Test of leadership 

After reelection, Mayor Engen faces his first real challenge

Around the beginning of this month, Mayor John Engen quietly won reelection. His seat was not hotly contested. As the Missoulian put it, he "landed a decisive win despite the crowded field of four candidates," three of whom filed on the day of the deadline.

Engen received 11,366 of 16,525 votes cast, for a sturdy majority of 66 percent. His closest rival was Peggy Cain, who took 16 percent of the vote on a platform of not letting Missoula College expand to the golf course—something Engen also opposes. The combined totals of the other two candidates plus the write-ins exceeded Cain's share by only 115 votes. In sum, Mayor Engen is secure in his office, probably because he is a competent and likable guy.

Let me say what a deplorable situation this is for me as a smartass. While other mayors smoke crack and guide their cities into bankruptcy, Engen conducts himself in a manner unbefitting the rich comic tradition of his office.

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If he refuses to wear his sash when he travels about town, would it kill him to use a monocle? Now that he has won election both unopposed and multiply opposed, how about he says the n-word at a charity auction or makes his no-good cousin the sanitation chief? He could probably do those things and remain in office, but he doesn't.

As a result, I suffer—to say nothing of how bad it is for you, the reader. I suppose our only consolation is that we live in a pleasant city ably administered by a guy whom pretty much everyone likes.

By "everyone," I mean 66 percent of the 24 percent of Missoula's population that voted, of course. Probably a lot more people than that like Engen, but we only know the numerical extent of his popularity among voters. Those people, like the people who go to city council meetings, naturally get a little more say. And for the most part, they are Engen's constituency.

No wonder, when you see how well the mayor runs a council meeting. This fall, I watched him preside over a crowded, emotional chamber that ultimately decided to prevent the Union Gospel Mission from renting the Sweetheart Bakery building. That night, Engen did what a good leader does: He created order gracefully.

He raised uncertain voices to a level city government could hear, and he lowered voices that were too certain to a level procedure could manage. He did it with good humor and evident affection for the people of Missoula, and in the end he listened to them. Engen made city government respond to citizens' concerns. He also put it into conflict with a religious charity by legally dubious means.

I do not mention this because I disagree with the mayor's and council's decision. I do, but my position is so unpopular that I have learned to bring it up as little as possible. I only mention it now because Engen has the virtues of his faults, and in this case his virtuous desire to make government reflect the will of the people led him to indulge us, maybe in a way that was not good.

Mayor Engen is the good kind of secure mayor. We like him and so he listens to us. The bad kind of secure mayor might take his popularity for granted, but Engen has remained responsive at a time when he might safely ignore what Missoulians want. I'm glad our mayor does not rule Missoula with a chewed cigar and a tin ear. Every once a while, though, I wonder if he should try it.

The Union Gospel kerfuffle was a moment when we may have sacrificed good government to popular sentiment. Engen is approaching another potential conflict between what the city wants and what's good for it in what will likely be the signature initiative of his career: the plan to buy Missoula's water supply from the Carlyle Group.

Plenty of loud voices oppose Engen's plan, for the usual reasons: taxpayers will have to pay for it with taxes, private enterprise can run water more efficiently than government, this is a new thing that might happen, etc. Those voices are mistaken.

Most other cities of our size administer their own water supplies, and buying Mountain Water will save Missoulians money for generations. Engen's plan is ambitious and smart. But will it be popular?

Cynicism says no. A taxpayer-funded improvement is never more resented than at the moment people are asked to pay for it, and the mayor's good plan will probably earn him significant political opposition for the first time in his career. He may have to choose between what's popular with Missoulians and what's good for us.

He will have to decide whether that can even be a choice. Plenty of respectable approaches to government say it isn't—that a mayor's job is to give the people what they want. Maybe they are right. It so happens, though, that Mayor Engen is uniquely situated to give us what we need.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and lying at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.

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