Off to the races 

Independent endorsements for Missoula City Council

Mayor of Missoula

Gee, tough one. We won't waste too much ink explaining why Mayor John Engen, perhaps the most popular locally elected official in a generation and running unopposed, deserves a second term. But in case anyone's on the fence, we'll list a few of Engen's accomplishments from the last four years.

click to enlarge John Engen
  • John Engen

He patiently presides over a surprisingly productive City Council, eliminating much of the cantankerous vibe that haunted past groups. He delivers responsible budgets during a time of complete financial chaos, minimizing staff layoffs and maintaining vital services. He helped push through the open space bond, protecting vital lands in and around the city. He oversaw much-needed long-term planning projects, such as the Downtown Master Plan, the Urban Fringe Development Area (UFDA) and the zoning rewrite. He talks openly about how he still has work to do on affordable housing and finding a developer for the Riverfront Triangle site downtown—and offers ideas for addressing both during his next term.

Beyond his policies and politics, Engen still comes across like he sincerely loves what he's doing. Straightforward, self-deprecating and pragmatic, we find his governing style to be perfectly suited for our less-than-perfect city. Simply put, he's the guy we trust to best fix it.

Endorsement: John Engen

Ward 1

As chair of the Public Safety & Health Committee, Ward 1 Councilman Dave Strohmaier has proven to be a strong ally of downtown businesses. The only problem is, that's led to Strohmaier getting deeply involved in how you go about your day.

Over the course of the last four years, he pushed successfully for a ban on aggressive panhandling, a pedestrian interference ordinance, and made it illegal for kids to ride in the back of pickup trucks. The mayor vetoed his attempt to prohibit drivers from talking on a cell phone, but a law banning texting while driving passed. If elected for a second term, Strohmaier says he intends to try to ban driving and talking on a cell phone again.

click to enlarge Dave Strohmaier
  • Dave Strohmaier

His challenger, Ryan Morton, says the incumbent oversteps at times when it comes to curbing personal freedoms. Morton maintains there are other approaches to tackling challenges downtown and points to tactics employed in metropolitan areas that enfranchise homeless people, rather than pushing them aside.

There's no easy solution, and we agree Strohmaier oversteps when legislating restrictions on individual behavior. In addition, he's facing a strong rival in this year's election.

Until recently, Morton worked as a government affairs director for the Missoula Building Industry Association. He says his frustration watching local government prompted him to run for council.

We were impressed by Morton's ideas to clarify subdivision regulations for builders and local agricultural producers. We also believe he'd be able to beef up private-public partnerships to increase economic vitality. Overall, Morton knows what's up with local issues and is among the most articulate candidates the Indy has seen. But his plan to extend the city's health care plan to local residents? Bold. But that one didn't hold water.

Morton's biggest challenge is that he's facing one of council's most prolific policymakers. Strohmaier gets things done on several levels. He helped craft the zoning rewrite, as well as the ongoing Conservation Lands Management Plan, which aims to identify principles, goals and priorities for the city's open space. He was also heavily involved with the Downtown Master Plan and UFDA. Strohmaier introduced a motion to curb city energy consumption—now in the works—and fights vigorously on transportation issues, especially an effort to bring passenger rail service to Missoula.

Morton is a solid candidate, making this a tougher call than expected, but we believe Strohmaier deserves a chance to continue his work in Ward 1.

Endorsement: Dave Strohmaier

Ward 2

Incumbent John Hendrickson decided not to meet with the Independent, making him the only candidate to pass on talking issues with the paper. Sadly, we weren't even surprised. The move follows the same petty, close-minded and petulant behavior that Hendrickson's made routine during the last four years.

This is, after all, the same alderman who lied about whether he was involved in the anonymous zoning petition earlier this year (his colleague, Dick Haines, blew his cover by admitting Hendrickson played a part), and who frequently chooses to air his personal gripes—against us, the Missoulian, fellow council members, etc.—during weekly council meetings rather than engage in constructive debate in the appropriate setting. Like, say, a candidate interview.

It's too bad because, frankly, we looked forward to hearing Hendrickson's side of the story on some important issues facing Ward 2. Those include his pet project, the Broadway "road diet," which we may loathe as much as he does, and city spending, something Hendrickson persistently whines about without ever offering any tangible alternatives.

click to enlarge Roy Houseman
  • Roy Houseman

Luckily for Ward 2, Roy Houseman makes it easy to move on. Houseman, 28, strikes us as an impressive candidate, even without factoring in Hendrickson's trifling antics. Houseman has served as president of the Local 885 steelworkers union for nearly two years, demonstrating strong leadership in a time of layoffs, shutdowns and Chapter 11 filing at Smurfit-Stone. In fact, Houseman has been laid off, too. As union president, he personally submitted for federal assistance that qualifies his out-of-work colleagues for two years of tuition for retraining classes, unemployment benefits and a subsidized health care program.

