Gathering the Tribes 

Neighborhood councils bring old-fashioned democracy to the Garden City

Town-meeting politics: the idea conjures visions of Colonial village halls where farmers gather to debate the future of the nearest covered bridge. Out here on the wild frontier, though, it seems like a museum piece, a governmental oddity preserved under glass.

The new arenas in which Missoula's politics have been contested lately are considerably less romantic-and noticeably more alive. Missoula's new neighborhood councils, just now rolling two years after voters created them, gather in places like these.

After an arduous organizational push, 11 of the projected 16 councils are in place, and many are taking on a life of their own. In the last few months, neighborhood councils have seized center stage in issues ranging from the proposed baseball stadium, plans for new casinos in the Westside, questions over the future of the old Freddy's Feed and Read building in the U-district, and traffic plans for Van Buren Street.

The councils have no law-making power, but are designed to give citizens a political fulcrum. Everyone from a given neighborhood-even little kids-has a vote. There have already been some contentious battles, and it's a safe bet that the city's politics will never be quite the same. Lyn and Judy Smith, the pair of activist sisters who share the city-funded, half-time job of organizing the councils, say all this is far removed from the initial skepticism that greeted councils.

Grant Creek residents John Hendrickson and Bill Brunner discuss restaurant and casino location “on our side of the interstate” during the Grant Creek Neighborhood Council meeting Wednesday night.
Photo by Chad Harder

"In the beginning, we would talk to city staff members about getting the councils going, and they were saying, no one wants to go to another meeting," says Judy Smith. "And then we had our first meeting on the Northside, and we came back saying, well, we had over 100 people."

The Smiths' contract with the city expires in May, and they're scrambling to organize the final few councils before then. For the most part, they say, they started their work in neighborhoods with established political traditions, areas often already organized into neighborhood associations.

The Franklin to the Fort Council, for instance, which encompasses the working-class heartland of west Missoula, galvanized around two gas station owners' plans for large new gambling emporiums, succeeding in putting the brakes on development. Jim Hausauer, who has been active on a number of F2F committees, says he looks forward to the day when the council can do more than just react to development plans.

"I think there's been a void in this area," says Hausauer. "We want to come up with a neighborhood plan that will that will knit them developers into the neighborhood and not be obstructionist, as we seem to be seen in the casino issue. We view ourselves as the crossroads of Missoula in a lot of ways, and we have a lot of work left to do."

The McCormick Plus Council has been preoccupied with the Missoula Osprey's plans for a minor-league baseball stadium by the Clark Fork, but council activist Dawn Walsh likewise foresees a more expansive role.

"It will provide a structure for neighbors to get involved, to notice what's going on and have the opportunity to participate," she says. "I also hope it will be an important social structure, a simple way to meet the neighbors."

As the saga of the University District shows, though, the councils' future might not always have a feel-good aura. The neighborhood has been the bailiwick of the University Area Homeowners Association, the two-decade-old league of householders that has cast itself as the protector of the neighborhood's property values against a parking crush and the depredations of nearby students.

At first, the UAHA was less than thrilled about sharing power with a body that was open to students, renters and businesses. The council's first big meeting, a special session to debate whether a pizza place and bakery should be allowed to open in the old Freddy's building, didn't go to the association's liking. Homeowners worried about traffic congestion, but the forces of commerce rolled easily on a vote of 112 to 23.

Roberta Manis, a UAHA member who's also been active in the council, says a little tension between the two bodies is natural, but not necessarily unhealthy.

"People who are short-term residents may have a different perspective than someone who has a $200,000 investment in the neighborhood," Manis says. "The goals of the two shouldn't really conflict, but there might be some difference between long-term and short-term thinking."

To the Smiths, such friction is virtually a given when the rubber meets the road on such fundamental, real-world issues as land use, zoning and transportation, all of which are likely to provide neighborhood councils with plenty of work in years to come. According to Lyn Smith, the steady buzz already coming from the councils is, in fact, their very point.

"It's really like the first bloom of democracy," she says. "Everyone wants to know what the leadership boards are doing, wants to know what's going on. I mean, we talk about democracy but we tend to throw the word around pretty loosely. This is an evolution to create a collective neighborhood voice."

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