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The Independent endorsements

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Political endorsements are a dying breed in American newspapers. There’s an argument afoot that nobody reads them (not that that stops the publication of Mona Charen opinion columns), that they’re paternalistic in their presumption (well, then, grow up and ignore them), and that they say more about the endorsers than the endorsees (like the candidates haven’t gotten their spin with twice-daily candidate forums angled to every conceivable taste and pocket issue on the political landscape).

We don’t necessarily disagree, but we beg to differ. We interviewed all the candidates, listened to their spiels, asked some questions, checked some records and debated long and hard to come to our decisions about who’ll get our votes. We don’t think it’s arrogant to suggest that the process we went through, and the conclusions we came to, might be useful in helping you make up your own mind. It was certainly useful in helping us make up ours.

Missoula’s City Council is going to look substantially different come the turn of the year. With a replacement for deceased Bob Lovegrove yet to be appointed, no fewer than six new faces will join the Council, not to mention a brand-new mayor. Brian Schweitzer likes to talk about a new day in Montana, but Missoula’s about to have more new than it may know what to do with.

Recommending individual Council members under such circumstances is more than a little like assembling a fantasy baseball team—sometimes individual skills are less important that what a player can bring to the locker-room dynamic. In some wards, therefore, we’ve leaned toward candidates not because they’re distinctly more qualified for the job, but because we think they’re more likely than their competitor to play well with others. It’s not a group-hug Council we’re after, but we would like to see people sitting around that long table who bring with them a conscious awareness of the fact that we’re all in this together.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, Nov. 8, the new year will find city government’s balance shifted. We look forward to city hall’s transfusion of new blood as an opportunity to retire old grudges and air new ideas, and that’s the spirit in which we offer this season’s Independent endorsements. Agree or disagree, we hope they give you something to think about.

Mayor of Missoula – John Engen

Nobody’s coming right out and saying it, but this year’s election for mayor of Missoula is really a referendum on the last two years of bickering and paralysis that has typified the group dysfunction of City Council and provoked a raft of citizen lawsuits.

The campaign of long-time Council member Lou Ann Crowley implicates departing Mayor Mike Kadas in failing to relieve the painful dynamic. Crowley faults the outgoing administration for pressing its agenda without making an adequate effort to engage the public in a persuasive discussion, and for neglecting to keep citizens and Council members fully informed.

Crowley’s opponent, John Engen, who is finishing his first term representing Ward 1, has been Mayor Kadas’ closest ally on the Council. In public, Engen has been recognized for his willingness to seek the common ground among Council members, but he has made it clear to the Independent that he blames a handful of individual Council members for fueling the simmering tensions and creating the gridlock.

We think Crowley has a good point. When a group can’t work together, the leader had better figure out how to fix it, and Kadas hasn’t been able to do that. Quite the contrary, Kadas has become the flashpoint, perceived by his detractors as a high-handed policy-maker who condescends to his legitimate critics.

However, we also sympathize with Engen. Clearly, there are some individual Council members whose stubborn, confrontational stances have contributed to the polluted atmosphere in city government.

Ultimately, we’re siding with Engen in this contest, because we just can’t buy the Crowley campaign’s fundamental premise that everything would be better with more public participation. While it’s true that the formal public process can be intimidating and difficult for citizens to join, there are abundant opportunities to be heard in this town. Any one of us can pick up a telephone and call a Council member to sound off. And there are countless organized neighborhood organizations and advocacy groups to help regular folks get a message through to the power. We just don’t see the deficiency that Crowley aims to mend.

We’re also skeptical of Crowley’s focus on process, as opposed to specific programs and policies. She naively argues that we could work out all of our differences if we just talked more.

In contrast, Engen recognizes that no amount of public discussion will guarantee good public policy or a contented populace. Energetic leadership will be required from the mayor to move the civic train in the right direction. On that score, Engen is the stronger candidate and earns theIndy’sendorsement to lead the city of Missoula for the next four years.

Missoula City Council Ward 1 – Dave Strohmaier

Ward 1 suffers this year as a healthy democracy ought to—from an embarrassment of riches, candidate-wise. Elective-politics newcomer Dave Strohmaier and 1970s-era-era Councilman Cass Chinske and are both well-informed, well-intentioned candidates with a wealth of relevant experience to represent their largely Rattlesnake-area constituencies. Either man, with his history of contribution to the civic dialogue, would likely prove an able public servant.

