Political intrigue, Missoula-style 

Standing quietly in the shadows of this fall's city election is a new political force. With a pro-development, anti-growth management stance, a small group of Missoulians is trying to wrestle away the New Party's grip on the Missoula City Council.

New Party members hold five of the council's 12 seats. With Ward Six's Craig Sweet up for re-election and Dave Harmon running for the Ward One Rattlesnake seat, the progressive party could either gain a representative or get knocked down to four seats in November. This, they say, is what Citizens for Common Sense Government wants to happen.

New Party members accuse the group of stealth-like behavior. They say those working behind the scenes are not being upfront with the public about their activities. Party members also claim that the group is not properly registered with the state as a political committee.

Members of Citizens, formerly known as "Take Back Missoula," counter that they are registered with the state and are not trying to be elusive. (A call to the state's Commissioner of Political Practices confirms that the group is registered with his office as required by state law, but has yet not done so with the Missoula County Elections Office.)

Those affiliated with Citizens -- people like Missoula County Commissioner Barbara Evans, real estate broker Diane Beck, Chamber of Commerce President Margaret Langel and political operative Charlie Brown -- make no bones about their dislike of what they see as micromanagement by New Party members on the City Council. They are deeply opposed as well to the "designated urban service area" that is currently being proposed by city and county officials in a revised urban comprehensive plan. In describing their agenda, Citizens members toss around catch phrases like "common-sense decision making," "affordable housing" and "protection of air quality."

"We believe that the growth is going to happen," Beck says, explaining the group's stance. "We can't stop it. We have to plan for it. We can't micromanage the people we've hired to handle the planning process."

It's not so much the group's views that New Party members are upset about, but the quiet way in which Citizens has gone about promoting its agenda.

The day before September's primary election, for example, the Missoulian ran a full-page campaign ad for four anti-New Party candidates -- Ward Six contenders Tracey Turek and Steve Larsen, and Ward One hopefuls Roslyn Chaitoff and Carolyn Overman. While each campaign paid for its quarter of the page, all ran under the banner headline, "Common Sense Candidates for Missoula." Overman says the banner was Evans' idea; but no mention is made of this in the ad, nor does the ad name those who orchestrated the effort.

While both Sponseller and Sweet are pointing fingers at Evans and Langel as founders of Citizens, both are quick to distance themselves from any leadership role.

Langel, for her part, seemed somewhat surprised to have been named an instigator. She says she attended a few meetings last spring when the group was just forming and still calling itself "Take Back Missoula." She freely admits to agreeing with the group's stance on many issues, however. In particular, she names its opposition to the urban service area. "The people of Missoula don't understand what it is," she says, or how detrimental it could be.

Evans goes so far as to claim that there is "no such group," calling it instead a "loose coalition" of concerned citizens who are "interested in the political climate of Missoula." Calling herself only "one little cog" in the nonexistent organization, Evans offered to ask the group's treasurer to give the Independent an interview. Evans refused to name the treasurer or anyone else in the organization.

A day later, however, Diane Beck phoned, saying that she is the Citizens' treasurer and offering to explain the group's position. It's fair, Beck says, to call Citizens pro-growth and pro-development.

Beck also says that one the group's overriding concerns is affordable housing. Every time developers bring a plan into city hall for approval, she says, they are met with a "huge list of requirements" from planning officials and then resistance by city council members. The inevitable delays encountered in the planning and approval process make it impossible for developers to build affordable housing, Beck says.

Another Citizens member was also willing to speak publicly about the group. In fact, the first thing Evan's campaign manager Charlie Brown said when asked about the committee was, "We're not a shadowy group." Instead, he says, it is the "most eclectic" group of people you can imagine, encompassing everyone from housewives to college students to business people.

Brown, like the others, blasts the idea of an urban service area. Drawing a line around Missoula will exacerbate the things it was meant to stop, he says; problems like air pollution, traffic and urban sprawl will worsen by forcing people to move further out into the county in search of affordable housing.

"They simply don't work," he says.

Brown says his idea of common-sense government is to create affordable housing by streamlining the application process developers must go through to have projects approved, and to untie traffic snarls on two lanes roads by widening them to four lanes.

New Party and City Council member Andy Sponseller says that the Citizens' idea of growth management is giving developers free rein to build wherever and whenever they want.

Sponseller is echoed by Craig Sweet who says that in the end, the elections will come down to "a slate of candidates that wants to manage growth and those that don't."

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