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Independent endorsements for Missoula City Council

Ward 1: Heidi Kendall
No challenger—and perhaps no incumbent—understands the city’s growth management plan like Cass Chinske, but understanding is no guarantee for vision. Chinske sees the plan as an attack on neighborhood character, and his counterattack consists of pushing occupancy standards, halting the Rattle-snake sewer expansion and scrapping the growth management tools. While both he and fellow Ward 1 candidate Pete Petter-sen agree that neighborhoods should have the power to resist unwanted growth, both support the Safeway/St. Pat’s expansion over the neighborhood’s fight to keep behemoth stores out of the neighborhood.

Heidi Kendall has neither Chinske’s knowledge nor Pettersen’s savvy. On paper, Kendall may be less qualified than her opponents, but her values are less exclusive. She knows that a moratorium on growth in the Rattlesnake means preserving one neighborhood at the expense of another. We admit she’ll have some work to do getting up to speed those first few months on Council, but if she lets those inclusive values guide her, we think she’ll do just fine.

Ward 2: Elizabeth Macasaet
Elizabeth Macasaet may be the most thoughtful young candidate to enter Missoula politics in recent years. At 29, Macasaet is knee-deep in Northside-West-side life—she’s a co-founder of Missoula Out-door Cinema and a member of both the North Missoula Community Development Corp. board and the Federated Northside-Westside Neighborhood Council leadership team. Unlike other candidates who bash growth tools like PNCs and density bonuses, she can name specific examples—i.e. Whittier Court—where they work.

Her opponent, Don Nicholson, understands that he’s running for office in the city’s most dynamic ward, but seems out of step living way up Grant Creek. Nicholson is most out of synch with his ward on occupancy standards. He says he still hasn’t made up his mind about the standards, while Macasaet’s position is crystal clear: As a Northsider, Macasaet says rightly that besides being legally problematic, the standards wouldn’t stop overcrowding; they would just push the crowds into Ward 2.

Ward 3: Stacy Rye
It’s nice to have at least one race with two solid candidates. Both Stacy Rye and Tracy R. O’Reilly come off as smart, dedicated women, yet a few points distinguish the two. O’Reilly has great ideas about the redevelopment of the Brooks Street corridor—including housing and mixed-use development. But she’s also indicated that she would like Council to reconsider some sort of occupancy standards. O’Reilly’s not interested in repeating old mistakes, but thinks it’s possible to draft non-discriminatory standards to make rentals cheaper and safer and homeowners happier.

For Rye, the standards are a dead issue and she wants them to stay that way. Frankly, we like her thinking. To reiterate, just a few complaints about occupancy standards: they’re illegal, discriminatory by nature and unenforceable. This is the issue that tips our scale from a good candidate, O’Reilly, to a better one, Rye.

Ward 4: No Endorsement
Ward 4 is a bit of a conundrum. Well, if you’re all about hard-line party politics, it’s not so difficult; during interviews with the Independent, neither Jerry Ballas nor Tim Lovely made any effort to hide their allegiances, Republican and Democrat respectively. Lovely was clear that he was running as an anti-Ballas, but beyond the Safeway vote, he couldn’t point to a single Ballas misstep. Further, Lovely left us with the distinct impression that he felt his Dem credentials alone should be enough to secure his endorsement, and seemed loathe to talk specifics (excepting his straight-faced suggestion to legislate lights and reflective clothing for pedestrians). We wanted him to work a bit harder, and voters should demand it.

Ballas, on the other hand, has chosen to deal with Missoula’s tangled growth issues by suing his neighbor and the city over a boundary relocation he doesn’t like.

Then there’s wildcard Alan C. Ault. A newcomer to politics and to Missoula, Ault has lived in more than half-a-dozen cities around the country. When asked to name one that’s doing a good job dealing with growth, he couldn’t. Ault’s most direct comments on growth seem to put him in the Save Our Neighborhoods camp—a group working to save neighborhood character by pushing smart infill (read: less infill, more out of town development).

