News » Features

Council flunks out

Why Missoula City Council deserves a failing grade

by

comment

It’s 11 o’clock on a Monday night—do you know why you’re still here? You’ve been basking in Council Chamber’s fluorescent lights for the last four hours now, and the seat of your cushioned metal chair has the indentations to prove it. Your local representatives are convened at the oversized horseshoe table in the front of the room, but you’re beginning to wonder just who is being represented and just what is being accomplished. If you attend on a regular basis—or tune in to the public access channel—you know this is nothing new. You’ve looked on as decisions are hastily made one week and unmade the next with a terrible, baffling zest. You’ve heard them batter one another with subtle and not-so-subtle digs that reveal a lack of respect for each other as well as for the city staff offering their expertise and the administration officials they’re supposed to work with hand-in-hand. You’ve seen some progress being made, some compromise, but it’s not enough to shake your perception that something isn’t working the way it should, that somewhere along the line our city’s governing body has gone awry.

And you aren’t alone. City officials thigh-deep in Council’s doings are sounding the same misgivings, the sense that things aren’t functioning the way they ought. They say the break seems to have happened after the 2004 election, when the current Council took shape. And there’s hard evidence to back that sentiment up. The length of Council meetings has doubled since the current Council began its work last year. Missoula is currently embroiled in 47 lawsuits—nine regarding property boundary line adjustments alone. Recurring high-profile issues like infill, annexation, sewer and transportation continue to draw massive crowds on a regular basis. Staff say morale is low and frustration levels are running high. Even many Council members share the malaise.

The task of nosing out where and why Council’s problems begin and end is not a simple one. The sheer number of personalities, issues and agendas alone make for a fickle picture that shifts day to day depending on whose office door you knock and what questions you ask. And some days are completely functional—when everyone seems to be in a good mood and the issues of the day don’t make for bitter division. All disclaimers aside, though, it’s clear to people both in and out of government and on both sides of the issues that something—many somethings, really—isn’t going right.

Aside from members of the public, it’s largely administration officials who finger Council as city government’s weak link. And though many Council members agree that things aren’t going optimally, many would also likely disagree with some of the administration’s assessments.

For instance, Council President Jack Reidy, who’s served five terms—that’s 20 years—on Council, avers: “You know I’m Council president. I don’t want to run the Council down.”

It’s part of Reidy’s job to defend the Council, though—and he’s worked hard recently in the role of peacemaker, recognizing that running interference behind the scenes can help smooth over the group’s image. Other Council members, too, seem to have fallen into roles and relationships curiously reminiscent of the playground: John Engen is the friendly kid, eager for compromise, who just wants everyone to get along; Heidi Kendall and Stacy Rye are the new girls who don’t always say what’s on their minds; ever-sure, Clayton Floyd, Don Nicholson and Jerry Ballas don’t seem to need anyone’s advice, and they’re willing to bully people with their absolute confidence; Bob Lovegrove—former mayor of Missoula—might be the kid who knows how everything works, or ought to; Ed Childers’ perpetual smile makes him the class clown, lobbing jokes to ease the tension; Anne Kazmierczak is the unpredictable playmate who might be your best friend or bitter enemy, depending on the day; Myrt Charney may sit at the back of the classroom and say little, but he holds strong convictions; and Lou Ann Crowley is the high-achiever, eager to please and impress.

While these stereotypical images of Council members certainly don’t sum up any one of them, they do capture some of the story. And they help to explain the blocs—in school they were called cliques—that have evolved as part of Council’s scene. The body that’s designed to act in unison has instead divided into thirds—Engen, Kendall, Rye and Childers generally keep tight ranks, as does the bloc of Floyd, Lovegrove, Ballas and Nicholson; the remaining four (Reidy, Kazmierczak, Charney and Crowley) shift allegiances depending on the issue. And these alliances continually make for close votes and long, heated discussions.

While elections are the official way in which to express satisfaction, or lack thereof, with our representatives, they don’t provide much analysis—it’s a simple command to “go ahead” or “go no further.” And though conventional A through F grading systems break performance ratings down further, perhaps the most useful grading mechanism is the grade-school report card, which gauges critical details like: completes assigned work; listens and follows directions; works well with others; uses time wisely. And so, a few months ahead of voters’ opportunity to reward Council members with a pat on the back or a boot out the door, we hand out an old-school report card on Missoula’s City Council.

COMPLETES ASSIGNED WORK:

In an ideal world, the City Council would make a decision about a public works project or an issue or an ordinance by voting, and then the administration would carry out their mandate through the city departments. But recent examples coming out of Council don’t reflect this model, and citizens are the ones ultimately losing out.

The proposal for a roundabout at the intersection of Higgins and Beckwith avenues and Hill Street is a prime example, rendered ironic by the way Council has circled around it like a lost motorist with a dozen backseat drivers.