That's just one example of Houseman's dogged work. He's also a diligent communicator—he says he's already knocked on hundreds of doors campaigning in his ward—and comfortable talking about contentious issues. For example, he volunteered to speak at his union's national convention last year to push for an unprecedented wood products initiative.

Unlike Hendrickson, Houseman seems eager to collaborate with fellow council members and bring new ideas to the city. He also represents two distinct demographics—labor unions and the under-30 crowd—missing from the current council makeup. For all those reasons, we think Houseman would drastically improve the overall quality of council.

Endorsement: Roy Houseman

Ward 3

Every election, we hear a number of candidates declare that improved communication between his or her ward and the council will be a main priority. The implication behind such a promise seems to be that few neighbors care about the minutia of zoning ordinances and OPG budgets now, but when the candidate is elected, building code changes will be a hotter read than Lindsay Lohan's Twitter feed. Forgive us for being a wee bit skeptical over the years.

Then along comes Ward 3 incumbent Bob Jaffe, who created a simple—and surprisingly entertaining—solution that proved us wrong. Jaffe, who runs a small software business, presides over a free online listserv (signup at missoulagov.org). He personally documents council's Wednesday committee meetings, summarizing the discussion, testimony and votes—and adds a bit of wry, sometimes pointed commentary. Readers can then engage in discussion, share views and new sources of information with the entire list, or ask Jaffe specific questions about what he wrote. It may not be Lohan's Twitter account, but Jaffe's listserv has become must-read material for those who care about what happens in our city.

Jaffe's detailed report has taken government transparency and accountability to an entirely new level. Constituents with access to e-mail now know exactly how he's going to vote, and why, on every issue before council. Who else can say that about their representatives?

Beyond Jaffe's communication skills, we agree with his general approach on the issues. His attention to affordable housing, alternative transportation and preserving prime agricultural land, as well as his patient oversight as chair of the Plat Annexation and Zoning Committee make him a productive member of council.

John Quandt, Jaffe's opponent, isn't going down without a fight. A vocal attendee at recent council meetings and a well-informed speaker on local issues, Quandt says he'd advocate for lower taxes, would look to cut city staff (he'd eye Parks and Rec in particular) and wants the city to work better with private industry. He's also a proponent of light rail, which he sees as a key to offsetting the valley's population growth and transportation issues.

Quandt, 29, strikes us as a strong new conservative voice, but the emphasis here is on "new." The stay-at-home father of two moved with his family to Missoula just three years ago from Seattle, where he ran a plumbing company. He has virtually no involvement in local government prior to declaring his candidacy, and his only local business experience comes from one year running a sandwich shop that closed. In time, Quandt could be an endorsable candidate in Ward 3. But not now. And certainly not if it means unseating Jaffe.

Endorsement: Bob Jaffe

Ward 4

Jon Wilkins can be tough to figure out. A registered Democrat who often sides with the council's conservative minority, the Great Falls native served in the armed forces and worked in construction for more than two decades. During his first term on council, he supported banning aggressive panhandling and got riled up when progressives moved to defang the pedestrian interference law.

click to enlarge Jon Wilkins
  • Jon Wilkins

But Wilkins believes in compromise, and that's largely why we support his unopposed bid for reelection. He eventually backed the pedestrian interference ordinance, despite its weakened language. He fought density increases in single-family neighborhoods during the zoning debate, but eventually said okay to granny apartments in multi-family neighborhoods by voting in favor of the rewrite. And though he didn't like the idea of a Higgins Avenue roundabout, Wilkins abstained from voting on the issue because he heard strong support from local residents.

In his next term, the quotable councilman aims to continue increasing rental safety, his pet project thus far. He also plans on challenging infill and fighting density increases in residential neighborhoods as the zoning rewrite goes into effect. Lastly, he hopes to ensure developers live up to their responsibilities by providing green space and adequate infrastructure, while studying the viability of forcing property owners to pay for garbage and lawn service in rental units.

Barring some strange phenomenon, Wilkins will be reelected. And we're okay with that.

