Faceless issues 

Whitefish progressives battle brochures

Former Whitefish mayor Andy Feury picked either the worst or best time to step down after nearly a decade at the city’s top political post.

On one hand, two special interest groups have steadily assailed the current city council and staff over the last year, questioning the city’s budget, new regulations on big box stores, impact fees, a proposal to allow citizens to vote on raising the resort tax, Whitefish’s proposed new growth policy, and most importantly, a draft critical areas ordinance that would regulate development near bodies of water and on steep slopes.

But on the other hand, Feury says that for the first time since he became mayor, there’s a crop of candidates to carry on with his progressive approach to managing Whitefish’s rapid growth.

“One of the things that always kept me running was fear of what would happen if I didn’t run,” he told his audience during a speech at an Aug. 23 fundraiser organized by supporters of mayoral candidate Cris Coughlin and council candidates Ryan Friel and John Muhlfeld. “Who would fill my shoes? This is the first time in 15 years of serving this community that I don’t have that.”

But Feury acknowledged the challenges facing the candidates, particularly Coughlin and Muhlfeld, who both served on the council during the current term. Feury and the council elevated Coughlin to interim mayor in August.

“They’ve gone out there and they’ve worked really hard to make this a better place, not because there’s a dollar in it for them, but because it’s the right thing to do,” Feury said. “We need to all consider that when we start looking at the newspaper, looking at the editorials that are being written right now, and we have people that are forwarding their own self interest by attacking [Muhlfeld, Coughlin], myself, or our city staff, and that’s blatantly wrong.”

The current political climate in Whitefish echoes conflicts from 2001, when voters ousted two progressive city councilors, the late Chet Hope and Shirley Jacobsen (who was re-elected to the council in 2005) after a flurry of last minute negative campaign ads. The negative campaigning turned out to be illegal under Montana law, because the backers failed to form a political action committee with the state. But by the time a lawsuit had been brought against the group, the elections were over, and Hope and Jacobsen had lost.

Now, two unregistered political groups, Commission for Fair Land Use and Government (CFLUG) and Sensible Land Use (SLU), are stirring the pot.

Since 2005, when the city enacted its interim critical areas ordinance, CFLUG has opposed the measure, and its members have engaged in an aggressive letter writing campaign in local newspapers.

Whitefish developer Tim Grattan formed SLU in early July to battle the final draft of the critical areas ordinance, which is scheduled for a public hearing on Oct. 18, and goes before the council on Nov. 5. On Sept. 10, SLU sent out flyers to nearly every residence in Whitefish characterizing the ordinance as a “heavy-handed property grab.”

After the flyers went out, Whitefish City Attorney John Phelps, who was also city attorney in 2001, asked Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices, Dennis Unsworth to look into the legality of the brochures. Unsworth concluded that the activities of SLU were legal, even though it had not registered as a political action committee, because while SLU appears to be campaigning against the current city council members and the mayor, it’s not supporting any specific candidates.

And that’s where this year’s elections really differ from those of 2001. Although there has been an aggressive campaign against the current council, no candidates have been promoted as alternatives.

“I have not been involved in any part of campaigning, endorsing…” Grattan told the Independent. “I’ve not taken a position on the politics of it at all. I’m just focused on what I think is a lousy ordinance.”

Likewise, Whitefish Attorney Sean Frampton, a founding member of CFLUG and the attorney for SLU, declined to support any candidates in the upcoming election, either personally, or as a representative of these groups.

“I would say that nobody has taken a definitive position on either the growth policy or this ordinance,” Frampton told the Independent.

Nor have any candidates proclaimed any political alignment with supporters of CFLUG or SLU.

As for the three mayoral propects, both Coughlin and Nick Palmer (who also serves on the current city council) have come out in support of the critical areas ordinance, as well as the council’s other progressive actions such as raising impact fees, and putting a one percent increase of Whitefish’s resort tax on the ballot. A third candidate, Mike Jenson, has been non-committal on the critical areas ordinance, but has criticized the council on other actions it has taken over the year, including the impact fee increase and the proposed resort tax.

Of the seven city council candidates, only Turner Askew has come out strongly opposed to the critical areas ordinance.  Both of the progressive candidates endorsed by Feury—Muhlfeld and Friel— support the ordinance. The others have been mixed on their views of the current council.

In the meantime, the battle continues. On Oct. 6, the city of Whitefish sent out a rebuttal to SLU’s initial mailing, which says that the SLU’s brochure is “full of half-truths, errors and distortions.” SLU reacted with another mailing on Oct. 9.

But with all that information, Whitefish voters are still likely to be unsure exactly which side, if any, many of the prospective candidates have taken.
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