Open Mic Night 

Missoula City Council opens its meetings to public comment every week, allowing anyone to sound off on whatever they want. Meet the regulars with the most to say.

"Your system has failed and is corrupt."

That's how Will Snodgrass essentially greets Missoula City Council during a recent debate over maintenance districts. The regular attendee of the council's weekly public comment period takes the opportunity to indict the council members with a barrage of pointed words. Ignorance, Snodgrass says, runs rampant through the governing body. He says it's a criminal syndicate engaged in public works fraud. The rant, more or less, updates a version of the same speech he's been delivering for decades.

As Snodgrass' allotted three minutes of comment ticks away, Councilman Bob Jaffe sinks slowly into his seat. Councilwoman Stacy Rye's mouth hangs open, her head cocked at an angle. About 15 citizens look around the room, flipping through their agendas, whispering to each other periodically, hardly paying Snodgrass much attention. Councilman Ed Childers assumes a curious, strangely gleeful smile. And Councilman Jon Wilkins' eyes begin to close.

"When they come up your eyes do glaze over," Wilkins admits.

"They" refers to a core group of vocal citizen watchdogs, or gadflies, who show up Monday nights to Council Chambers like ants to a picnic. Before Missoula's 12 council members, mayor and city attorney attend to a weekly agenda, residents are allowed three minutes per person to sound off on whatever they want. It's a vital forum to interact with local officials, or, more often, rattle institutional cages.

"You can't call up Max Baucus and get him on the phone. You can't call up Tester," Rye says. "You can come down to us every single Monday night, 52 weeks a year. That's like 300 minutes a year."

Missoula's regular cast of gadflies are cut from a similar cloth, woven from a nagging consciousness that drives them to relentlessly engage with the democratic process. Pushing against the status quo, they aim to forge a new and, they say, smarter direction for everyone. It's an understandable, even admirable, urge. After all, vigilance and a strong voice are necessary tools of a healthy democracy. Yet the repetition brought forward by these frequent attendees, month after month, year after year, and, in Snodgrass' case, decade after decade, visibly anesthetizes some council members.

"I have been told that I have the worst poker face in the world," admits Rye after Snodgrass' recent testimony.

Yet gadflies like Snodgrass still speak up. They are, by definition, persistent and unapologetically aggressive. They are political outsiders, buzzing around the periphery, biting every so often to make sure we're awake. Such actions have branded the watchdogs profiled here as irrelevant, unreasonable and overzealous at one time or another. Their repetition and, at times, lack of decorum also make them unpopular. But they insist they have answers. People just need to listen.

click to enlarge Mayor John Engen, right, offers gadflies considerable leeway during City Council’s weekly public comment period. “I think in my role as mayor I just have to be the mature person sitting at the head of the table conducting the meeting,” he says. “And that means I respectfully acknowledge the folks who come to speak to us, even if in some cases they aren’t necessarily respectful of me, or the council, or the other public in the room.” - PHOTO BY CAHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cahrine L. Walters
  • Mayor John Engen, right, offers gadflies considerable leeway during City Council’s weekly public comment period. “I think in my role as mayor I just have to be the mature person sitting at the head of the table conducting the meeting,” he says. “And that means I respectfully acknowledge the folks who come to speak to us, even if in some cases they aren’t necessarily respectful of me, or the council, or the other public in the room.”

Honey v. vinegar

Kandi Matthew-Jenkins likes a light City Council agenda. That means she might be able to sneak in a few extra minutes of testimony at the beginning of the meeting.

"That's when I can edge the three-minute rule," she says.

What Matthew-Jenkins discusses during her usual appearance in front of council remains a mystery to some. During a recent meeting, she took to the podium wearing gold-rimmed eyeglasses and read from a stack of typewritten notes. She picked up basically where she'd left off the week before, discussing the details of a drawn-out struggle with Child Protective Service (CPS), a state agency with little relevance to council business.

"(The caseworker) told me that I needed anger management, that I needed all these services," Matthew-Jenkins told the council.

As Matthew-Jenkins spoke, Councilwoman Pam Walzer fiddled with her computer, only periodically looking up. Mayor John Engen stared straight ahead. Childers, as he did with Snodgrass, smiled serenely.

"I probably am trying to figure out how the pieces work together," Childers says of Matthew-Jenkins' testimony. "And it may or may not be the pieces that she's talking about."

Childers acknowledges he sometimes has a hard time tracking Matthew-Jenkins, but he tries.

