We write, you decide 

The Independent’s 2007 election endorsements

Missoula Ward 1
The Independent recently employed Ward 1 City Council candidate Jason Wiener, and he still contributes to the paper once in a while. That was enough to provoke his opponent, Justin Armintrout to get up and leave the room barely after starting his candidate interview with us, on the grounds that our impartial judgment is compromised in Wiener’s favor.

Never mind that Armintrout works at Portico Real Estate, one of the Indy’s biggest advertisers. Apparently, we can’t be swayed by money.

After paring away the extraneous relationships with each candidate, the Indy confidently offers a strong endorsement of Wiener. For a newcomer to city politics, he’s unusually well informed, with a solid understanding of the fundamental issues. But we especially appreciate his thoughtful perspective on a councilman’s role as a leader who must translate community values into specific policy. For Wiener, the function of council is to listen and lead, as opposed to thrust and parry.

Apart from Armintrout’s  protest of our candidate interview, he casts himself as a centrist and an outsider, and touts his background in business as a key advantage over his opponent.

But we think character and vision make the biggest difference in this election, and that’s why the Independent endorses Wiener.

Missoula Ward 2
It’s not that Don Nicholson strikes us as an irredeemable blockhead. He’s actually downright affable in personal conversation. But he votes “no” more than any other current member of the Missoula City Council–often with particularly specious reasoning. He admits to sleeping during council meetings (your tax dollars at…yawn…work). And in campaign literature he has attempted to score cheap political points by associating his opponent, Pam Walzer, with the long defunct New Party. That type of red-baiting seriously knots our knickers–especially when Walzer admits she voted for Nicholson in 2003 when he ran against New Party candidate Alison Handler.

Walzer has some limitations. Despite serving on the Local Government Study Commission, we think she’ll have a lot of homework to do after the election. But she seems willing and energetic enough to get up to speed. And Walzer will provide a badly needed voice for residents of the Northside and Westside neighborhoods. That’s enough to persuade us that she’s the best choice for Ward 2.

Missoula Ward 3
It seems like there’s one race every year that presents two very qualified and suitable contenders. After meeting Ward 3 candidates Doug Harrison and incumbent Stacy Rye, once again we’re feeling the tug in two directions.

But we feel Rye has given us little reason to turn her out at this juncture. In fact, we feel she’s been a leader on contentious issues. The infamous “urban fowl ordinance” comes to mind. While the chicken beef isn’t exactly emblematic of a critical public interest, to us the issue smacks of the kind of sustainable individualism that beats at the heart of this city. Harrison, on the other hand, wants chickens left on the farm.

Rye’s support of impact fees to help offset the increasing costs and demands for city services and infrastructure makes sense to us as well, whereas Harrison argues that impact fees would force businesses to build outside the city.

Come Nov. 6 we won’t shed a tear if Rye doesn’t come out on top; we believe Harrison’s likely to foster a more positive tone among the conservative bloc on council, and that could improve the overall level of discourse considerably. But in the end we stand with Rye on the issues, and we don’t see any compelling reason to change course in Ward 3.

Missoula Ward 4
In the past we have called Jerry Ballas a bully and strongly criticized his policy positions. However, we think his opponent, Lyn Hellegaard, would be a worse choice for Ward 4, and Missoula.

While both candidates say they’re philosophically opposed to impact fees, special improvement districts and infill, their positions differ enough to draw a distinction.

For instance, Hellegaard says she would have blocked additional spending to complete Splash Montana. Ballas, on the other hand, has wholeheartedly supported the pool project, pointing out that Missoula voted in favor of it. Hellegaard also thinks too much money goes toward open space and promises to vote against future bonds. Ballas agrees that open space costs too much, but he has supported open space bonds out of respect for the overwhelming desire of the

Ballas’ ability to respect the will of his constituents even when he disagrees with them makes him palatable even if you’re not aligned with his basically conservative political views.

It’s also worth noting that Hellegaard failed to show up for a scheduled meeting with the Independent, and made no attempt to reschedule after we contacted her again. Ballas on the other hand showed up for his candidate interview with us despite our history of knocking him, and he handled it with good humor. That kind of gumption won us over.

Missoula Ward 5
Retiring Ward 5 representative Jack Riedy will leave some big shoes to fill, and there’s no doubt that Missoulians will miss his steady presence on City Council. Between the two challengers vying for Reidy’s seat, the Independent sees the most promise in Christine Prescott, a former attorney and pastor who aligns herself with progressive council members Ed Childers, Bob Jaffe and Stacy Rye.

Although sometimes vague when pressed about specific issues, Prescott shows intelligence and enthusiasm. As a professional facilitator, she’s more focused on public process than policy outcomes, and that’s all right if it contributes to a constructive tone on the council. But she’ll have to rein in her potentially destructive urge to characterize the council members as the “friendlies” and the “grumpies.”

Her opponent, Renee Mitchell, shows similar tendencies, derisively referring to former mayor Mike Kadas, whom she blames in part for any bad blood on council, as “Lord Kadas.” But Mitchell’s real weakness is her consistently somnolent tone and alarming tendency to finish explanations about her policy positions with a shrug and a helpless, “I don’t know, what are you going to do?” Yikes! Do we need to explain that we expect more confident leadership from our elected representatives? In Ward 5, the Indy believes Prescott gets us closer to the ideal.

Missoula Ward 6
Think of incumbent Ward 6 councilman Ed Childers as an acquired taste. His acid wit and customary sarcasm can be hard to get past, and probably don’t go too far toward soothing the nerves of his political rivals. In fact, it’s taken us a few years to realize that underneath that crusty exterior lay a sharp mind and good ideas.