Both candidates advocate drawing distinctions on the contentious and litigated Rattlesnake sewer project between the conjoined issues of growth and water quality, and both, ultimately, support sewer. Both suggest clarifying zoning in the Rattlesnake as a means of accomplishing that. Both would support a new open-space bond, acknowledging the landscape as one of Missoula’s prime assets. Both would try to address what they see as an intractably personality-driven and gummed-up Council with cooperation and respect. Both pay election-year lip service, as every candidate inevitably does, to improving the quality and tenor of public input. Neither seems willing to take much of a stand on Missoula’s public power bid without more information.

But in the final analysis, we’ve got to recommend Strohmaier. The 19-year Forest Service veteran and published nature writer may not have quite the city-oriented experience of his opponent, who’s sat on most of the major boards with which the city interacts, but when it comes right down to it, we’re just a wee bit concerned with a certain reactionary zeal on Chinske’s part: his insistence that the city’s infill tools are across-the-board illegal (Strohmaier thinks they just need to be fine-tuned) and the lingering whiff of support for some form of occupancy standards (which Strohmaier decries, as do we, as inherently unconstitutional).

Whatever the final results, we feel confident Ward 1 will be well represented. But in the scheme of things, we think Missoula would have a marginally more effective Council if that representative turns out to be Dave Strohmaier.

Missoula City Council Ward 2 – John Couch

Ward 2, the oddly split home of the still-evolving North and West side neighborhoods, needs, and has missed, a true progressive counterweight to Grant Creek water-carrier Don Nicholson, and in that regard, casting a vote for John Couch is a clear-conscience choice.

Couch, a neighborhood council regular and North Missoula Community Development Corporation vice president who moved purposefully to Ward 2 from Frenchtown four years ago in an effort to reduce his ecological footprint, strikes all the right chords for his neck of Ward 2’s woods. He’s pro-infill, but thinks a good amount of neighborhood-character grief could be avoided with design standards. He’s party to a lawsuit over the Safeway/St. Pat’s expansion on the grounds that it ignores neighborhood planning, but thinks the whole problem could have been avoided, and a desired new Safeway and expanded St. Pat’s accomplished, with early involvement of the neighborhood in the first place. He’s for the reconfiguration of Broadway and thinks it should have been enacted a long time ago, before Council lost track of the fact that it was a pedestrian safety issue. He’s for an expansion of Mountain Line’s bus system, and doesn’t buy the oft-bandied argument that 93 percent of Missoula drives, so lump it or leave it. He’s behind Engen on another open-space bond, but wants to see more concentration on the valley floor.

His opponent, John Hendrickson, with 15 years in Grant Creek, says he’s running on a clean slate, with no agenda of his own but to advocate for his constituency, but his pro-car, anti-infill, anti-road diet, pro-Safeway, pro-open-space-but-doubts-we-can-afford-it stances speak to a Grant Creek orientation, and Grant Creek’s already got a Don Nicholson. Ward 2 needs a John Couch.

Missoula City Council Ward 3 – Bob Jaffe

Bob Jaffe seems to be the kind of ward representative we could use. A small-business owner with a family and a mortgage, not to mention a history of working on neighborhood issues, Jaffe is well positioned to represent the average Missoulian as the new Council undertakes its work. We appreciate his work as former president and current secretary of the North Missoula Community Development Corporation, and his recognition that infill done right (with more focus on design than density) can help affordable housing without hurting neighborhoods. And he sees that basic respect and thoughtful open-mindedness could go a long way toward restoring productive discussions both at City Council and between Council and its constituents.

Lee Clemmensen, his opponent, has been active in local issues, too (she’s a member on the Board of Adjustment and active in the University district neighborhood council), but she seems to approach them from the angle that once-idyllic Missoula has been kicked out of the Garden of Eden. She holds that local neighborhoods and our quality of life have been severely downgraded of late—much of it due to infill—and she’s getting involved to stop that.

We favor the more positive approach. Jaffe has seen Missoula change over the 18 years he’s been in town—but plenty of that change has been good—and he wants to guide ongoing and upcoming changes with an eye toward encouraging what makes Missoula great: open space, diverse neighborhoods and friendly people.

Missoula City Council Ward 4 – no endorsement

If Ward 1 struggles with an embarrassment of candidate riches, Ward 4 is stuck with embarrassment of a different kind. Tim Lovely and Jon Wilkins are both decent men, as far as we know, but neither one recommends himself as a particularly compelling example of what Missoula’s City Council needs now.

