For the first time in a long time, the 2013 Missoula election presents a deep slate of challengers and the possibility of significant change in local leadership. Four city council incumbents decided not to run for reelection, meaning at least a third of the governing body will be new. And of the six council seats on the ballot, four are contested. Two-term Mayor John Engen faces competition for the first time since 2005 with three others vying for his office. Perhaps the most intriguing race involves the battle for Municipal Court judge. The court sees roughly 40,000 misdemeanor cases annually and mainly adjudicates everyday crimes like speeding tickets, so many residents are likely to make a mandatory appearance before the city judge. This is the first time in two decades the robe has been truly up for grabs, and the first time ever the Independent has made a local judicial endorsement.
The Indy interviewed the candidates over the last three weeks. The conversations ranged from frustratingly ill informed to inspiring, which we suppose should be expected with so many first-time candidates. Overall, we came away mostly encouraged by the level of civic engagement and discourse, and with a clear understanding of the best choice in each race.
Municipal Court Judge
Kathleen Jenks (incumbent),
The Missoula Municipal Court handles roughly 180 cases a day. Defendants in the misdemeanor court are typically law-abiding locals who get caught speeding or busted for driving under the influence of alcohol. Due to the sheer volume of cases adjudicated and the fact that the fines generate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for the Missoula General Fund, we view this race among the year’s most important—and most interesting—with three candidates bringing distinctly different views to the campaign.
In 2011, the Missoula City Council appointed Kathleen Jenks to replace Municipal Court Judge Donald Louden, who served for nearly two decades. Jenks has made radical changes during her 23 months on the bench. She’s implemented online fine payment and overhauled record keeping. Defendants now get computerized printouts of their sentence requirements. In the past, the information was sloppily handwritten in the margins of the actual tickets.
Jenks has also launched a misdemeanor probation program that better ensures more stringent court oversight of alcohol and anger management counseling. A study conducted by the Office of Planning and Grants before Jenks was appointed to the bench found that four out of five offenders sentenced for partner family violence were not completing their court-ordered counseling. According to Jenks, between July 2012 and January 2013, the completion rate for anger management classes increased to 70 percent.
During Jenks’ short tenure, she’s earned a reputation for being tough. She’s also proven her management skills by increasing the court’s efficiency, which is evidenced by shorter lines and a significant jump in fine collections. Jenks says she hopes to be reelected and continue to build upon the considerable progress she has already made behind the bench.
Mark McClaverty says that, if elected, his judicial style would be more relaxed and personable. He speaks highly of Judge Louden, who was popular throughout his tenure and earned a reputation as something of a softy, inspiring the memorable nickname, “Let ’em loose Louden.” McClaverty calls Louden a mentor and a friend and, when asked if his courtroom would more closely resemble Louden’s or Jenks’, he quickly sides with Louden.
McLaverty says his primary goal as judge would be to keep offenders from getting in trouble again. He speaks at length about his capacity to empathize with defendants and his ability to make those appearing in court feel more comfortable.
“I enjoy working with people,” McLaverty says. “And I enjoy hearing their stories.”
McLaverty presents himself as a nice enough guy, but he doesn’t offer much substance when it comes to improving the court. Aside from a pledge to improve collaboration with the Missoula Veterans Court, which exerts more stringent oversight of addicted and mentally ill offenders, and a generic offer to better educate students about the dangers of drunken driving, we heard few details, new ideas or even reasons why a change in leadership is necessary.
Perhaps more troubling is McLaverty’s overly relaxed approach to doling out justice, one that is more focused on making friends than interpreting statute. His decision to omit his 2003 drunken driving conviction on a judicial candidate application reinforces our perception of McLaverty as a casual interpreter of the rules.
State law requires defendants convicted of misdemeanor DUI to spend one day in jail. McLaverty says that because he doesn’t recall serving time, and the 2011 application question specifically inquired about convictions carrying a jail sentence, he omitted the charge from the application.
McLaverty is splitting hairs. As an attorney, he knows the statute. If not, he ought to. His two opponents believe the question was clearly worded and McLaverty erred in not divulging the conviction, and we agree.
McLaverty is certainly personable. He’s the kind of guy we’d want to sit down with and shoot the bull over a root beer or two. But that’s not enough to earn our endorsement.