Back in 2001, Missoula entered into an agreement with the state to improve that intersection. Since then, we have spent more than $70,000 analyzing the situation and engineering a fix and getting to the point where Council put two options—a roundabout and a stoplight—to a vote. The Council initially voted this spring for a stoplight, but the subsequent news that the adjacent church had decided to contribute land to permit development of a roundabout brought the issue back and Council reconsidered. But the Council’s Public Works Committee canceled the stoplight and then said no to the roundabout, too. City staff and Mayor Kadas reminded Council that we’d have to pay the state back its $70,000 if we broke the contract and opted for a no-fix non-solution. Then, at its weekly meeting of June 13, Council tied on a vote between building a roundabout and doing nothing, and Mayor Kadas broke the vote to give the roundabout the go-ahead. It appeared for a few days that the issue might have finally been resolved. Then, on June 27, Ward 3’s Anne Kazmierczak re-referred the matter back to committee, where it sits today.

“The more times you can come and hash it over the more times you have these fits and jumps and false starts,” says Kadas, Missoula’s mayor of eight years, who believes the last election ushered in today’s divisive atmosphere.

The endless mulling has a cost: Bruce Bender, who was director of Public Works for the last 10 years but became acting chief administrative officer upon the retirement of CAO Janet Donahue in mid-June, says his staff has invested several hundred hours over the last few years in the roundabout project. Then there’s the $70,000 we spent to pay an engineer to design a fix for the intersection, which will need to be paid back if no work is done in the end. “And so to want to just throw that out the window is an example of a huge waste,” Bender says. “Outside of the fact that we’re not responding to what’s been viewed as a public service need.”

But beyond the direct impacts on this project and intersection, Council’s indecision also has ripple effects.

“It’s frustrating from a few perspectives,” Kadas says. “Staff get going on something and then all of a sudden they have to turn around and go 180 degrees…And it becomes a waste of time for the administration as well because we have to go back and regurgitate all the arguments that we had the first time. And I think it’s wasteful for the Council, too, because they have to repeat the same debates all over again.”

Sitting in on Council and committee meetings, you can see the backtracking take its toll. Citizens shake their heads in disbelief as their representatives go round an issue for an umpteenth time. Department staff are visibly incredulous and walk out of the room with frustration painted on their faces. Council members sigh and frown and verbally poke at one another or stare with gritted teeth into the void of their laptop screens.

The issue of securing additional space to house Missoula’s municipal court has taken a similar course to the roundabout, and remains similarly unresolved. After approving the $500,000 purchase of the Blue Heron last summer and hiring an architect and consultant to plan new court space, Ward 2’s Nicholson led the derailment of the project at a December meeting. He—and the majority of Council who jumped on Nicholson’s bandwagon—said mold and asbestos problems in the building couldn’t be resolved, even though Council had heard from experts that they were easily resolvable issues before moving ahead with the purchase in the first place. So then Council embarked on a wild goose chase, at first taking a shine to the funeral home across from City Hall, and then seizing on the idea that an annex onto City Hall would be the solution—which is the still the standing plan. Municipal Court Judge Don Louden was so fed up with the debacle and his overcrowded, understaffed quarters that this spring he showed up at meeting after meeting, alternately threatening, begging and cajoling Council into action. Council chambers, which were remodeled in 1998, will now be redone to house Municipal Court and a Council committee is searching for new offsite chambers in which to hold its meetings. The possibility of an annex is still being explored, and meanwhile the old Blue Heron sits unused, a monument to wasted tax dollars.

Outgoing CAO Donahue says in addition to staff time and the cost of purchasing the Blue Heron, at least $45,000 went down the tubes in consultant, inspector and architect fees that were ultimately unproductive. Not to mention that municipal court is still waiting for a home and Council is left searching out new digs.

“It’s a huge waste of resources and time,” Donahue says. “And it makes us feel like we’re stuck in the mud. We can’t go forward or backward because we’re too busy spinning our wheels.”

LISTENS CAREFULLY AND FOLLOWS DIRECTIONS:

An added frustration is that much of the rehashing of decisions is done with disregard for the recommendations and expertise of the people paid to advise the city on just these sorts of matters. Whether staff whose chosen careers are tied to the development of Missoula’s projects or contracted professionals called on to design or implement them, Council seems eager to ignore the word of people who are paid to know what they’re talking about. Both the Blue Heron and the roundabout are examples of Council members opting to ignore the advice of paid professionals, favoring their own opinions instead. In the case of the roundabout, several Council members simply insisted they didn’t think it would work, despite studies and expertise and professional advice that testified otherwise. And Council abandoned the Blue Heron over fears that mold and asbestos couldn’t be mitigated, although hired professionals informed them of easy solutions. The same thing happened in the case of the West Broadway Reconfiguration Plan—aka road diet—on which Council did a U-turn last year. Nicholson and Ward 6’s Floyd initiated the undoing of that plan, and in the process Lovegrove bulldogged city staff with questions that showed he wasn’t listening to the evidence and expertise that led to the plan’s development in the first place.

