Mixed signals in Helena 

A recent incident in Helena has some wondering about the city’s legislative position on certain bills. The situation occurred when Ward 5 Councilmember Dick Haines testified in direct opposition to the city during a Feb. 9 meeting of the Senate Local Government Committee.

Haines spoke in support of SB 310, a bill that would prohibit municipalities from forcing residents to waive their right to protest as a condition of subdivision approval. According to its website, the city of Missoula opposes the bill.

Haines says that much to his chagrin, the city made him sign such a waiver as a condition of hooking up with the city’s sewer system. So, when the bill came before the local government committees in the House and Senate, Haines, who knew the city disagreed with him, showed up each time to testify in support of the bill.

“I think some of the people here in the back of me are part of the lobbying firm for the city of Missoula,” Haines told the Senate committee. “As a member of the City Council, this particular question [whether the city could force people to sign away their right to protest] never came before the council. I know at least six out of the 12 [councilors] would take my point of view, so you may hear things about how this is needed at the City Council and the city of Missoula, but the city of Missoula’s government has never asked its people if they want this. “

John Macdonald, the city’s lobbyist, sat in the audience waiting to testify against the bill. But after a quick phone call to the city, Macdonald decided not to testify. Macdonald downplayed the incident, saying such on-the-spot decisions are not uncommon in the face of testimony. After other residents of Haines’ neighborhood spoke in favor of the bill at the same meeting, Macdonald concluded that it wasn’t worth it to testify.

“It was pretty clear that this was a bill that we were going to compromise on and that’s a compromise that is in the works and I think we’ll end up with a bill that everybody can support,” Macdonald says.

Haines defended his decision to testify, saying he didn’t see the need to work through City Council since city officials had already voiced opposition to the bill.
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