Ward 5: Scott Morgan
Scott Morgan is thoughtful, non-confrontational and smart. When it comes to the Broadway road diet, Morgan reserved judgment until city engineers convinced him that, however counterintuitive, narrowing the road wouldn’t slow traffic. On the expansion of Safeway/St. Pat’s, Morgan believes he held out as long as he could for as much he could. He angered some with his vote to support, but the store will be more neighborhood-friendly because of his work. Morgan is also thinking ahead to a bigger Missoula, pushing “development nodes”—clustered developments along Brooks and out of town where apartments, houses, bars, restaurants and grocery stores will keep residents out of their cars and on the sidewalks.

Morgan’s opponent, former Mayor Bob Lovegrove, is his polar opposite. He’s anti-road diet, pro-occupancy standards and doesn’t have many specific suggestions on how to tweak the city’s growth management tools. One of Lovegrove’s biggest beefs with current city administration is that it’s providing a “woefully inadequate” police presence in Missoula. We just don’t see it.

Ward 6: Ed Childers
If the job of City Council member demanded congeniality, Childers would be out of work. But for all his crotchety ways, Childers knows the system well. He knows what a councilmember can and can’t do, meaning he doesn’t waste time spinning his wheels with things he can’t change. He’s logical—he won’t be pulled into moral debates about the occupancy standards when he knows they’re illegal and unenforceable—and dedicated.

Challenger Renny Malach says he wants to vote the will of his ward—an admirable goal, but more or less impossible. Malach has also taken some hard-line stances, favoring the Safeway/St. Pat’s expansion and occupancy standards, and dismissing same-sex partner benefits for city employees and the road diet. Taking absolute stances undermines the hope that he’ll keep an open mind and remain flexible enough to speak for his ward even when he disagrees with it.

>Aquatics: Yes
Finally, an easy one. If approved, the bond would provide money for an indoor family aquatics center with slides and games for the kids, a competition-sized 50-meter lap pool and four new spray decks—akin to the turtle ponds all over town—at Bonner, Franklin, Westside and Marilyn parks. All this for about $25 a year (if your house is worth $150,000). Seems like a deal to us.

Advice from the outgoing: Councilman Jim McGrath forcasts which way the wind will blow

Another municipal election slouches toward us. Colorful yard signs pop up like mushrooms after a forest fire. Even in this low-profile round, you’re sure to hear some issues—and non-issues—bandied about.

There’s much discussion about reviving the unconstitutional occupancy standards and tinkering with density bonuses, but some of the most important issues are not being discussed, or have been discussed very little. What is really at stake in this election?

So, here are my top uncovered issues: eight subjects on which to grill your candidates…

IMPACT FEES: Just barely on the horizon, and little debated, are impact fees. These fees ask new development to pay part of its own way rather than having existing residents subsidize the cost of new growth. While new housing adds to the tax base, the new taxes do not cover the full cost of expanding services. So the choices are either higher taxes (not really possible), reduced services or increased fees. The development community strongly opposes impact fees, as do anti-government ideologues. Developers claim impact fees will make affordable housing more difficult in Missoula. None have explained to me how it is less affordable to spend a thousand dollars on infrastructure as part of your house purchase up front than to spend at least the same amount as a separate assessment later on.

Whether or not the issue is discussed in the media or by candidates, political players are paying close attention and making their decisions based on this issue. Watch who the Realtors endorse.

HEALTH CARE COSTS: The number one budgetary force at City Hall is skyrocketing inflation in the city employees’ health plan. At this point, it consumes revenue growth. But no system can sustain 25 percent annual inflation for long.

On the other hand, it’s unreasonable to expect this to be debated as an issue. All the choices suck. And if any candidate out there actually has the solution, please stop fooling around with the council race and hoof it downtown now! We need you.

HOW WILL WE FUND PARKS? Another impossible question not being asked of candidates. We need more of them, and the ones we have need more stuff. Parks are expensive. In fact, they are so expensive we just can’t budget for them. For example, this year we have on the ballot an $8 million bond for fixing our broken pools. This is the cheapest solution—we could easily spend twice that for good pools.