Candidate Tim Lovely, as has become his habit, seems to be running on his increasingly distant labor credentials and his disappointment that Missoula voters, on a “sad day” about 10 years ago, decided they preferred that their city elections be conducted without party labels. To Lovely, that decision voided voters’ opportunity to learn which candidate best represented their own philosophies. We find ourselves put off by the implication that voters are too stupid to comprehend a candidate’s platform without resorting to name tags. Aside from that, Lovely’s platform consists largely of the proposition that citizen input in the processes of city government needs to be improved, as do certain intersections.

Beyond that, Lovely seems relatively loosely informed about the city’s big issues, and given the Missoula Area Central Labor Council Committee on Political Education’s refusal to endorse in this campaign—even with Lovely running against his apparent opposite—we’re wary of Lovely’s party-line credentials. And given Lovely’s lackadaisical approach to running, we can’t get enthused about recommending the marginally less obstructive candidate on the ballot.

Jon Wilkins, on the other hand, would seem to have his neighborhood machine behind him.

But he also seems motivated to run as much by perceived slights at the hands of John Engen and Ed Childers as by any particular skill or expertise. Which is not to say Wilkins doesn’t have issues. He threatens to be an anti-infill crank, repeating this tiresome business about homeowners’ inviolate “expectations” when they purchase a piece of property, and his eagerness to jump down the city’s throat on an over-budget aquatics project suggests a tendency to attack when problem-solving is needed.

Wilkins does have one interesting idea. He says city councilpersons aren’t capable of writing clear, binding ordinances. To solve that problem, Wilkins suggests, Council needs its own staff to help. In Ward 4, at least, we’re inclined to agree.

Missoula City Council Ward 5 – Mark Fitzgerald

This race presented a difficult decision for the Indy; we want to see Missoula’s business addressed, but we want to see it handled productively. Dick Haines, a former Republican state representative, would bring government experience and a determined effort to address Missoula’s traffic and infrastructure planning, which he rightly recognizes as a critical challenge as populations in the Missoula, Flathead and Bitterroot valleys continue to expand. But we were unsettled by the manner in which Haines has elected to address the aquatics facility issue, by joining an ad hoc group of citizens that recently ambushed City Council and the administration at a meeting to threaten the possibility of a lawsuit and call for halting the project. He’s generally right that the city needs to better plan and that citizens should be more involved, but his approach leaves much to be desired.

Mark Fitzgerald, on the other hand, has the right approach—he doesn’t think the city is always doing things poorly—but he’s also got a lot to learn about Missoula and its local government, since he’s only been in town since July 2004. Fitzgerald, who moved here to open and manage a new Starbucks store after falling in love with Missoula during visits, says he’s trying help keep Missoula the vibrant, beautiful place that drew him here. Like Haines, he says we need to maintain and improve our infrastructure (meaning roads and public services, but also the bus system). He recognizes his learning curve and seems eager to jump in, and even though he’s new to town, his knowledge of the issues is comparable to that of many of the other Council hopefuls. We think an upbeat representative like Fitzgerald, who’s aware he doesn’t know everything but is still determined to make a difference, might lend a more reasonable and cooperative voice to the mix.

Missoula City Council Ward 6 – Marilyn Marler

One of the main reasons offered by Clayton Floyd for his retention on Council is a typical incumbent argument: He’s got the experience, and a new representative (Marilyn Marler) would face an uphill challenge learning her way into the seat, holding up much-needed progress on pressing problems. The flip-side of that argument is that Floyd and the rest of the current Council have had the last four years to do their thing, and we’re not convinced that four more years of Floyd is what we want. Floyd has consistently been one of the more unrelentingly divisive voices on Council, and his less-than-courteous treatment of those he disagrees with (be they city staff or fellow aldermen) isn’t exactly auspicious.

Marler, a botanist for UM who’s been involved in her ward’s neighborhood council, promises to be someone who can get along on Council. Like Floyd, she sees there are problems that need addressing (increased public involvement, growth and corollary issues like transportation and maintenance of open space), but she thinks it can be done in a more civil manner. She’s excited, not begrudging, about progress and change, and she says more can be accomplished when Council works together. The fact that groups with such disparate agendas as the Montana Conservation Voters and the Missoula Building Industry Association both endorse her seems to speak to her ability to unite, rather than divide, and we think that’s a good thing.