"The story really has no relevance to what we do, but it's certainly an interesting story," he says. "You know, I couldn't tell you the details. There's some woman in some other state who was a member of the Legislature that had a problem. And Kandi's apparently had a problem. A lot of what I'm wondering is why she chooses this venue."

Matthew-Jenkins says she speaks before the council because it's the only way she can be sure someone hears her. The 60-year-old mother of six claims CPS, which is directed to protect children who have been or are at substantial risk of abuse, neglect or abandonment, steps way out of bounds. Specifically, she says the agency preyed on her family for profit.

"I know after being within the court system, if I were to sit down to write my personal affidavit and file it, it would go nowhere," she says. "No one would hear it. No one would know about any of this."

When not testifying in front of council, Matthews-Jenkins runs a furniture business with her husband, John Jenkins. The couple sells homemade wares at the Saturday morning People's Market. Jenkins, a soft-spoken man, says his wife advocates for the disenfranchised. She looks out for the underdog and doesn't like "sideways talk," he says.

Matthew-Jenkins' passion for local issues has led to political aspirations. The pro-life, self-proclaimed "Christian Constitutionalist" ran unsuccessfully for the Montana Legislature in 2000, for Missoula mayor in 2001 and again campaigned in 2008 for state Senate. Most recently, she's thrown her hat into the ring for the upcoming general election as a candidate for House District 99.

In addition to testifying before City Council on nearly a weekly basis, Matthew-Jenkins has become a familiar face at the Legislature in Helena. She still remembers the first time she spoke before the governing body.

"Going to Helena I realized government was into everything—everything—our getting up and our laying down, everything that we did," she says.

Much of Matthew-Jenkins' work aims to purge government from the lives of Montanans.

"We have not taught people to be responsible for themselves so they have allowed themselves to be taken over by the government agendas, political parties, you name it—they're not free," she says. "Since my country is no longer free, I have to fight for that."

Her political awakening started in 1981 when she became the director of Birthright of Missoula, a faith-based pregnancy support center now called 1st Way.

"I discovered things I never even thought of before," she says. "I discovered that we were becoming a people who thought it okay to premeditatively murder unborn children."

Matthew-Jenkins first testified before the City Council in 1988, when officials moved to raise business-licensing fees. Hers was the only public comment that day, she says.

"For years I testified as the only citizen in the room," she says.

Today, she directs much of her testimony toward CPS. Through weeks of regular three-minute comments, her story comes out more or less chronologically. Council members learn that a CPS caseworker pulled Matthew-Jenkins' 8-year-old son out of class 15 years ago. That led to an inquiry after the child told a counselor Matthew-Jenkins spanked him. The incident spooked Matthew-Jenkins so much, she tells council, that she removed her three youngest children from the public school system, opting to home school them instead.

"For three years we lived in fear," she tells council.

Matthew-Jenkins still hasn't let go. She's lobbied the federal government and stayed up nights researching allegations against the agency. She shuttles families to Helena to offer their own testimony indicting CPS. The issue, she says, isn't a random conspiracy theory put forward by a nut job with a personal gripe. As she sees it, the agency's intrusions illustrate a government run amok on the taxpayers' dime.

"It reflects throughout our daily lives of what kind of control the government has over us," Matthew-Jenkins says. "That one issue incorporates everything. It can go down to your property rights, because you lose your home, you lose your job, you lose your standing in the community, your reputation."

click to enlarge Kandi Matthew-Jenkins testifies almost every week before council. She says her primary concern is reining in overblown government and keeping it out of Montanans’ lives. “It’s not a personal gripe. It’s a real live happening thing,” she says. - PHOTO BY CAHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cahrine L. Walters
  • Kandi Matthew-Jenkins testifies almost every week before council. She says her primary concern is reining in overblown government and keeping it out of Montanans’ lives. “It’s not a personal gripe. It’s a real live happening thing,” she says.

Although Matthew Jenkins is greeted at times by name-calling—she says she's been called "Christian right-wing fanatic" and "crazy lady"—and council members who don't necessary appreciate her rambling message, she has no intention of keeping her mouth shut.

"I can't even imagine how many times I've been told, 'Kandi, you get more flies with honey than you do vinegar,'" she says. "And I just tell them that I'm not after flies. This is after the hearts and souls of people."

Ignorance and arrogance

On a recent afternoon, Will Snodgrass stands on Woodland Street and points to a massive cement manhole, part of the Upper Rattlesnake sewer installation project currently underway. Manufacturing and shipping that manhole alone consumed more resources than Snodgrass likes to think about.

"Look at this horror. My God, this is like Aliens," he says.