The third candidate, Leta Womack, is a veteran trial lawyer who currently serves as a public defender in Polson. She’s articulate, engaging and accumulated quite the resume, including a perfect score on the Martindale-Hubble rating system, a peer-dictated measure of professional standards such as legal ability and ethical practices.
Womack wants to distinguish herself from the incumbent by emphasizing alternatives to jail sentences. She’d like to place first- and second-time offenders into community service, rather than fining them or locking them up. She also believes that there’s room to grow the Municipal Court’s collaborations with Co-occurring Treatment Court and Veterans Court.
“Throwing them in jail is not the right solution,” Womack says. “The harshest punishments that you can assess are not necessarily a deterrent to crime.”
We like Womack’s drive to treat rather than incarcerate, but again we heard little else in the form of substantive changes. Perhaps the reason Womack and McLaverty struggled to articulate a need for improvement is because Jenks has made such significant strides in relatively short order. The incumbent’s track record leaves us eager to see what she can accomplish during another four years.
Endorsement: Kathleen Jenks
Bryan von Lossberg,
Bryan von Lossberg is a newcomer to politics but arrives with an impressive background and a palpable enthusiasm for the Missoula community. The former program and engineer manager for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory spoke at length about how he would apply the same forward-thinking problem solving he learned in the space program to the city’s challenges. As a graduate of the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program and the current executive director for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization, or AERO, he emphasizes his passion for issues like the purchase of Mountain Water Co. and the city’s Conservation and Climate Action Plan. He’s also eager to help the city follow through on the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness and continue to attract innovative businesses like Rivertop Renewables and Blue Marble to help reinvigorate Missoula’s economy.
“I think over my career I’ve learned how to balance long-range planning for some pretty ambitious projects with the sort of meat and potatoes, day-to-work necessary to get them done,” he says.
We appreciate that von Lossberg isn’t afraid to admit he’s still getting educated about the intricacies of local government and doesn’t have all the answers. He arrived for his interview holding a thick binder full of past city budgets and other planning documents, and said that he “has a ton to learn.” Based on his past experience and enthusiasm for holding office, we feel good about his prospects in Ward 1.
It’s worth noting that we’re not alone in that confidence. Voters will see Patrick Maddison’s name on the ballot, but he announced last month that he was ending his campaign and endorsing von Lossberg. That makes it all the easier for us to do the same.
Endorsement: Bryan von Lossberg
Jordan Hess, unopposed
Jordan Hess is running unopposed, but that hasn’t stopped him from knocking doors to better acquaint himself with Ward 2’s size and complexity. Each neighborhood in the district—which encompasses Grant Creek, areas off Mullan Road, plus the Westside—has its challenges, meaning the person who replaces outgoing Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken will need to bring themselves up to speed quickly.
The Union Gospel Mission’s July announcement that it intended to move from its current Toole Avenue location to West Broadway, near the new site of the Poverello Center homeless shelter, prompted one of Ward 2’s hottest debates. Hess says that he agrees with council’s decision to more thoroughly vet such social service operations prior to allowing them to open their doors, even though the decision was made retroactively.
Hess, who works for the University of Montana Mansfield Library as a web developer, often falls in line with the current council’s progressive majority. He lists his primary goals as continuing to connect and improve the city’s bike and pedestrian trails, and ensuring that residents of his ward can cross Reserve Street safely.
Hess agrees with many of council’s decisions, but insists that he wouldn’t be afraid to go against the grain. He is critical, for instance, of the May decision to legalize accessory dwelling units, or so-called “granny flats,” in single-family neighborhoods.
“I think I would want to emphasize that a philosophy of one-size-fits-all doesn’t work in Ward 2,” Hess says. “ADUs, for instance, don’t belong in Grant Creek. If anything, I’d bring an increased sensitivity to the diversity of our city and particularly the residents of my ward.”
Hess is officially running unopposed. But a month after the deadline to file as a candidate, Roger Seewald announced that he’d like the job, too. Seewald’s tardiness and the fact that he hasn’t launched much of a campaign contribute to our decision to endorse Hess.
Endorsement: Jordan Hess
Emily Brock Bentley,
During his two terms of service, outgoing Councilman Bob Jaffe has been one of the most productive members of the lawmaking body. His replacement will be challenged to rise to Jaffe’s level of effectiveness.