Childers’ opponent Lewie Schneller, on the other hand, has an outgoing, gregarious personality, and we think he’s a fun guy, but in the end we feel he’s rigidly focused on the wrong side of a couple of issues.

Schneller actively stumps for trimming the city’s spending and says he’d start by gutting the staff at the Office of Planning & Grants and cutting back on the parks budget. Whether or not Missoula has one of the lowest parks budgets per capita in the state—as one city official told us—there’s little the Garden City values more than its parks and open space, and there’s no bigger supporter of those values on council than Childers.

Schneller’s not-in-my-back-yard attitude toward high-density development doesn’t strike us as a supportable position either. While Childers’ support for planned neighborhood clusters has no doubt been, shall we say, controversial?…we appreciate the instinct to grow from the inside rather than see scenic hillsides gobbled up by high-density subdivisions.

Childers, the sitting council president, has demonstrated to us that he’s not only a capable public servant, but capable of winning respect from most of his colleagues. He gets our respect, and our vote, too.

Missoula Referendum No. 1
Call it the “Bring ’em Home” ballot issue.

The referendum (however meaningful, though mostly pointless) would, if passed, urge Congress to “authorize and fund an immediate and orderly withdrawal of the United States military from Iraq in a manner that is fully protective of U.S. soldiers.”

Since even newly empowered Democrats seem unwilling or unable to force an end to the war, municipalities across the country have been passing resolutions that might help their elected representatives grow a spine.

Last summer the Butte-Silver Bow Council of Commissioners overwhelming passed a resolution calling on Congress to get out of Iraq, leaving Missoula peaceniks feeling slighted. After all it was Missoula—home of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center and the once-famous (though now dismantled) peace sign—that hosted the largest peace rally in the state prior to the start of the war. So it was disappointing to see Missoula’s City Council pass the buck in June on its own withdrawal resolution in favor of putting the measure on the ballot.

We understand that the referendum is little more than a poll on the Iraq War. We’re fully aware that as a republic we elect public officials to represent the will of the people in Washington, D.C. and that ballot measures don’t dictate foreign policy. But when our elected officials abdicate that duty, we think it’s a good idea to send them an official reminder of why we put them there in the first place.

In that spirit we urge voters to vote for Referendum No. 2007-01.

Whitefish Mayor
Since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Whitefish has grown by about 50 percent. To put that kind of population explosion in perspective, Missoula grew by 12 percent during the same period. Despite the dramatic population increase, the Whitefish city government has taken flak lately for supporting bold policies to manage the rapid growth.

Luckily, the city has a trio of deserving candidates for mayor—Cris Coughlin, Nick Palmer and Mike Jenson—who say they’ll take the heat and continue tackling the tough issues. Of those three, Coughlin edges ahead for the Independent’s endorsement. Coughlin began serving on the council in 2003 and has been interim mayor since August. She supported the previous council’s growth management work, including a controversial ordinance to restrict building in areas likely to affect water quality and storm runoff. She wants to stay on that course as mayor, and plans to focus on affordable housing issues in a town that’s quickly pricing the middle class out of the community. Coughlin says she’ll push to create inclusionary zoning requiring new developments to build affordable homes.

Palmer currently serves on Whitefish City Council and aligns with Coughlin on most issues. But Palmer has two years remaining on his council term, and we think Whitefish would do better to keep him in his current position, where he’s an ally of aggressive growth management.

Jenson is not without local political experience—he served as Whitefish’s mayor from 1997-1999—but the city has grown, and the issues have changed a lot since then. We trust Coughlin to follow through on the good work the previous council has done.

Whitefish City Council
The run-up to Whitefish’s city council elections this year have been unusually contentious, with fierce public criticism recently of city government and staff, and a bitter dose of political intrigue involving dueling brochures addressing the proposed “critical areas ordinance.”

Seven candidates have entered the race to fill three seats. Our first choice, John Muhlfeld, should be the obvious pick of voters. Muhlfeld has held an appointed position on the council since January of 2006. He co-owns River Design Group, a river restoration and environmental consulting firm, where he works as a hydrologist. His job contributes directly to his duties as a councilman, with water quality and runoff issues the focus of the controversial critical areas ordinance. Muhlfeld can provide an expert opinion to council members on water issues, but he’s also shown a willingness to work with those who disagree with him. As a councilman he appointed Greg Carter, one of the critical areas ordinance’s main critics, to the board charged with hammering out the details of the proposal’s rules.

Our second choice, Martin McGrew, has served on the Whitefish City-County Planning Board since 2005, most recently as the board’s chairman. A mortgage broker, McGrew considers himself a political moderate, but strongly supports a critical areas ordinance for Whitefish, believing it just needs to be tweaked a bit before becoming law. McGrew also supports the city’s recent budget increases, which have been controversial, but, he says, necessary for keeping pace with growth. McGrew says his involvement in the real estate trade won’t affect his decisions, but we imagine that it will help to have someone on the council with a finger on the industry’s pulse.

The Independent also likes Ryan Friel. While 36-year-old Friel may be the least experienced candidate—he’s never served on local committees or the council—he has received an endorsement from Andy Feury, who served as Whitefish’s mayor for nearly 10 years.

Friel has promised to continue the work of the current council to manage growth. He supports the critical areas ordinance. He’s agreeable to budget increases to keep pace with demands for city services, and he backs a public vote on increasing the resort tax. Those are the kinds of policies Whitefish will need to constructively manage the dramatic changes occurring in the community.

Missoula ballots must be delivered to the Missoula County Courthouse (200 West Broadway) by 8 p.m. on Nov. 6, 2007. Whitefish ballots are also due at the Old Courthouse (800 S. Main St. in Kalispell) on the same date.
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