Regardless, this race is going to be an interesting one to watch: The fact that Floyd’s an incumbent who’s running as a write-in candidate after losing his bid for mayor makes for a curious spectacle.

Fire Bond

Fire Bond: Yes

Faster response time to fires and other emergencies and better quarters for our firefighters are easy to support, especially since it’ll only cost the average property owner about a buck a month.

The $5.7 million bond will provide for the building of a new fire station on the south side of town, in the Linda Vista area, as well as renovations for two existing stations that are sorely outdated and too small. Staffing and other costs—the bulk of the expense—will still be paid through city funds, not the bond.

Missoula Fire Chief Tom Steenberg says the department’s goal for response time is six minutes, and though much of town meets that goal, several thousand people on Missoula’s south side now wait 11 minutes, on average, before fire trucks arrive. Plus, while the south side is waiting, people on the other side of town are left vulnerable since Missoula’s four fire stations get stretched pretty thin, pretty fast. Steenberg says a fifth station will put the department in a much better position to respond to Missoula’s 5,000 or so emergency calls each year.

Fire Stations 2 and 3, on Mount Avenue and 39th Street, respectively, will both receive overhauls if the bond passes, says Assistant Chief Jason Diehl. Station 2, built in 1954, will be demolished and rebuilt, while the ’70s-era Station 3 will be remodeled.

The last time Missoula citizens were hit up for a fire station was 1992, when we overwhelmingly passed a bond. There’s no question it’s time once again to support public safety and infrastructure by voting yes.

Flathead Endorsements

There’s not much to endorse in the Flathead this election cycle. None of the Flathead County mayoral races are contested this year (Kalispell and Whitefish incumbents are unopposed, and Columbia Falls has only one candidate), Columbia Falls has more open council seats than candidates, and only two of Kalispell’s council seats are being contested. There’s little point in endorsing one-candidate races, so we didn’t. We also chose not to endorse in Kalispell’s Ward 1, in which the incumbent is the only viable candidate. That said, there are choices to be made in the Flathead this year. Most of the people running are bright, qualified individuals, and deserve respect for at least tossing their hats in the ring. Those who deserve your vote, not just your respect, earn this year’s Indy endorsements.

Kalispell City Council, Ward 3 – Jim Atkinson

Jim Atkinson and challenger Jayson Peters agree on most of the major issues facing Kalispell, including tax increment funding and impact fees, which both support. Both seem intelligent, qualified, and generally capable of serving on the council. Both, in fact, have council experience (Ward 3’s Atkinson is incumbent, Peters resigned recently when he moved out of Ward 4, the district that elected him); they’re running against each other due to Peters’ recent move into Ward 3.

There is one major issue where opinions diverge, and we feel it’s important enough to justify an endorsement. That issue is annexation.

As more and more subdivisions spring up on unincorporated land surrounding Kalispell, the question—to annex or not to annex—comes up more and more often. Peters says the square mileage of the city has increased immensely due to annexation, and indeed, since the 2000 census, it has fattened from 5.45 square miles to 8.5. But Peters says just because the city can annex doesn’t mean it should, and that Kalispell should avoid running up infrastructure costs by over-extending city services to non-contiguous areas.

He also notes that annexation nixes funds for rural fire districts, which have their tax bases eaten up by the city.

Atkinson, on the other hand, notes that when it comes to water and sewer, Kalispell is “the only game in town,” and therefore has an obligation to extend services to outlying developments. He says “punching holes” in the valley’s aquifer for wells and installing septic tanks are bad for the entire valley’s environment. He also likes that annexed areas can be built to a higher density, helping contain sprawl.

Although Peters makes valid points against annexation, we agree with Atkinson that it’s a growth tool, and one Kalispell needs to use. For that reason, more than any other, Atkinson gets our vote.

Whitefish City Judge – Bradley Johnson

The race for Whitefish City Judge has, somewhat surprisingly, generated the most mudslinging of any race in the valley. Apparently the candidates didn’t get along when challenger Valarie Eve served as incumbent Judge Johnson’s clerk from July 2001 to January 2003, and there’s been bad blood ever since.

In interviews with the Independent, Eve suggested that Johnson might show favoritism toward certain members of the community, while Johnson implied that Eve’s decisions, if she were elected, would be tainted by her husband’s position as the city’s finance director.

