When ASUM President Aaron Flint learned that Teresa Branch, new vice president for student affairs, was doing a ride-along with the police the night he was attending a Halloween party, Flint’s naughty side hoped that the party would be busted. That would have given him an opportunity to welcome Branch, he says. The idea still makes the man with the boyish grin giggle. That evening, Flint transformed himself into Bill Clinton. He donned the blue suit, colored his hair, grabbed a cigar. A friend wearing a blue dress and infamous black beret joined him. But despite the Eminem, the Kokanee and the 20 other people, the patrol car never showed.
“I guess we just weren’t crazy enough,” says Flint.
Had the party been busted, it would have been logged into a database that is part of the police department’s new Quality of Life program, which addresses what the department calls livability issues. Some of those concerns—loud parties, abandoned vehicles, run-down residences—echo the issues surrounding Missoula’s controversial occupancy standard proposal of 2002. But both Lt. Richard Lewis, who heads the program, and Chief Bob Weaver swear that the failed 2002 ordinance proposing occupancy standards has no bearing on the Missoula Police Department’s decision to launch the new program.
“Certainly we didn’t come at it with the aspect of dealing with occupancy standards,” says Lewis.
If the six-month-old program is successful, though, some outside the department believe it may dull the call of the sirens still singing for occupancy standards.
In Sept. 2002, Mayor Kadas vetoed the occupancy ordinance. City Council failed to raise a two-thirds majority to override his veto; Enough Council members foresaw constitutional problems with an ordinance that attempted to regulate the number and type of persons per household in particular neighborhoods.
It is growth, and not the old standards, that have brought the Quality of Life program into being, says Lewis.
“If you’ll drive around Missoula yourself,” says Lewis, “you’ll see how many new four- and eight- and 12-plexes have now popped up all over the city. And every lot seems to be being filled with new little apartments and places for people.”
With more people come more calls.
And a question.
“How do we respond as a police department to the issues of the parking, the loud parties, the neighborhoods that are feeling that all of a sudden now they can’t enjoy their normal lifestyle?” asks Lewis.
“Traditionally, we’ve responded, but in a real scattered, shotgun-type response,” he says. “Now, it’s a concerted effort.”
In concrete terms, the program’s recipe seems simple: one Quality of Life officer—Lewis—a database and a pipeline of communication between both the University, which governs between 9,000 and 10,000 community residents (its students), and city departments like building and health. It’s a triage or referral system. Instead of unwittingly filing the same complaint over and over again, the department now either follows up or asks the correct city department to do so. The police field anywhere between 250 and 350 calls each day, says Lewis. For the most part, the calls that fall under quality of life are clear.
Focused follow-up means that neglectful or absentee property owners are now encouraged by the city to manage their properties and unruly tenants. And they are pushed to invest some of the money they make into upkeep and safe rentals. Lack of enforcement of safety and other sorts of building codes, says Judy Spannagel, director of the off-campus renter-center, has been “an economic incentive for sloppy landlording.”
In June, Branch, the new VP for student affairs, inherited a fractured relationship between the University district and the University.
“Independent of the city police, I was going to be working with the community,” says Branch. Then she met with Chief Weaver and learned about the program. “I saw the Quality of Life program as a perfect opportunity for us to make a more powerful impact on the problem, if we would work together.”
And Branch does believe the program addresses the concerns that once resulted in the push for occupancy standards.
“I think so, and maybe in an even more direct way,” she says.
In 2002, Ward 3’s Lou Ann Crowley cast what she describes as a half-hearted vote in favor of the occupancy standards. Crowley slowly nods her head when asked if the Quality of Life program might target issues occupancy standards were intended to address.
Other Council members aren’t so sure. Ward 5’s Bob Lovegrove believes the occupancy standards should resurface this year, though he isn’t sure who will bring them to the forefront. Jerry Ballas, of Ward 4, isn’t convinced the Quality of Life program is the best use of the department’s resources. He believes it is too soon to speculate about whether the program will prove a successful approach to the back-burnered occupancy standards.
Students are involved in the conversation only peripherally, though Branch would like to involve a student who lives in the community. Flint would like to set regular meetings with the Council on a variety of issues, as UM administration does once each quarter. He and Ballas will schedule the first of these meeting by April at the latest, says Flint.
Another missing component is permanent funding—the police department reallocated internal funds for this program.
Lewis now has about 720 calls entered into his database. The tracking system might be what opponents of the occupancy standards wanted all along—effective use of tools the city already has in place.
The renter-center’s Spannagel cheerfully asks a non-rhetorical question: “If the city fathers aren’t going to use their codes, why do we have them on the books?”
Contact the reporter: kszpaller@ missoulanews.com