The bond asks voters to increase their own taxes. Last time we asked citizens to pass a bond, it was for Fort Missoula Park. The city had already purchased the land with Open Space money (a successful bond), but that didn’t pay for the soccer fields, baseball fields, paths, landscaping and other features of the park. The Fort Missoula bond failed.

We need money to buy more parkland in various neighborhoods. We also have other big ticket items we want to pass bonds to pay for, most notably a new police station.

Clearly we can’t expect the voters to pass multi-million-dollar bond after multi-million-dollar bond, but that’s the way you pay for things like pools, so it’s no wonder candidates aren’t speaking about this. If you hear a candidate say he/she has a solution, don’t vote for him/her: he/she is either a liar or a fool.

THE LOOMING BUDGET SHORTFALL: The city has been managed fairly prudently. Unlike the feds, we have to have a balanced budget, and unlike the state, we haven’t created a revenue shortage that forces cuts in services. Even so, a number of things looks dark in the coming years. Here’s the picture:

State law constrains our ability to raise property taxes (our primary tax revenue). So tax revenues increase in only a few ways: new development (growth), which doesn’t cover the new costs entirely; and rising property values, a mixed blessing for most of us. With or without growth, costs go up annually. Recently, new revenues have been roughly on par with pay increases. As with most service enterprises, almost all the expense of operating the city arrives in the form of paying the workers who do so. Rising health costs now threaten to overwhelm that expense.

The other form of revenue we have is fees. These vary from the charge to get a construction permit to paying for Xeroxes of city documents. A recent study found that city taxpayers subsidized over $1.5 million in such direct services which could be charged at rates closer to what those services actually cost. For example, if your boss at the big box store says you need to be fingerprinted to get hired there—the cops charge $4 for that, but it costs the city $70 in actual time and effort. The difference is paid for by taxpayers.

Needless to say, the City Council is cautious about raising fees. Even so, we balanced our budget this year by adding half a million in new fees. The proposal is to do the same next year. If we don’t, we’ll have to cut that amount from the budget. Fewer cops, not more, fewer potholes paved, not more, fewer weeds cut, not more…You get the picture.

OK, that takes us to 2005, when the downtown redevelopment district finally sunsets, which will return to the general fund the money that agency has siphoned off for the last 25 years. That $500,000–$600,000 should help balance the budget in 2005.

Then what? Well, the next mayor will have to figure that out.

By the way, if the economy dips, neither taxes nor fees grow.

TRANSPORTATION: One of the most important services the city takes on is transportation, and voters complain about speed, safety and congestion all the time. At stake in this election (but largely undebated) is a collision of phenomenal proportions between the city’s largest street project (Russell/Third Street) and the overall 20-year plan for the whole valley—paying for the former will drain the coffers necessary to enact the other. Never mind deeply ingrained philosophical and political differences about what our approach to transportation should be.

Philosophically, the question is this: Do we promote modes of transportation other than cars, or do we acquiesce to an automobile-dominated approach. Again, this issue is well understood by political players behind the scenes, and there has been a concerted effort on behalf of the car lobby in recent elections.

All this may be moot, however. The city is revising its 20-year transportation plan, scoping out everything that needs to get done down the road. Key to that process, however, is funding. Most money for roads and such comes from the feds. In the ’90s, Missoula’s dangerously bad air pollution earned us over $30 million in special transportation money. That one-time money isn’t available now; we already spent it.

Meanwhile, the decade-long Russell/Third project is approaching a decision point, and the price tag is $40 million—welcome to the City Council!

CORPORATE WELFARE: Seldom is it discussed on the campaign trail, but it is well understood that the city can dispense largesse to individual businesses. The real question is whether anyone on Council asks the hard questions, or, for that matter, any question other than “how much do you want?” We scrutinize microscopically the $600,000 of HUD money we dispense for the poor, but the redevelopment agency, with its $6 million slush fund, operates nearly autonomously. Tax breaks, land deals, park leases, loans—many are the possibilities, and often they are dazzling to councilmembers and mayors who want to score big with a high profile project. Don’t get me wrong—incentives can be good. Just don’t forget how Kalispell bent over backwards to lure the now-defunct Stream call center, and the bag they’re left holding. Read the fine print.

