The current members of the Missoula City Council have been in office since January now, and 12 of its faces are new since November’s elections. How is the collective body dealing with hot-button issues like growth and how to manage it, transportation, corporate friends, law and disorder, and finally, Council’s own newbies? What work has Council accomplished, and what’s being neglected? Inquiring minds want to know.
But whether the work gets done or stagnates, watching it all unfold affords boundless opportunities for entertainment. In January, City Council flopped on its first task to elect its own president; the presumably simple task took weeks. During one evening’s stalemate, still-President Jack Reidy, who was hoping for a successor, said, “All we’re doing is making ourselves look like fools, to tell you the truth.” No one contradicted him. After a fierce stalemate between new contenders, on Feb. 2 Council finally elected a president: Ward 5’s Jack Reidy.
Citizens provide some of the entertainment, too: the NIMBYs, the xenophobes, the belligerent, the earnest and the humorless among us, bless us all. Especially bless that big woman in a big peach outfit and gold shoes, one of many citizens who descended upon Council over the past several months to dispute the boundary-line relocation request at 636 Evans. Her strategy: Decry the influx of renters in the neighborhood. Government watchdog Will Snodgrass entered the fray in March, opposing the extension of city sewer up the Rattlesnake. Snodgrass, keeping records, slowly panned his camera from public citizens to councilors. When Snodgrass stepped from behind his camera, it was not to ask Council members for another “take,” but to condemn certain city officials as liars. During the name-calling session, one city official, target of Snodgrass’ accusation, sat slouched in his chair, head in hand, looking the other way.
Bickering, gold shoes, name-calling—it’s better than a Neil Simon play.
National publications including Sunset Magazine and Outside have lavished praise on Missoula the past few years. Whether the glossies are simply responding to our rapid growth or, as some argue, driving it, there’s no denying that Missoula is an increasingly popular place to live. In 1980, the city proper had 33,388 residents. In 2001, that figure had grown to 57,053. Five years ago, Missoula instituted growth- management tools designed to ensure that the city didn’t grow willy-nilly, but with rhyme and reason. And during the past seven months, Council approved developments that would build more homes in the city. It even approved proposals for developments in the Rattlesnake and South Hills, both of which came with loud citizen protest.
But never mind the putative appeal of new developments. Developers can expect that any proposed project, be it a back-street ghetto or the pearly gates of heaven, will be protested. A coalition of vocal and exclusive folks—“I have lived in Missoula for 28 years,” goes the mantra—still exists in the Garden City.
Luckily for the NIMBYs, the Roe family arrived to push the growth envelope in May.
The Roes asked for a boundary-line readjustment, which should have been quickly and routinely approved. But the Roes owned rental properties, regularly demonized by people who have owned homes in Missoula for, say, 28 years. The Roes leased out property in the University district, where some of the loudest NIMBY voices originate. And, pity the Roes, they rented to students, another Missoula subgroup that many long-term Missoulians regard with guarded suspicion at best.
The public, in effect hanging their concerns on the backs of the Roes and 636 Evans, pressured Council into stalling new development for six months. What Missoulians lose: affordable housing, for the time being anyway. What Missoulians gain: potential lawsuits from developers that may cost the city and taxpayers a bundle down the road. That and, some say, valuable time to work on the growth tools.
For the record, it’s the Plat, Annexation and Zoning (PAZ) Committee that works through development conundrums. As PAZ chair, it’s John Engen’s job to help Council members navigate the tangled rules. He’s made yeoman’s work of it. Plus, when the tension rises, the big man dissipates it with a fat joke. In June, the PAZ workload was particularly heavy, but not all committee members were hard at work.
Ward 2 veteran Anne Kazmierczak threatened Monday night to send an emergency ordinance back to the PAZ for more work—the same PAZ that counted Kazmierczak absent from seven meetings, an hour late for two, and present just once through the course of June.
Two unrelated bright sides: Divisive occupancy standards have yet to rear their ugly heads (so far). And in May, Council approved impact fees, which will put a little bit more money into the city’s coffers in order to provide services for new growth—once, of course, the city is free to pick up and grow again.
Never say “diet”—say West Broadway Reconfiguration Plan! Even before the Council could legally reverse the approval of the Broadway lane reconfiguration, Ward 2’s Don Nicholson and Ward 6’s Clayton Floyd were working to dismantle it. In February, Council sent a letter, signed by all except Ward 6’s Ed Childers and Ward 3’s Stacy Rye, to the Montana Department of Transportation asking for alternatives to the approved reconfiguration. When a resolution to halt the project hit the Council floor in May, Ward 5’s Bob Lovegrove bulldogged a city engineer with question after question. Why didn’t anyone consider five lanes? he asked. Because the problem was safety, not capacity, answered the engineer. What about rush hour? Lovegrove asked. Answered the engineer: We studied rush hour; looks good. Why not a signal? Well, in short, no one recommends a signal.