Emily Brock Bentley believes she’s up for the task. The long-time Missoula County Democratic Party member works professionally as a campaign manager for Compassion and Choices, a nonprofit that advocates for death with dignity. As such, she already has an understanding of how the local political apparatus works.
Among Bentley’s primary goals would be to beef up Missoula’s low-income housing stock. For two years, she served on the Missoula Housing Authority Board of Directors. She’d like to strengthen the city’s relationship with MHA and, in doing so, expand housing options for people on a budget. “There’s a shared interest there,” she says of MHA and the city.
Among the biggest issues facing Ward 3 is transportation, Bentley says. Specifically, she wants to ensure that Russell Street and its impending redesign don’t ruin the neighborhood’s feel.
“I’m not willing to sacrifice Ward 3 to make Missoula a thoroughfare,” she says.
Bentley discusses housing needs and transportation issues articulately. Like von Lossberg, she admits that she’s still getting schooled on the nuts and bolts of city government. We appreciate her candor and the fact that she followed up on our interview by emailing additional materials to bolster her position on certain issues.
The other Ward 3 candidate, Paul Bohan, says he’s running to provide an alternative discourse and challenge the “ruling clique” currently on council. We agree with Bohan that dissent among lawmakers is healthy and that debates help strengthen policy. But Bohan is not a productive voice in these discussions. He admits he has trouble staying on topic. He rarely answers direct questions. He has a history of running over his allotted time when speaking in front of council and not following basic meeting decorum, and we experienced similar annoyances during our interview. Bohan’s brand of dissent is not one we can support. Bentley, however, shows promise as a new voice on council and deserves the seat.
Endorsement: Emily Brock Bentley
Jon Wilkins (incumbent), unopposed
Jon Wilkins comes across as a pretty straightforward communicator who speaks plainly and doesn’t mince words. His voting record is significantly more complex.
The two-term incumbent and military veteran is a registered Democrat, but it’s often tough to predict which way he will vote. He recently sided with conservatives against legalizing ADUs in single-family districts. But he also maintains a strong progressive streak, one that’s led him to champion the causes of renters’ rights and that of an elderly woman who was evicted from her home for failure to pay property taxes. In response to the woman’s plight, Wilkins went so far as to lobby the Montana Legislature (unsuccessfully) to change laws governing such tax evictions.
There have been times when Wilkins’ wildcard nature has made us uneasy. But as council’s liberal voting block appears poised to grow, his independence becomes an important part of the governing body’s makeup.
Endorsement: Jon Wilkins
Annelise Noelle Hedahl,
David “Doc” Moore
Annelise Noelle Hedahl isn’t shy about the fact she never really had political aspirations before filing in Ward 5 this year. The notion of running for office first dawned on her during the city’s discussion about shutting down Fire Station No. 5 on Lower Miller Creek Road—an issue she knew intimately given her husband’s career as a city fireman. She’s not terribly concerned about critics of her candidacy either. “With me,” she says, “you get what you get.”
In Hedahl’s case, what Missoula would get is the business-savvy product of a military family, a local since childhood and a former membership coordinator for the Missoula Building Industry Association. She’s a young mother, professional advertising salesperson and a self-proclaimed “Republicrat.” Hedahl speaks her mind. She’d like to see a municipal fuel tax to bolster the general budget, as unpopular as that might be, and she supports the idea of Missoula purchasing Mountain Water so long as “we consider everything, and it’s very well calculated.” Hedahl doesn’t run from discussions that could turn heated. In fact, she encourages them.
Can we say as much for her opponent, David “Doc” Moore? The state legislator is certainly not the breed of candidate who attracts single-issue voters. He’s a registered Republican who landed an endorsement from Planned Parenthood during his legislative campaign. He also made waves in his first session in Helena, sponsoring a successful measure to roll marijuana into the state DUI laws.
The problem is that, as a Ward 5 candidate, Moore’s been a no-show. He admits he only filed for the race to “give voters a choice.” He has hardly campaigned and doesn’t seem interested in winning. In fact, if not for a nasty concussion he suffered near the end of the legislative session, Moore says he would have preferred to run for mayor.