The issue is not that Council members are simply inquiring about or disagreeing with staff recommendations: “I don’t have a problem with people questioning those positions, but I would hope that folks would understand the limits of their own expertise and the value of relying on people who do have expertise in particular areas,” Kadas says. “And I think we’ve gotten into the habit where, well, if it just doesn’t seem right, not only am I not going to agree to go along with it, I’m not going to agree to even be willing to be convinced.”

Beyond stubbornness, it doesn’t make logical or economical sense to ask professionals to solve problems and then ignore the ensuing advice.

“That is a waste of resources,” Bender says. “That you empower and hire these people or employ these people and then you say, ‘well, I know better.’ I think it’s a real disservice to the function, because if you disagree that much with the competencies of the people there, then you need to go and get your own people to do it.”

That’s just what Council did in the case of boundary line adjustments—an infill tool—when it hired Flathead attorney Doug Wold to defend its position after City Attorney Jim Nugent said he couldn’t support Council’s take on the matter. Nine suits have been filed over Council’s refusal to allow landowners to shift property lines to allow construction of a second house where one stood before, and the matter is still working its way through the courts.

In this unpredictable atmosphere, Donahue says, it’s not wise for departments to even pursue new projects, and she’s told some staff members as much: “I would just try to maintain and do my job but not bring anything forward, because it’s confusing, and who knows where the Council is going to go with it, until the election is over.”

Bender agrees with Donahue’s assessment of the situation.

“So you start affecting property owners, citizens, business owners—but you’re also affecting our ability to know what to proceed with here—what’s going to be controversial here and what’s not—so not only do we spend more time implementing these things, but there’s an uncertainty about what you’re going to implement,” Bender says.

“You’d like to be able to say, once you’ve made a decision, the group’s going to stay with it…you know, don’t play games with it.”

WORKS WELL WITH OTHERS:

“In Missoula over the last 29 years, it’s been my experience that local government hasn’t played itself out politically. We’ve operated in a manner that’s the best for the community. I think that’s true across the board until the last two or three years. And the difficulty that the administration—and particularly the staff—face now is that we’ve gone to a more divisive us-versus-them mentality,” says Donahue, who retired in mid-June after more than nine years as Missoula’s chief administrative officer. As CAO, Donahue was responsible for helping to manage the city departments and coordinating efforts between the Council and the administration.

Speaking during her last days on the job, Donahue sounds frustrated with how things have been going at City Hall in recent months. She recognizes that some tension and disagreement are inherent to the system, but there are other things that aren’t, and they aren’t helping Missoula’s governing body function.

Council’s dysfunction is manifesting itself in slumping morale among department staff, she says. And for all practical purposes, much of what used to be typical day-to-day functionality has simply stalled out.

“It’s a morale issue absolutely. And it makes staff skittish about spending a lot of time and effort on a solution that may not be adhered to or even considered,” she says.

Donahue and Bender both say that Council members often don’t trust the administration, and by extension the staff. Their recommendations, and even their motives and expertise, are questioned in ways that they didn’t used to be. Other department staff agree with this assessment, though none want to go on record saying as much because they fear fallout in their future dealings with Council.

Bender believes some of the rancor is caused by an overflow of tension bubbling among Council members: “Council members are in a very tense situation because of these adversarial arguments going on, and so it becomes a natural consequence that the staff—their opinions anyway—become the focus for someone’s attack. And so it is demoralizing to be questioned; it is demoralizing when the opposition to one of your projects says you’re not professional, you don’t know what you’re doing, we don’t trust you…Even when you don’t feel that you’re at the center of it per se, it is certainly a disincentive to try to proceed with anything.

“You really feel like you’re in a card game here, a game of poker, and that you’re betting and you don’t know how they’re going to play their cards,” Bender says. “But the problem with it is we’re betting with the citizens’ investment into us—you know, our time—so it is a waste of resources.”

USES TIME WISELY:

The clearest indicator of the Council’s use of its time is found in an easily overlooked table in the 2006 preliminary budget: In 2003, the average length of the weekly Council meeting clocked in at one hour and 39 minutes. By 2004, that figure had rocketed to three hours and 50 minutes. The increase substantiates administration officials’ perception that backtracking and contention are taking their tolls. The fact that issues and decisions are being mulled over twice as long certainly hasn’t translated into a similar increase in results. What has resulted is building frustration on the parts of all involved parties: Council members, administration officials, department staff and local citizens are spending twice as long in their attempts to address Missoula’s issues, and failing.