Then consider the dust—just the dust—created by the project, and what it does to local residents who have to inhale such dirty air. Particulate pollution spikes during peak construction periods, and it's a primary concern of his—those spikes, he says, can trigger cardiac arrhythmia, heart attack and stroke. It's all part of what Snodgrass calls a massive environmental disaster underway in the Rattlesnake.

"Look at all this shit. This is what I want Jason Wiener and the other guy [Dave Strohmaier] to talk about," Snodgrass says, referring to his Ward 1 council representatives.

Snodgrass has been fighting the sewer project for years the only way he knows how: with reams of data and a tenacious, unrelenting approach. The 64-year-old videographer comes from a family of professional wrestlers, boxers and scientists, and he has inherited those ancestors' traits.

Before landing in Missoula, the Minneapolis native attended college, pre-med, at the University of Minnesota, but didn't graduate. His activism began three decades ago, when he began reading everything he could get his hands on about the dangers of pesticides and herbicides in the environment.

Around the same time his environmental awareness kicked in, Snodgrass began developing an uncanny sensitivity to smell, along with an aversion to lotions, perfumes and detergents. Chemical compounds in dryer sheets make him feel ill, as do pesticides and herbicides. The sensitivity makes him acutely aware of toxins in his surroundings. He goes so far as to sit upwind from offending scents—or avoid them altogether.

"I'll be putting Weed-B-Gon on a dandelion and he'll yell at me from a block away," says Doug Grimm, who's lived in Snodgrass' neighborhood since 1946 and sits on the Upper Rattlesnake Neighborhood Council.

People think Snodgrass is crazy, Grimm says, but his neighbor's observations often prove correct. Grimm remembers attending a council meeting several years ago during which Snodgrass discussed the gasoline additive Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), which at the time was increasingly being used across the nation. Snodgrass told the council people were getting sick and representatives should fight to keep the additive out of local gas tanks. The subject matter was only peripherally relevant to municipal purview. Even so, MTBE was later banned in 17 states across the country.

After Snodgrass' MTBE presentation in front of council, Grimm says there wasn't much of a fuss.

"They all yawned when he was done and said, 'What's the next line of business?'" recalls Grimm. "But he was right...He stands up there and shouts and jumps and waves his arms, and people think he's crazy. But sometimes he's right."

Today when Snodgrass speaks in front of City Council, he mostly antagonizes its members. The slender white-haired man will often point a pale finger and raise his voice, accusing city staffers of ignorance and arrogance.

"That's my right. That's my duty. That's my obligation as a citizen," Snodgrass explains. "The Constitution of Montana guarantees me the right to participate. It also says that I have an obligation. That obligation, I think, does not extend to pandering to inept public officials or putting up with their derisiveness, their skinning and grinning, their looks of disdain and their abject silence in the face of very solidly put questions. I think they're a bunch of careless fools."

Snodgrass, his partner Loreen Folsom and the Rattlesnake Coalition, with Snodgrass as president, have filed three lawsuits against the city since 2003, all of them aiming to stop the Rattlesnake sewer project. Snodgrass says a more extensive environmental impact analysis should be undertaken. Yet, the Montana Supreme Court disagrees and reaffirmed a lower court ruling last spring that found a sufficient environmental review occurred. After six years of legal wrangling, the Upper Rattlesnake sewer system finally got the green light in May 2009.

Nevertheless, Snodgrass won't let the situation go. He met with his lawyer again last month, and he says the current construction shows how the courts were wrong. There's no way the project would have been approved had the agencies truly considered what's going on now in the Rattlesnake. Why, for instance, would the powers that be deem PVC pipe safe to carry sewage? The PVC manufacturing process produces the carcinogen dioxin, Snodgrass says. In fact, he witnessed the effects first hand decades ago as he filmed a video about chemical contamination in Louisiana's Cancer Alley. What he saw then sticks with him today.

"I actually put my hand on the hard lumps that were generally found in various regions of the human body among workers," Snodgrass says. "They were hard lumps. They were tumor-like precursors to tumors, and I've actually touched them."

click to enlarge Will Snodgrass is perhaps the most vocal City Council critic. He maintains the governing body is riddled with faults. “I am offended by incompetent public officials. And I think that the Missoula City Council is largely incompetent,” he says. - PHOTO BY CAHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cahrine L. Walters
  • Will Snodgrass is perhaps the most vocal City Council critic. He maintains the governing body is riddled with faults. “I am offended by incompetent public officials. And I think that the Missoula City Council is largely incompetent,” he says.