Moore believes the mere presence of his name on the ballot has actually helped Hedahl by forcing her to run a campaign, thus making her a stronger candidate. It seems odd that a politician would boast about strengthening an opponent’s campaign. And Moore’s cavalier approach to this race is discomforting to say the least. Thankfully Hedahl isn’t just the other choice. She’s a solid candidate who deserves the chance to serve on council.
Endorsement: Annelise Noelle Hedahl
Marilyn Marler (incumbent),
Dr. Ernest Szechenyi
It’s clear after 15 years of community service, including nearly eight on council, that Marilyn Marler has dedicated herself to the city of Missoula. While three of her two-term colleagues are leaving council in 2014, she says she wants to stick around to take care of unfinished business.
At the top of Marler’s to-do list is the long-anticipated redesign of Russell Street, which, after nearly a decade of planning, is slated to begin next year. Similarly, council’s recent creation of a sidewalk-funding policy that decreases the financial burden on property owners has her eager to help transform Garden City streets into more pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares. And then there’s her interest in a possible new Open Space Bond, which will be discussed during the next term. As a natural areas specialist for the University of Montana, it’s a conversation with which she wants to be intimately involved.
City council elected Marler as its president in January 2012, and she’s proud of her track record leading the group. Those who have followed city politics for a long time will recognize that the current level of discourse and productivity fostered under Marler’s leadership is unusual. We may occasionally make fun of tactics like rearranging the seating at meetings, but whatever Marler is doing is working.
Marler’s challenger, Ernest Szechenyi (sounds like “Say-chainy”) studied medicine on the East Coast and arrived in Missoula in 1995. He currently works at Opportunity Resources and speaks passionately about his involvement with his church. His volunteerism with organizations such as Meals on Wheels and the Knights of Columbus demonstrate a community spirit. Szechenyi was a pleasure to meet, but he is simply not conversant about city issues and not a serious challenger to Marler.
Endorsement: Marilyn Marler
John Engen (incumbent),
Peggy Ann Cain
In the months before this year’s deadline to file as a mayoral candidate, it looked like incumbent John Engen’s popularity would once again scare away any challengers. Citywide elections are nonpartisan, but Engen’s a Democrat in a progressive city. And local Republicans during the weeks leading up to the deadline publicly predicted that, despite Engen’s enthusiasm for expanding government, he’d likely run unopposed, as was the case in 2009.
It didn’t play out that way. On the last possible day to file for candidacy, three challengers emerged, each bringing a distinctly different voice to the race.
Dean McCollom is a 44-year-old California transplant who moved to Missoula in 2010. He earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz and a master’s in business administration from San Jose State University, and has professional experience that includes working with startups and established businesses in fields like environmental protection, construction and manufacturing. McCollom now oversees his own Missoula consulting company, Hellgate Technologies, and touts his varied business credentials as one of the driving forces of his campaign.
“I can’t tell you how surprised I was that Mayor Engen didn’t attend the Montana Economic Summit,” says McCollom, who did go to the event. “As the CEO of the city I would think that’s somewhere he needs to be.”
In addition to job creation and attracting new businesses to Missoula, McCollom talks a lot about his commitment to process. That commitment, however, makes it difficult to know where he stands on certain issues. When asked about the increase of the city’s general fund during Engen’s tenure and where he would make cuts, McCollom said he’d apply a structured, data-driven approach to the issue, but didn’t offer specifics. When asked if he would pursue the purchase of Mountain Water, he was similarly noncommittal. He says he wants more information and can only hope Engen’s decision to negotiate with Carlyle Group is “based on facts” and that “the mayor’s rationale is sound.”
Mike Hyde is not nearly as evasive when discussing his goals. The outspoken medical marijuana activist is running to “protect the will of the people” when it comes to local cannabis laws, as well as fight for the city’s local food, water and sustainable industry. He believes hemp should play a major role in all three.
Hyde’s message comes with a compelling backstory. His son, Cash, was among the nation’s youngest medical marijuana patients before he died last year from brain cancer. The Hydes used cannabis oil to help alleviate Cash’s pain and nausea associated with the disease. They were stunned that the city ignored a voter initiative to make marijuana crimes the lowest priority and the state allowed federal agents to raid caregiver operations and essentially repeal the use of medical cannabis.
“We went from fighting for Cashy to fighting for his medicine,” says Hyde.
