The final round 

State says conservatives ran a clean campaign

Argenbright exonerates Citizens for Common Sense Government of alleged electoral wrongs

Ed Argenbright's ruling on the propriety of Missoula's city council elections last fall was long overdue by the time it was released last week, but the Commissioner of Political Practices says the case was unique, and he wanted to make sure everything was in order before going public.

And the eagerly-awaited results? Citizens for Common Sense Government and the six candidates it supported did nothing illegal in their campaign for city hall.

"In this case we did a thorough investigation. We came to the conclusion that there was no coordination between the candidates and the committee," says Argenbright. "It was difficult in the sense that we have not had committees that acted independently of the candidates before."

Citizens raised nearly $45,000 last fall -- most of which came from building contractors and real estate interests -- and made no bones about its intention to defeat New Party candidates. The New Party, with only $3,503 in its coffers, decried the introduction of big spending to small-town politics as an attempt by the development community to buy the election.

A few went further than just complaining. Candidates Dave Harmon and Craig Sweet filed charges with Argenbright's office, accusing Citizens of several illegal missteps including not registering properly as a political committee, secretly giving aid to the candidates the group endorsed, using a misleading name, not reporting contributions and expenditures on time, and making false statements about candidates' voting records.

In the end, Sweet lost his seat on the council, as did fellow New Party member Linda Tracy. Harmon won, along with the Citizens-favored candidates Jamie Carpenter, Myrt Charney, Jack Reidy (who ran unopposed), and Tracey Turek. Also victorious was Democrat incumbent Lou Ann Crowley.

Monday night's city council meeting was the first for the four new members, but it also brought several of the key players from the election out to watch the proceedings, including Citizens President Bob McCue, County Commissioner Barbara Evans and Craig Sweet. While the council went through several rounds of voting to choose a new president, Sweet and Evans sat next to each other in the audience, often joking and kidding with each other.

The air of camaraderie, however, was deceiving.

In an interview with the Independent just before the meeting, Sweet said he was disappointed with Argenbright's decision and is still considering whether to pursue the matter further by consulting with an attorney. Sweet says he believes that Citizens broke the law and to let the matter drop is exactly what the conservative-minded group wants.

"I'd guess you'd have to wonder how differently people would respond if they were under oath," he says.

"It's not sour grapes," he adds, saying he still is not convinced that Citizens and their candidates didn't coordinate efforts.

Sweet is also critical of the amount of money raised by Citizens, and its subsequent newspaper and television advertising blitz: "You end up driving a wedge between the candidates and the voters. They [the contributors] are not beholden to the voters."

Mayor Mike Kadas, who does not have ties to either Citizens or the New Party, shares Sweet's concern over the infusion of big money into local campaigns. Kadas says he is not surprised by Argenbright's decision because of the vagueness of the law, but nonetheless thinks spending such large sums hampers the chances for an unbiased political debate.

"It's pretty frightening. There need to be limits on direct expenditures. I don't think this is good for the political dialogue of the community," he says.

McCue counters that it was the New Party, and not Citizens, that tried to shut down the political debate. The complaint they filed, McCue says, was a just an attempt to scare his group out of the discussion. "They were really trying to intimidate us out of the process."

Still, for his part, McCue seems to be extending a conciliatory hand and says the group is not considering filing any counter charges. "We'd just like to let it go. We'd like to see the council go forward into '98."

According to its campaign finance reports, the group still has well over $10,000 left in its coffers. While McCue said during the campaign that the group has its eye on next year's county commissioners race, neither he nor Evans would comment in detail on their future plans.

"Do you know how to eat an elephant?" Evans asks. "One bite at a time. We're not going away."

Ward 1 rep Dave Harmon cheers at a New Party rally last fall where the group claimed that Citizens for Common Sense Government violated election laws. Photo by Jeff Powers.

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