is an interloper who often works out-of-town and shows up in Kalispell “two Mondays a month” for Council meetings.
Glacier Mall opponents, Herron says, “do not have the right to stop our economy from growing.” That’s the kind of hyperbole Kalispell can expect to hear coming from the dais if Herron is elected to Council.
It’s also just one of the reasons voters should return Leistiko for a second term. The incumbent is working to improve the county’s 911 emergency response service. He’s tuned into the dire need for more affordable housing in Kalispell. And the retired U.S. Army colonel turned ranch manager has an accountant’s eye for detail when it comes to the city budget. He’s currently pushing for better long-term management of city services, “So you don’t have to hit the people with a big rate increase.” Herron should lose this race, but he shouldn’t be dismissed—in his words—as “this right wing guy.” He’s sharp, energetic and brutally honest with his beliefs. In his public comments supporting the Glacier Mall project, Herron said, “No one in this room tonight or in this county has the right to stop Mr. Wolford from proceeding because they somehow think his business model is flawed.”
Actually, city councils can do plenty—from zoning to incentives—to steer development toward the community’s best interest. Leistiko understands this, Herron does not.
Ward 3: Downtown Kalispell
Kalispell needs Randy Kenyon the way heavy drinkers need attentive bartenders to cut them off. The fact that Kenyon’s opponent—Ron Raade—is a bartender fails to give him the edge, in our estimation. What matters in this race is Kenyon’s proven willingness to say what needs to be said. He’s articulate, well-informed and skilled at compromise. He should be elected to a second term, but not without noting some of the issues raised by his opponent.
Raade, who tends bar at the Bulldog Saloon, remembers when downtown Kalispell had a thriving nightlife. “Things used to happen,” says Raade, remembering the city’s bygone criterion bike race and the once-hip bar scene. “It needs to happen again,” he says. “It’s crucial to this area staying vibrant.”
Kenyon favors more development downtown, and less on the city’s edges. He’s provided a lone voice of reason on the issue of job creation and Stream International’s exploitation of its workers. When asked what he might do differently during a second term, Kenyon says, “Maybe be more aggressive in terms of what I believe.”
What does he believe? That many of his constituents on the west side are lower income renters who could use a hand with affordable housing, and that Streetscape was a good idea because it “shows future developers that downtown is committed to being a vibrant place.” When those future developers come in and promise Kalispell the moon—whether it’s hundreds of jobs at Stream or creating a regional retail center at the Glacier Mall—Kenyon will be there to announce last call before the city’s vision gets too blurry.
Kalispell city charter ballot item
Voters should approve this push to change Kalispell’s city government from “general control” to “charter control.” As a charter city, Kalispell will have greater control over how it taxes, sets fees, makes assessments and establishes rates. Vote for the adoption of the self-government charter.
Who should be the city attorney’s boss?
Voters should not repeal the Kalispell City Council’s wise decision to place the city attorney position under the supervision of the city manager. Vote against the repeal of Ordinance No. 1398.
The rancor of the last city election has died down with the demise of the ironically named Citizens For An Informed Public, which violated state election law en route to smearing its opponents in City Hall. Sitting Mayor Andy Feury is not the darling of the crass commercial interests behind Citizens For An Informed Public, and that alone earns him our vote. This year, the incumbent Feury is challenged by the capable Mike Gwiazdon, president of the Sportsman Ski Haus and a former city councilman. More than finding fault with Gwiazdon, the Indy remains impressed with Feury’s command of important issues like affordable housing and the threatened school trust lands many Whitefish locals fear will become gated communities for ski town newcomers.
“I bring a continuity to the process,” says Feury, who will continue to seek ways to work affordable housing into the real estate gold rush that’s pushing home prices beyond the reach of many. He’ll try and finish the bike path along the Whitefish River once and for all. And he’ll help the city present a “united front” when it comes time to deal with the DNRC and any plans to develop school trust lands.
Those who say Feury isn’t business-friendly need to consider the incredible boom that’s happened on his watch. Revenues from the city’s resort tax continue to increase, and if the current building spree of giant, Aspen-style banks in Whitefish is any sign of a robust economy, then times have been good with Feury as mayor.
Four candidates are running for three open seats on the Whitefish City Council. If only the Council did not include members Erik Garberg or Mark Wagner; with this conservative pair remaining in office, the Indy can’t afford to endorse the only moderate incumbent in the race: Councilman Turner Askew.
Askew’s straightforward, thoughtful and well-informed take on the issues is refreshing and preferable to anything offered by Garberg or Wagner. This pair seems incapable of putting the city’s interests ahead of anyone’s profit margin. While Askew is generally sympathetic toward developers (he is one), he’s also his own man. Askew’s for it “If it’s what’s in the best interest of Whitefish.”
So are Tom Muri, Velvet Phillips-Sullivan and Cris Coughlin. All three get the Indy’s endorsement because their fresh perspectives and collective experience will bring some community-minded balance to the Council. Muri is a former Whitefish city attorney whose institutional memory of city politics and understanding of civic process will be welcomed. He’ll carefully scrutinize developers’ requests for zoning changes. He has a vision for Wisconsin Avenue, which is morphing from a residential street into a commercial corridor. Muri also has a keen understanding of Whitefish’s symbiotic relationship with Big Mountain.
“We’re almost like Siamese twins, and we’re probably at the point where we need to have that surgery so [Big Mountain] is its own community,” says Muri, who doesn’t want to see Whitefish’s infrastructure—from roads to sewer lines—take a beating while Big Mountain’s base area continues to grow.
That growth is of particular concern to Velvet Phillips-Sullivan, a political novice who wants to “bring some balance back to the board.” Besides having the best first name in local politics, Velvet will give voice to the hordes of wage slaves struggling to call Whitefish home. “We’re losing a lot of young people,” she says. “We’re losing a lot of moderate votes. They’re moving to Columbia Falls and Kalispell.”
Those who hold on to their piece of Whitefish by holding down more than one job do it because they want to ski, hike, fish and bike. As a former ski patroller and co-owner of Glacier Wilderness Guides and the Montana Raft Company, candidate Cris Coughlin will speak up for Whitefish’s rec set.
“There’s a younger generation of voters in this town that may make a difference,” says Coughlin. Given the threat posed by DNRC’s development ambitions and the valley-wide angst about the Glacier Mall, it’s the voters who favor skiing over shopping and biking over big box stores that need to come out in force to put Muri, Sullivan-Phillips and Coughlin into office.
This contest is virtually uncontested, with sitting Mayor Susan Nicosia facing a knee-jerk challenge from Scott Bereta. Bereta is against bike paths and tax-funding aimed at revitalizing downtown Columbia Falls.
Nicosia gets our vote because she is a fair and cordial moderator at Council meetings who does a good job managing controversial topics like the recent Cedar Park project. She’s also an accountant who can examine every nook and cranny of the city budget.
Nicosia is the only incumbent in a contested race this year in Columbia Falls. Council members Don Barnhart, Sam Hagen and Claudette Hohn are all running unopposed for three open seats. If Beretta was serious about local politics in Columbia Falls, the political newcomer would have set his sights on one of these seats.