Eve has introduced legal policy issues in her campaign, saying she would hear more civil cases and that she would like to employ “restorative justice” and youth peer courts. Johnson says he’s opposed to restorative justice and peer courts, and that he hears civil cases when appropriate.

We think the city judge race ultimately comes down to trust, and that both the mudslinging and the details are beside the point. After 20 years as city judge, Johnson has yet to give Whitefish just cause to feel its trust in him is misplaced.

Eve had a chance to prove herself the more trustworthy candidate at a debate sponsored by the Northwest Montana Bar Association on Oct. 19. Eve declined to debate, however, and missed an opportunity to introduce herself to a public already familiar with her opponent. Although she may have had legitimate concerns about the debate’s format, we think it would have behooved her to make an appearance, rather than refuse outright.

We see no reason to replace Johnson.

Whitefish City Council – Nick Palmer and Nancy Woodruff

The Whitefish City Council race has a bit of a split personality. On one hand you have Nick Palmer and Nancy Woodruff, both younger than the other candidates, and both relative newcomers to Whitefish, at least compared to their counterparts in the race, Shirley Jacobson and Norm Nelson, who have spent their entire lives there.

What upsets the prospect of balance is that only three of the four can win.

Both Nelson and Jacobson name growth and affordable housing as among the most important issues facing Whitefish, but are vague on specifics for dealing with those issues.

Palmer and Woodruff, on the other hand, have more specific ideas. They want to get as many citizens involved in rewriting the Whitefish growth policy as possible, hope to retain access to public forests by supporting local easement initiatives to preserve school trust lands, and want to help those who work in Whitefish stay in Whitefish with affordable housing. Both have paid close attention to the downtown master plan the city is developing, and generally support its call for redesigning Second Street, moving city offices, and improving parking.

Palmer is especially well-versed when it comes to growth issues, having served on the Whitefish Planning Board for the past three years, currently as president of that board.

He and Woodruff are both aware of the challenges Whitefish’s affordable housing program still face, and look to land trusts and mandatory affordable houses clauses tied to new development as possible solutions. We think both Nelson and Jacobson are fine candidates, and that either one would make a good councilperson, but we leave the six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-the-other choice between them up to readers. We endorse Nelson and Woodruff for two of the three seats.

Where and when to vote Tuesday

On Nov. 8, voters must go to the polling place that’s in their voting precinct, because that’s where they are registered and different precincts use different ballots. If you’re not sure what precinct you’re in, you can find out at http://www.co.missoula.mt.us/election/polldistrict_search.aspx. You can also call the elections office at 257-4751.

Absentee ballots will be accepted until noon on Nov. 7 at the Missoula County Courthouse; after that, voters will have to go to the polls.

All voters are required to show one form of identification before voting, so don’t forget to bring yours. The polls will be open at the following locations on Election Day from 7 AM until 8 PM:

Ward 1

Precinct:

76: UC Center, on the UM campus

88: County Courthouse, 200 W. Broadway

94, 95: Prescott School, 1100 Harrison St

96, 97 98, 99: Rattlesnake School, 1220 Pineview Dr

100: Mount Jumbo School, 735 Michigan

Ward 2

Precinct:

24, 26, 27, 28, 29: Hellgate Elementary School, 2385 Flynn Ln.

72: Emma Dickinson School, 215 S. 6th St. W.

89, 90, 92, 93: Lowell School, 1200 Sherwood St.

Ward 3

Precinct:

66, 73, 78, 79, 81: St. Joseph’s School, 503 Edith St.

75: Senior Citizens Center, 705 S. Higgins

77, 82: Paxson School, 101 Evans Ave.

Ward 4

Precinct:

52, 58: Russell Elementary, 3216 S. Russell

53, 54, 55, 84: Lewis & Clark School, 2901 Park St.

63, 85: Washington School, 645 W. Central Ave.

83: Paxson School, 101 Evans Ave.

Ward 5

Precinct:

43, 44, 45, 67: Cold Springs School, 2625 Briggs St.

48, 87: Chief Charlo School, 5600 Longview

49, 50: Meadow Hill School, 4210 S. Reserve St.

51, 57: Russell Elementary, 3216 S. Russell

Ward 6

Precinct:

21: Target Range School, 4095 South Ave.W.

59, 60, 62: Jefferson School, 1700 South Ave.

61, 64, 65: CS Porter School, 2510 Central Ave. W.

68, 70, 74: Dickinson School, 215 S. 6th St. W.

80: Franklin School, 1901 S. 10th St. W.

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