Some may be quick to dismiss Hyde’s platform, but he’s dealing with his grief and channeling his passion by contributing to the democratic process and engaging in civic life. If nothing else, his campaign has helped keep this issue in the spotlight and question glaring inconsistencies at both the state and local levels. We can’t help but commend his efforts.
Peggy Cain is a self-proclaimed “old-fashioned labor Democrat” who doesn’t understand the priorities of local progressives. She offers colorful critiques of the current leadership’s obsession with “grants, loans, rules and more rules and more rules,” and says they’ve forgotten how to listen to constituents.
“Taxes are going up, traffic is a mess, two mills shut down and they’re telling me I can’t light a sparkler on the Fourth of July? Really?” she says in regards to the city enforcing its ban on fireworks.
Cain is a retired licensed practical nurse who says her greatest concerns are how an expanding city budget and corresponding increases in property taxes are impacting people like her—locals living on a fixed income. That fiscal responsibility is part of the reason she believes the city should not purchase Mountain Water because the cost would be “ginormous.”
Cain continued her criticisms by questioning Engen’s relationship with UM President Royce Engstrom, the handling of the Union Gospel Mission, the “unrealistic” 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness and how the city “shut out the public” when addressing ADUs. She offered some of the most entertaining sound bites with each barb, but the substance of her policy solutions doesn’t match her wit or charm, which are considerable.
Engen has heard all of these criticisms—and more—during the campaign and we were interested to see his reaction. He stands by his decision, for example, to increase the city’s budget by 22 percent since first elected, especially in light of waning state funding. “When I increase taxes, it’s about retaining high-quality employees, and high-quality service needs,” he says, before adding a good line that even Cain would appreciate. “Fundamentally, there is no better value than your city tax dollars ... I pay more for TV than police, fire, sewer, parks and recreation, and all of that other good stuff that we provide.”
It’s striking that even after two terms, Engen seems genuinely excited about leading the city for another four years. He says he has a “fire in the belly for what I think is a cool recovery time for Missoula,” and notes there has been more interest in local business development over the past six months than in the past seven and a half years.
He talks specifically about promising activity at the long overdue Riverfront Triangle site. He boldly proposes a public safety special district to purchase necessary new equipment like fire engines. He wants voters to help create a Fort Missoula Regional Park that could be “something for the ages.” And then there’s that thing about buying a water company.
Engen has guided the city through some trying times, weathering both an economic downturn and entanglement in the university sex assault imbroglio. His challengers have used this election to criticize some clear errors, like the city’s retroactive soup kitchen ordinance, and that’s made the mayoral race more interesting. But we feel they’re largely nipping at Engen’s heels. His steady leadership through crisis and promising outlook for the future have Missoula heading in the right direction. We’re lucky to have him.
Endorsement: John Engen
Missoula Urban Transportation District mill levy
During the past two years, Mountain Line has consistently broken ridership records. Last year alone, it provided 943,809 lifts to locals. For the first time since 1976, the Missoula Urban Transportation District is asking taxpayers to help Mountain Line grow.
Specifically, Mountain Line is requesting $1.7 million annually—roughly $19.11 in taxes for a $100,000 home—to extend bus service into the late evening hours and to fill demand on busy routes. The levy would also provide much-needed van service to the elderly and people with disabilities.
Mountain Line helps keep cars off the road and, in doing so, curbs the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to a warming climate. The service also provides a vital link to low-income people who can’t afford a vehicle, enabling them to connect with the broader Missoula community. We think a “yes” vote is a no-brainer for such an important local service.
Endorsement: Vote “Yes” to Mountain Line Mill Levy
Election Day Basics
This year’s elections are being conducted by mail. The Missoula County Election’s Office will send ballots to voters starting Monday, Oct. 21.
To best ensure that your vote is tallied, post your ballot a few days before the election. Ballots can also be dropped off through Election Day—Tuesday, Nov. 5—at the Missoula County Courthouse or at the Missoula County Fairgrounds Elections Office.
Voter registration is open now through 8 p.m. on Election Day at the Missoula Fairgrounds Elections Office.
Check to see if you’re registered to vote and check your ballot at the Office of Elections website, www.co.missoula.mt.us/election.The printed version of this story misspelled the name of Mark McLaverty. It was corrected here before the story posted. The Indy regrets the error.