Cancer scares Snodgrass. In addition to the workers in Louisiana, he's watched friends battle with the illness. That's largely why he pushes Missoula Public Works employees and elected officials to wake up and steer clear from using products like PVC in the Rattlesnake.

Missoula Director of Public Works Steve King declines to address Snodgrass' personal tactics, but he does stand behind the sewer project.

"What we're doing is collecting human waste and delivering it to a treatment plant instead of depositing that human waste into the Rattlesnake Valley," King says. "Just on its face, that makes a lot of sense to me."

Snodgrass disagrees, no matter what King or the Supreme Court has to say. His stubbornness on the topic—as well as other fights through the years—sometimes gets him in trouble. In 2001, he was accused of calling a Forest Service weed specialist an "idiot" and slapping him on the rear end. Snodgrass was later found innocent of the charges. Six years ago, before she joined City Council, Ward 6 Councilwoman Marilyn Marler had an attorney draft a letter of no contact—the precursor to a retraining order—to stop Snodgrass from repeatedly showing up to her office, calling and cornering her at public meetings. Marler, a University of Montana Division of Biological Sciences staffer, says Snodgrass confronted her about pesticides UM used to control weeds.

Snodgrass acknowledges Marler's allegations and confirms there have been others. He says the complaints, including Marler's, simply constitute efforts to quiet him. Specifically, the Forest Service suit was bunk, he says. He never hit anybody. Isn't it interesting, he adds, that they claimed he slapped the public employee, when "SLAPP" in legal lingo is an acronym for strategic lawsuit against public participation?

That's the way it goes, he says. In the face of so much ignorance about issues that affect everything from the physical landscape to the fundamental human right to a healthy environment, Snodgrass says he has every right to get riled up and to keep furthering his cause.

"These people who make these decisions on the basis of poor information or lack of research or, as I said, arrogance seeped in ignorance, they're capable of destroying a civilization," he says. "They're capable of destroying the spirit of the community. They are capable of ruining Missoula and they are rapidly on their way to doing that."

Poison pill

An American flag flutters in the early summer breeze over Jane Rectenwald's red porch. The tall woman with white hair and pink cheeks gazes out over her tree-lined street. She sounds tired remembering the arguments that consumed much of her 10 years of local activism. She was called a "poison pill," a "loose canon," and a "dumb growther." Even the media, she says, unfairly branded her a troublemaker.

"Why don't you use the term 'watchdog?'" she asks. "Instead, you say, 'critic.'"

Before getting fed up testifying before City Council in 2008, Rectenwald says she pushed to simply make elected representatives accountable to taxpayers. She advocated for everything from the preservation of her neighborhood's clean and quiet streets to responsibly funded aquatic facilities.

click to enlarge Missoula City Councilwoman Stacy Rye says it can be tough to keep a straight face while taking heat from aggressive critics like Snodgrass during public meetings. “I have been told that I have the worst poker face in the world,” she says. - PHOTO BY CAHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cahrine L. Walters
  • Missoula City Councilwoman Stacy Rye says it can be tough to keep a straight face while taking heat from aggressive critics like Snodgrass during public meetings. “I have been told that I have the worst poker face in the world,” she says.

She loves the University District, largely because it's so different from the industrial thoroughfares in Pittsburg where she grew up. When she first came to Montana—her employer, the Girl Scouts of the USA, transferred her—she planned on settling in Butte. But Butte felt too much like her dark and dusty hometown, and she kept driving. Once she reached Missoula, she fell in love with the place.

"We pick the neighborhood that we live in because we like the character," says Rectenwald, who declines to talk too much about her personal life for fear of retribution from her political enemies.

Rectenwald moved into her historic house in 1995. About three years after her arrival, she grew concerned about her neighborhood's changing character. Owner-occupied homes were being rented to tenants and traffic down her quiet street grew heavier. It prompted her to join Missoula's conversation about how best to plan for growth. From the beginning, she saw glaring problems in local oversight. Her increasing drive to shape municipal workings led her to accept a 2004 voter appointment to Missoula's Local Government Study Commission, which analyzed municipal workings.

That's when she became a regular at local planning meetings—and a vocal "watchdog" of the city's zoning laws. Over the years, Rectenwald says she saw elected representatives neglecting a significant chunk of Missoula's citizenry. She maintains her study commission service validated that observation.

As part of its effort to identify areas of city government that could be improved upon, the commission hired a behavior analyst who polled locals and reported back to the commission with his findings. The behavior analyst echoed what Rectenwald had argued: there was a disconnect between people on the ground and those in City Hall. And that disconnect, the behavior analyst said, left Missoula's political landscape fodder for the "stuff of revolution."

