Wedged in 

Budget, zoning debates shape upcoming city election

The filing period just opened May 4, but most candidates for Missoula City Council agree that zoning and budget issues—two of the most controversial topics from the past year—are sure to shape this fall’s election. And with six open seats and a fledgling conservative minority looking to gain ground, those wedge issues may not be the only ones in play.

In 2007, urban chickens came out of nowhere to influence the election. And although the once hot-button topic has long since passed from the headlines, Ward 1 Councilmember Dave Strohmaier recognizes that seemingly mundane issues can blow up during election season.

“The whole chicken debate played into some of the rhetoric of the election season,” says Strohmaier, who is seeking reelection this fall. “At the present time, I don’t see anything quite like that, but there could be emerging wedge issues that I haven’t anticipated already.”

Strohmaier suggests the ongoing debates over dog leashes and marijuana laws could become this year’s controversial topics.

“Suffice it to say that any of the ideological differences that put council members at odds right now are the source of things we could see throughout the election,” he says.

In the absence of a wildcard issue, the zoning debate appears to be the biggest item heading into the election. The Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) is currently working with a consultant to revamp the city’s zoning ordinance. Ward 5 Councilmember Dick Haines, who is running for reelection, acknowledged recently that he and a few other conservatives are behind an anonymous petition protesting the rewrite. The idea, as Haines explained it, is to ensure that the minority members of council can participate in the rewrite process, something he doesn’t feel is happening. OPG Director Roger Millar countered with a statement challenging several of the zoning petition’s premises. Many saw the back-and-forth as an early sign of election-year politics. 

“The zoning thing will probably get some traction because it’ll drag out into the late summer, or the middle of the summer at the earliest,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Bob Jaffe.

OPG is hoping to have a draft of the zoning rewrite in front of the council in late June, during the height of campaign season.

On the budget front, conservatives have already demonstrated a desire to paint the council’s progressives as over-spenders. During a debate over Mayor John Engen’s proposed budget last August, Ward 2 Councilmember John Hendrickson unveiled a list of proposed budget cuts that he said would cut spending, not services. While saying he wanted to “consolidate” and “re-program” the budget to improve efficiency, Hendrickson never proposed how that would be accomplished. The council ended up approving Engen’s budget along party lines, but it doesn’t appear the issue will disappear. 

“I think the budget, how Missoula spends it’s money, [is sure to play into the election],” says Haines. “They’re going to get $4 million for 14 new buses. Out here where I live [in the South Hills] we pay taxes for bus service and we don’t even have bus service. And they’re going to run the lines down to Lolo. That’s a concern.”

But Ward 1 Councilmember Jason Wiener, who is not running for reelection, says the current economic climate may make the budget less of an issue. With less money to go around, there’s less to debate.

“This year is a very rough budget year and we’re going to be looking to find savings wherever we can,” Wiener says. “It’s going to result in a very lean budget so there’s not going to be a heck of a lot to fight about. That doesn’t mean we won’t have discussions about whether one piece of the mayor’s budget that is headed to one department should go to another.”

Engen, who is also running for reelection, has seen unconstructive politics muck up city government during an election year. Whether it’s the budget, zoning or a wildcard issue, he hopes this year’s candidates rise above petty debates.

“I’ve been through enough elections now to recognize there are all sorts of issues that can come into play,” he says. “Issues involving money, environment and land use are very interesting to the folks we serve and become important in elections. And I think that’s fair. How we approach those is where I hope we’re mature and thoughtful and engaged in a meaningful debate and understand that we’re interested in the community’s best interest rather than getting somebody unelected or reelected.”

As of press time, only two challengers had filed with the county elections office. In Ward 2, Mark Fitzgerald will face Hendrickson. In Ward 5, Mike O’Herron will run against Haines. The other four incumbents seeking reelection are Jaffe, Wilkins, Strohmaier and Ward 6’s Marilyn Marler. Potential candidates have until July 2 to join the race.
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