The boundaries governing Missoula city politics are poised to change, and four different proposals are on tap for City Council’s consideration at a March 12 public hearing, to be held at 7 p.m. in City Council Chambers.
Out-of-whack populations in Missoula’s six wards are the key reason Council’s taking action, since Ward 2—currently comprising the Northside, Westside, Grant Creek and River Road neighborhoods—has grown substantially since Council last adjusted boundaries in 2003 and is now more than 25 percent over the ideal population for ensuring one vote per person. That means the two Ward 2 Council members represent some 13,511 residents, while Ward 3’s 9,717 residents also get two representatives. City Attorney Jim Nugent says up to 3 percent variation in ward populations is acceptable.
The Office of Planning and Grants’ Mike Barton says Council must decide between the four proposals by the end of the month because the city election filing period opens in April. Each of the solutions—drawn up separately by city planning staff, Ward 2 Councilman Don Nicholson, Ward 3 Councilwoman Stacy Rye and Ward 5 Councilman Jerry Ballas—balance out the population problem, but differ in how it’s accomplished. A looming city election in November may help explain why: Rye’s plan would pull the University campus, currently represented by Ward 1 north of the Clark Fork River, into the university neighborhood’s Ward 3. Nicholson’s plan would give the Northside, which has historically been politically and socially linked to the Westside, to Ward 1.
All four proposals divide parts of the Northside and Westside neighborhoods, which North Missoula Community Development Corporation Director Bob Oaks calls “inevitable” given the way the city’s western edges have burgeoned.
Oaks hopes the new political divisions—whatever Council deems them to be—don’t create other divisions within neighborhoods that have federated their neighborhood councils and teamed up on community projects.
“[There will be] a psychological barrier introduced that wasn’t there before,” Oaks says, “and I’d hate to see it get in the way of continuing cooperation here, but I don’t think it has to.”