Few surfaces are visible in Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent's downtown office. A bobble head doll of Mayor John Engen sits behind Nugent, not far from three rolls of duct tape; he uses the tape to reinforce everything from mountain bike accessories to the overstuffed pocket protector jutting out from the balding 62-year-old's chest pocket.
"It's saved a lot of shirts over the years," he says, shrugging.
With a bit of a paunch, Nugent looks deceptively like a curmudgeon. He's surrounded by law books tagged with a rainbow of sticky notes, and tall stacks of typewritten papers documenting every imaginable aspect of municipal minutia. The filing system extends from Nugent's desk to the tops of nearby bookcases, filing cabinets and boxes along the floor. His wife of 39 years, Janice Nugent, wouldn't approve of such a mess.
"My wife's going to kill me," he says.
Despite the clutter, Nugent knows exactly how to find what he needs. When just about any subject relating to Missoula's municipal discourse comes up—whether it's community growth plans, the city's lawsuit against Mountain Water in the 1980s or architectural diagrams for the new parking structure downtown—he scratches his head and thinks for a moment before reaching down several inches and extracting the relevant document with magician-like skill.
In many ways, the rambling office reflects Nugent's mind—an untidy, yet comprehensive, encyclopedia of Missoula's legal, social and institutional history.
When asked about, for instance, the rules governing how to replace Ward 2 Councilmember Roy Houseman, who resigned at the end of December, Nugent recites a stream of precedent before offering an extreme example.
"Stan Healey made a motion to approve John Toole," he says, recalling an unusual 1983 council vote, in which none of the people who applied for a vacant mayoral seat were selected.
Since appointed city attorney in 1977, Nugent has advised and defended seven mayors and worked alongside 18 different City Council incarnations. He's overseen the creation of roughly 1,500 of the city's 3,449 ordinances governing everything from discriminating against gay people to urinating in public. In addition, he's presented 21 cases to the Montana Supreme Court—suits that reached beyond Missoula law and had an impact on residents across the state.
Nugent acknowledges he's been busy, humbly calling each of his accomplishments "little building blocks" over the years. He speaks in reverential tones about "The City," but skips past how he helped to shape it—the overtime he logs nearly every week, and the vacation days he regularly forfeits or donates. He avoids publicity and deflects any individual praise to accomplishments chalked up by "the team." The casual observer would have no idea that Nugent, despite not being a politician, has been intricately tied to Missoula policies for more than three decades.
"There are different people that you meet, particularly in this business," says Alec Hansen, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns and Nugent's long-time friend and colleague. "There are the center-ring kind of guys that like the spotlight, and then there are the guys that do all of the work. He's one of the guys that does the work. And people like that, generally, would just rather do their work than talk about it. Those are the guys that make things happen. I'm convinced of that."
Most mornings Nugent wakes up before dawn, runs with his golden retriever, Max, grabs breakfast and then puts on his cycling gear to ride to his Spruce Street office. The cycling gear is hard to miss: a full-body yellowish green rain suit with reflective strips, and a stars and stripes helmet adorned with Evel Knievel's (factory printed) signature. He says the neighborhood kids call him the "Yellow Man." He's a bit like Missoula's version of a municipal Easy Rider.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- In an office that appears to have a life of its own, City Attorney Jim Nugent is somehow organized. “I’ve gone in and asked him for something,” says former Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas. “He thinks for a minute, and then he goes to a pile. And three inches into the pile, he digs his hand in for a minute, and, ‘Ah, it ought to be right about here.”
"The helmet's part of the mystique," says Janice Nugent, who purchased the outfit for her husband two years ago. She wanted to find something durable and easy to spot, but also capable of protecting his business suit.
"This iteration of the rain suit is my fault," she says. "I have mixed feelings about it."
That said, Janice Nugent suspects the look is catching on. She's noticed recently that Bruce Bender, the city's chief administrative officer, has taken to wearing a yellow rain jacket that looks strikingly similar to her husband's.
"I think Jim kind of inspired Bruce Bender's suit," she says.
Nugent is an unlikely trendsetter. His office vets nearly every agreement the city signs off on, many of which don't make headlines: contracts initiating everything from sidewalk and road construction to the tennis lessons provided through Missoula's Parks and Recreation Department.
"I don't think you realize how boring it can be," Nugent says. "I'm more a drone."
Despite the monotony of a lot of the work, Nugent's thoroughness has become legendary—so much that city staffers have coined a verb for it. A document scrutinized by the city attorney is thought of as "Nuginized," or vetted. It's considered an accomplishment if a municipal employee receives work back from Nugent unblemished by edits made in red ink.
The value of Nugent's obsessive attention to detail is clear when looking at state law. Montana code governing how cities operate runs more than 1,400 pages. Much of it is contradictory. Many statutes lack clarity or are open to interpretation. Municipal attorneys are allowed a certain amount of flexibility when shaping local laws.
For instance, shortly after Nugent moved into the City Attorney's Office, he was struck by the fact that people caught urinating in public were cited on public indecency charges. Though a misdemeanor, the stigma associated with a public indecency citation impacted the offender's long-term employment and educational opportunities.