Endorsement: Jon Wilkins

Ward 5

An argument could be made that Ward 5's Dick Haines is good for City Council. For instance, the former Republican state representative often steers debate down roads the left-leaning council majority wouldn't otherwise go. He's also got years of experience legislating at both the state and local levels. Truth be told, we like talking with the guy—his folksy criticisms and accessible demeanor make council just a tad more interesting.

But Haines' record is difficult to justify. Most recently, he and two other council members filed a lawsuit to halt the citywide zoning rewrite, maintaining the process inadequately sought public involvement. We found it a waste of the city's time and money, and an unnecessarily antagonistic attempt by miffed minority council members to squash the rewrite. A judge in Helena agreed and dismissed the case.

It's the second time Haines has turned to legal action against the city when he hasn't gotten his way. He joined an ad hoc group in 2005 that threatened to sue over the aquatics facility. While we sympathize with Haines' frustrations, Ward 5 deserves a representative willing to build public trust in city government rather than run to a lawyer when things go wrong.

Dig deeper and there are more problems with Haines. The Montana Conservation Voters (MCV) gave him the lowest grade among all city council candidates rated, based upon support of a healthy environment. And we had trouble stomaching his cries for fiscal conservatism, considering he just racked up a considerable legal bill for the city in fighting against his own lawsuit.

That leaves us with challenger Mike O' Herron, who presents a clear alternative to the incumbent. Mayor Engen and MCV both endorsed O'Herron. The self-described moderate says he'll beef up the Mountain Line bus system—contrasting Haines' call to construct an additional north-south road paralleling Reserve Street. O' Herron also wants to better preserve local agricultural land so the community relies less on importing food from far-flung regions.

A 17-year Missoula resident, O'Herron may be best known for starting the downtown O'Herron's Hot Dog Stand. He now works for the Montana Department of Natural Resources. If elected, he says he'll help local business grow, and points to technology as a possible solution. O'Herron's a little fuzzy when it comes to explaining those details, but we're willing to give him time to figure it out. It's certainly a better bet than waiting for Haines' next frivolous lawsuit.

Endorsement: Mike O'Herron

Ward 6

Ward 6 incumbent Marilyn Marler is nothing if not forthright. In typical fashion, she says the recently approved citywide zoning rewrite still needs tweaking. But it won't happen immediately, she says, because council members "might vomit" if prompted to dig right back into the prickly topic.

Her opponent, Kathy Greathouse, is more restrained. So much so that it's tough to get an answer about how she envisions Missoula's future. When pressed during her interview, Greathouse simply said it's up to her constituents.

Voter input is great, but we're interested in a candidate's vision and proposals for specific solutions. Greathouse learned the ins and outs of local government largely through her work chairing the Government Affairs Committee for the Missoula Building Industry Association. She says she's running because council's attitude—visible in eye rolling and arm crossing—doesn't encourage participation in local politics. If elected, Greathouse says she'd be a more welcoming representative and better involve her constituents. As for specific plans, she spoke at length about the need for vital infrastructure like sidewalks and parks, but had no idea how to pay for it; she's especially against Special Improvement Districts during the down economy. That's fine, but we're simply not sure what Greathouse would do if elected.

click to enlarge Marilyn Marler
  • Marilyn Marler

That's not saying Marler is without critics. She caused a stir in dog-centric Missoula earlier this year for making a motion to reinforce existing leash laws. If not for a mayoral veto, city law would have required pooches be leashed in areas where Fido typically runs free. Marler stands unapologetically behind by the motion.

We agree Marler can be a bit blunt, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. We like that she's been a moderating voice amid the debate surrounding challenges to personal rights downtown. She voted no against the aggressive panhandling ordinance, maintaining it goes too far in banning behavior that's not aggressive, but supported a narrowed version of the pedestrian interference law.

If reelected, Marler aims to continue pushing for infrastructure improvements in her ward with programs like the Franklin to the Fort Neighborhood Plan, which grabs funding from a hodgepodge of different sources. She also aims to secure open space easements and help craft the Conservation Lands Management Plan. We appreciate what Marler brings to council, and would like to see what she accomplishes with another four years.

Endorsement: Marilyn Marler

Election officials mailed voter ballots this week. Once completed, ballots can be mailed back, dropped at the Elections Center in the Fine Arts Building at the Missoula County Fairgrounds, or delivered to neighborhood schools on Election Day (ask the Elections Center for a list of schools). Voter registration is allowed until noon on Nov. 3 and all day Nov. 4 in the Elections Center.

For more information on Flathead, Ravalli and Seeley Lake races, visit www.missoulanews.com

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