No one communicated a logical reason to stop the project. Council, however, halted it anyway, but couldn’t override the subsequent mayoral veto. The attempted hijacking of the reconfiguration may not bode well for future attempts at planning city infrastructure that takes into (serious) consideration people who walk or wheelchair or bicycle or cartwheel to work. With only a minority of Council in support, the plan may disintegrate after its six-month trial period, despite the mounting death count of folks attempting to cross West Broadway. Opponents of the lane reconfiguration hate to be reminded of the figure. It’s four, so far.
Alms for the not-so-poor
The loudly protested land sale and swap among St. Patrick Hospital, Safeway and the city has been on the radar screens of many citizens north of the river. Council members, by approving multiple extensions, have allowed it to drag on without final resolution for nine months. St. Patrick’s request for financial assistance from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) started at a little over $600,000; in June, MRA reluctantly approved a $1.5 million assistance request. Supporters of the land swap argue that an expanded health care facility will bring more jobs. They also fear that if Safeway isn’t allowed to grow, it will disappear from the neighborhood altogether. On Monday, St. Pat’s released a brief statement saying the required agreement with Safeway had finally been signed. While the city waited on St. Pat’s and Safeway, an offer from Le Petit Outre bakery and Rattlesnake Creek Vineyards for the City Shops building, which will be demolished under the St. Pat’s-Safeway scenario, was left lying on the table.
Law and disorder
Council has a knack for tangling itself up in legal issues where public input is concerned. The city’s liability insurance costs, says City Finance Director Brentt Ramharter, will increase by $272,000 for 2005. In March 2003, Rattlesnake resident Loreen Folsom sued the city for failing to involve the public in a proposal to extend the city sewer system to more homes in the Rattlesnake. Last December, Judge Douglas Harkin ruled in her favor: Missoula mucked up public process. (That’s probably why watchdog Snodgrass, partner of the plaintiff in the suit, videotapes City Council at work.) Now the tables have turned. The Council has honored public sentiment over the city’s own rules by denying the Roes a boundary line readjustment request at 636 Evans. The Roes plan to sue the city. The mayor points out that other lawsuits may follow. He believes that if the Council denies similar requests that prove to be valid once the anticipated Roe suit is settled, the city could be liable for millions.
You know who’ll pay.
During the 2003 Council elections, the Indy endorsed Heidi Kendall—knowing she had fewer qualifications “on paper” than her opponent. We also endorsed Stacy Rye, knowing that her opponent was a viable contender. Ward 1’s Kendall and Ward 3’s Rye have both supported building projects within the city, both supported impact fees and both supported the West Broadway reconfiguration plan. They have also teamed up to research the possibility of offering same-sex benefits to city employees. The endeavor will take quite a bit of research, time and energy, and Rye and Kendall may well end up spending their time reviewing boundary- line requests instead.
The Independent did not endorse Bob Lovegrove or Don Nicholson. Former Mayor Lovegrove has distinguished himself by being the only Council member to oppose even the watered-down greenhouse gases reduction plan, which he feared might call the wrath of the “energy police” down upon the citizenry. He’s joined the charge to undo the West Broadway reconfiguration plan. Lovegrove obviously dedicates quite a bit of his time to researching complex issues that come before Council; he’s a good devil’s advocate and asks pointed questions. He doesn’t, however, always listen thoughtfully to responses. His disregard for the city engineer’s answers about the West Broadway reconfiguration plan indicates Lovegrove may have already had his mind made up going in.
Though the Independent endorsed his opponent, Don Nicholson has proved a thoughtful addition to Council. Ward 2’s Nicholson has earned the trust of his peers—six Council members voted for him to represent Missoula on the Montana Public Power Authority board (six voted for Mayor Kadas, and Kadas broke the tie). Financial prudence seems to guide him. Nicholson supported Council’s decision to grant extensions to St. Pat’s. He also opposes the Broadway Diet because he believes the money could be better spent elsewhere. Nicholson is reviving an economic development committee, which sat dormant for years. Like the work on equitable insurance benefits, Nicholson’s work on economic development may have to take a backseat to reviewing boundary-relocation requests. Nicholson, however, believes the growth tools need fixing.
Feet to the fire
Council has a tendency to commandeer the responsibilities of others. Over the past six months, both Anne Kazmierczak and Jerry Ballas submitted to Council their own designs for proposed neighborhood developments. While Ballas is an architect, neither he nor Kazmierczak was elected to draft blueprints. The Council ignored reports from professional traffic engineers about how to make West Broadway a safe corridor for pedestrian crossing and an efficient one for vehicles. Instead, it considered suggestions from the Missoula Downtown Association. Most recently, of course, councilors have taken it upon themselves to review complex boundary-line readjustment requests. The Office of Planning and Grants is paid to review these requests and understand their intricacies.
Strap on a pair of gold sandals, march up to the podium and give ’em what you got.