Recognizing that meetings are running too long, a Council committee is slated to take up the possibility of instituting a time limit for the Monday meetings, though you have to wonder why a limit is necessary after years managing to keep meetings reasonable without a rule. Ward 3’s Kazmierczak has been the most vocal agitator about the issue of time commitment. Though she changed her mind within a week, she tendered her resignation in May, saying she was pouring 45 hours a week into the job while trying to juggle graduate school and family life. And she says now she’s not going to run for a second term.

Others agree that an average of four hours on a Monday night—and whatever additional hours are taken up by Wednesday’s numerous committee meetings and the preparation they require—is too long for anyone.

GRADUATION TIME?

“Once you poison the water it’s hard to clean it up,” says Kadas, looking to the months stretching out in the lead-up to November’s elections.

And no one seems to hold out much hope that the current mess will be cleaned up before a new batch of Council members floods City Hall. If anything, they think it’s going to get worse.

Elections may be partly to blame for the escalation. That four members—Engen, Crowley, Ballas and Floyd—are running for mayor has noticeably heightened the tension and division in everyday work, and behind the scenes it’s even more of a factor. Former voting blocs are splintering as prospective chiefs try to pull away from the crowd. Portions of already long weekly meetings are eaten up with candidates’ gratuitous remarks as they strive to flaunt their mayoral aptitudes.

And the races haven’t even heated up yet: The filing period closed June 30, with two outside candidates joining the four Council members in the contest: Geoff Badenoch, former longtime director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, and John D’Orazi, a local businessman.

And Council has six seats up for grabs—the terms of Engen, Reidy, Floyd, Charney, Crowley and Kazmierczak are all drawing to a close—though all but Reidy and Kazmierczak have their eye on other positions.

But even once the races are over, a new picture is going to take some time to develop. In addition to Council’s newbies, there will also be a new mayor and a new chief administrative officer after years of consistent administrative leadership.

One stark example of the Council’s elevated politicking is the body’s ongoing inability to choose a candidate to fill out the term of Ward 4’s Charney, who’s moving to another ward over the summer. For two June weeks in a row, Council evenly split its vote between two candidates, Jon Wilkins and Tim Lovely, who are both running for the seat in November. Then on June 20, Council voted to put off a third vote until July 11 and agreed to look for a “compromise” candidate in the meantime.

It’s notable that this late-term standoff harks back to this Council’s dawning weeks, when they couldn’t even settle on a Council president. Reidy, who had been the former president, shrank from seeking the position again, but after weeks of deadlocked votes, he was the only one Council could agree on. During the debacle, Reidy was tuned in to just how senseless the stalemate was: “All we’re doing is making ourselves look like fools, to tell you the truth,” he said at one meeting.

Although Reidy and other members of Council concede there is an excess of politics and contention around City Hall these days, many are quick to attribute the escalation to the difficulty of the issues facing Missoula.

“I think there’s increased animosity because of the issues that are dividing our town,” Reidy says. “Politics are just getting a little tougher and I don’t like it, but that’s how it is.”

And it’s true that Council is asked to make tough decisions about complex issues. Missoula is growing, to the tune of more than 8 percent from 2000 to 2004, and that is having impacts on our representatives as well as our roads, neighborhoods and public services.

Ward 1’s Kendall says despite these issues, the city’s business is still getting done. “I think [Council’s contention and backtracking] put us in a bad light, but at the same time I don’t think it’s debilitating,” she says. “We seem to be able to get past these things, and we are nowhere near a crisis in Missoula. The things that need to get done are getting done.”

A newcomer to Council, Kendall says she expected difficulties and a “bumpy ride.”

To hear it from longtime administration officials, though, it’s been bumpier than usual, and that’s impacting what gets done, and what doesn’t.

“I do troubleshooting for a living, and my sense is until everybody agrees on the same agenda and starts taking those steps that we’re going to be spinning here for quite a while,” Donahue says. “And it’s too bad because it’s to the detriment of the community that this is happening.”

Teacher’s comments:

The gavel at the front of the room raps: meeting adjourned. You walk out into the cool night and the empty streets, thinking it’s too bad this isn’t really grade school, where Council’s report card would have to be signed and returned or it couldn’t go out for recess.

But this isn’t school, it’s city government, and it’s no easy task to coax Council back in line. They get to pick what gets done and what doesn’t, what sort of atmosphere they create, how to treat their colleagues. We get to sit back and enjoy the ride, speak at public comment when we get too bent out of shape, mark our ballots every two years and hope for the best.

So far this Council has done a better job of fulfilling our fears than our hopes and dreams. And though a real teacher might be tempted to hold an inadequate student back a year, we’re not terribly excited about the prospect of another round of playground politics. We’d just as soon wipe the slate clean and start over with the promise of a new class.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

Add a comment