SPINNING WHEELS: The most important thing a newly elected councilmember must decide is how much of current direction to let stand and how many past decisions to revisit. Many City Council members are elected in reaction to some past decision. “Change” is the cry! But you can either let past decisions go and move forward, framing new policy, or you can return to past battles and fight them again…and again…and again. And get very little done. Always think about who wins when the Council spins its wheels. It’s best to pick your battles.

Former Indy reporter Jim McGrath is an outgoing two-term councilman from Ward 2.

Changing Course?: Three Council liberals abandon ship

analysis by Jed Gottlieb

Ward 1 Councilwoman Lois Herbig doesn’t much care for the numbers seven and five as they apply to the Missoula City Council’s voting record.

“It’s been harder to get things done over the last few years,” says Herbig. “And that 7–5 vote has gotten so tiresome.”

Herbig, Ward 2’s Jim McGrath and Ward 3’s John Torma—all retiring from Council this year—have more often than not come up on the same side of the issues. While Herbig likes to paint her progressive causes in a losing light, the three outgoing City Council members haven’t always come up with the short end of the stick. In fact, their votes have fended off measures by more conservative members that would have changed the character of Missoula.

When occupancy standards reared their head again last year, all three Council progressives voted the ordinance down, and with help from a mayoral veto, the ordinance was defeated. Herbig, McGrath and Torma have also used their votes and voices to champion a living wage, a road diet for Broadway and the freedom of City Council members not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance before every meeting.

Even failing, as Herbig puts it, more often than they succeeded, the three have filled a necessary role on Council. They’ve helped balance it, and given it spark.

Now there’s worry among a segment of Missoula, and among the three, that the void they leave, all at once, will be too big to fill. And while the vacation of these seats denotes an opportunity for change, three Council hopefuls are campaigning to maintain the progressive voice—Heidi Kendall in Ward 1 has Herbig’s endorsement, Elizabeth Macasaet in Ward 2 has McGrath’s, and Stacy Rye in Ward 3 has Torma’s.

If their chosen replacements aren’t elected, the body will become a more conservative one, and the work Herbig, McGrath and Torma have done can be quickly undone.

The conservative camp, for instance, both on Council and running for Council, wants to revive the occupancy standards. If victorious at the polls, conservatives shouldn’t have a problem overwhelming the diminished progressive voice and passing the standards. There will likely be court challenges, as opponents in the past have promised there would be, and the city could spent thousands defending itself.

Momentum toward alternative transportation could also dry up. Everyone claims to support safe bike lanes, but an underlying thread of thought holds that, as Ward 4 Councilman Jerry Ballas has stated, alternative transportation advocates already have too much influence. As the city revises its 20-year transportation plan, the scales could tip toward a Missoula dominated by auto-centric interests.

Under an unchecked conservative Council, biking and walking will probably become less feasible anyway. Many candidates and Council members have promised to do what they can to repeal Missoula’s growth management tools and stop infill. More members of Council could end up pandering to their particular ward regardless of the larger city’s best interest. Wards 1 and 2 will want to “maintain their neighborhood character,” and so will try to force growth into outlying wards, and outlying wards will in turn push the people beyond the city limits. The result could be an urban core with a static population, more sprawl and more growth down the Bitterroot and toward Frenchtown, forcing infrastructure costs up.

Without Herbig, McGrath and Torma to provide a counterbalance, business interests will doubtless wield more influence. When the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and Play Ball Missoula asked for a second $1 million to fund the civic stadium, most on Council didn’t bat an eyelash. But the three progressives worried that the second million would hardly be the last, and that equally important projects were being ignored in favor of one the business community was behind. Ultimately, Herbig, McGrath and Torma failed to stop the extra allocation, but they displayed their vigilance in looking out for the taxpayers and their money.

When worrying about the future of City Council (and the city), McGrath says it’s too soon to know if it was a bad decision for Council’s three progressives to retire at the same time.

“We don’t really know what would have happened,” he says. “We all could have been voted out.”

Or their endorsements could be voted in on Nov. 4.

Torma adds his own optimistic perspective to the matter: “If the election swings to right, the voters will swing it back to the left next time.”

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