Earl de Berge of Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center reiterated what he told the study commission in a recent phone interview with the Indy. He said his study found locals brimming with civil awareness—more so than most communities. But the survey also unearthed a widespread perception among residents that city government wasn't listening.

"The tension was very palpable," says de Berge.

Rectenwald maintains that perception lingers today.

"Who knows what the revolution is," she says. "But something's not working here."

To remedy the problem, Rectenwald and Alan Ault, who co-authored the commission's minority report, suggested changing Missoula's municipal government. Specifically, they advocated taking away some of the mayor's power to hire and fire, and giving that power to a non-partisan city manager. The minority maintained those changes would eliminate the political cronyism that stifles responsive policymaking. Rectenwald says then and now administrators are afraid to go against top-down directives because they could lose their job. That leaves them out of touch with people on the ground.

"The Broadway Diet had over 10,000 signatures against it. That was ignored. Lincoln School, I think there were close to 400 signatures against it," she says of the Rattlesnake subdivision. "Have you seen what Lincoln School looks like now?"

Disrespect for citizen input is evident in council's body language and word choice, Rectenwald says. She points to Ed Childers, who referred to a group of citizens as a posse during a public meeting years ago. (See sidebar.)

"When you see the council people rolling their eyes like this, while people are speaking," she says, "it's not only rude, it's just that unbelievable arrogance."

Her friends say they respect her for standing up for what she believed in, even though Rectenwald's audience was, at times, less-than-welcoming.

"I personally witnessed a disinterest in alternative viewpoints from City Hall," says Jane Van Fossen, also at one point active in city government discussions. "I think she's one of numerous citizens who have not been listened to with courtesy and respect.

"I admire people who are actively involved in government," Van Fossen continues. "They earn my admiration much more that people who are sleepwalkers."

But there's a flip side to that tenacity. Tenacity is a close relative of obstinacy, and it's not easy to work with people who don't compromise.

Councilman Jason Wiener declined to comment for this story, but he summed up his position about Rectenwald's participation in the Local Government Study Commission in a 2006 post for the 4&20 blackbirds blog.

click to enlarge University District resident Jane Rectenwald says she stopped speaking out at public meetings because city officials don’t pay adequate attention to public concerns. “Who knows what the revolution is,” she says. “But something’s not working here.” - PHOTO BY CAHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cahrine L. Walters
  • University District resident Jane Rectenwald says she stopped speaking out at public meetings because city officials don’t pay adequate attention to public concerns. “Who knows what the revolution is,” she says. “But something’s not working here.”

"The minority's leader is Jane Rectenwald, a sort of passive-aggressive poison pill dead set on replacing the mayor with a city manager," Wiener wrote. "Her main method of argument is faux-humble questioning meant to lead you right to her conclusion. She was a disagreeable presence at most meetings, ignoring responses to her points and continually trying to hijack the process by, for instance, hanging posters declaring the foregone sensibility of her opinion at every meeting, even when it was clear the majority of the LGSC [Local Government Study Commission] had zero interest in a city manager, having examined the question at some length with outside experts."

Rectenwald is persistent, acknowledges Councilwoman Pam Walzer, who served with Rectenwald on the commission.

"She's a bulldog," Walzer says. "She will dig and dig and dig."

As evidenced by the name-calling, that persistence doesn't always win friends. In fact, Rectenwald says she was shouted at and told to sit down during a 2008 planning meeting billed as an open forum to air out concerns about Missoula's zoning rewrite.

"There were boos, [people shouted,] 'Shut up,' 'That's not true,'" she recalls. "It's really hard to stand up and try and express your opinion when people are yelling."

The Missoula City County Office of Planning and Grants facilitated the dialogue during the meeting. Planners requested citizens discuss two things they liked about the rewrite and two items they did not. Rectenwald admits she didn't stick to the rules. The directive offended her.

"You see, that's a controlled outcome," she says. "It looks like public involvement but it says you have to find two things that you like."

Offering no "likes," she spoke at length—she says it was seven minutes, others said it was 20—solely about the negatives of the rewrite. The ensuing jeers left Rectenwald shaken. As she got up to leave, then-Planning Director Roger Millar approached her and, she alleges, spoke to her in a threatening manner.

She filed a formal complaint and hasn't testified in a public meeting since.

"I'm not doing it again," she says. "First of all, I've tried. And I thought, naively maybe, that it would make a difference."

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