"Your system has failed and is corrupt."
That's how Will Snodgrass essentially greets Missoula City Council during a recent debate over maintenance districts. The regular attendee of the council's weekly public comment period takes the opportunity to indict the council members with a barrage of pointed words. Ignorance, Snodgrass says, runs rampant through the governing body. He says it's a criminal syndicate engaged in public works fraud. The rant, more or less, updates a version of the same speech he's been delivering for decades.
As Snodgrass' allotted three minutes of comment ticks away, Councilman Bob Jaffe sinks slowly into his seat. Councilwoman Stacy Rye's mouth hangs open, her head cocked at an angle. About 15 citizens look around the room, flipping through their agendas, whispering to each other periodically, hardly paying Snodgrass much attention. Councilman Ed Childers assumes a curious, strangely gleeful smile. And Councilman Jon Wilkins' eyes begin to close.
"When they come up your eyes do glaze over," Wilkins admits.
"They" refers to a core group of vocal citizen watchdogs, or gadflies, who show up Monday nights to Council Chambers like ants to a picnic. Before Missoula's 12 council members, mayor and city attorney attend to a weekly agenda, residents are allowed three minutes per person to sound off on whatever they want. It's a vital forum to interact with local officials, or, more often, rattle institutional cages.
"You can't call up Max Baucus and get him on the phone. You can't call up Tester," Rye says. "You can come down to us every single Monday night, 52 weeks a year. That's like 300 minutes a year."
Missoula's regular cast of gadflies are cut from a similar cloth, woven from a nagging consciousness that drives them to relentlessly engage with the democratic process. Pushing against the status quo, they aim to forge a new and, they say, smarter direction for everyone. It's an understandable, even admirable, urge. After all, vigilance and a strong voice are necessary tools of a healthy democracy. Yet the repetition brought forward by these frequent attendees, month after month, year after year, and, in Snodgrass' case, decade after decade, visibly anesthetizes some council members.
"I have been told that I have the worst poker face in the world," admits Rye after Snodgrass' recent testimony.
Yet gadflies like Snodgrass still speak up. They are, by definition, persistent and unapologetically aggressive. They are political outsiders, buzzing around the periphery, biting every so often to make sure we're awake. Such actions have branded the watchdogs profiled here as irrelevant, unreasonable and overzealous at one time or another. Their repetition and, at times, lack of decorum also make them unpopular. But they insist they have answers. People just need to listen.
- Photo by Cahrine L. Walters
- Mayor John Engen, right, offers gadflies considerable leeway during City Council’s weekly public comment period. “I think in my role as mayor I just have to be the mature person sitting at the head of the table conducting the meeting,” he says. “And that means I respectfully acknowledge the folks who come to speak to us, even if in some cases they aren’t necessarily respectful of me, or the council, or the other public in the room.”
Honey v. vinegar
Kandi Matthew-Jenkins likes a light City Council agenda. That means she might be able to sneak in a few extra minutes of testimony at the beginning of the meeting.
"That's when I can edge the three-minute rule," she says.
What Matthew-Jenkins discusses during her usual appearance in front of council remains a mystery to some. During a recent meeting, she took to the podium wearing gold-rimmed eyeglasses and read from a stack of typewritten notes. She picked up basically where she'd left off the week before, discussing the details of a drawn-out struggle with Child Protective Service (CPS), a state agency with little relevance to council business.
"(The caseworker) told me that I needed anger management, that I needed all these services," Matthew-Jenkins told the council.
As Matthew-Jenkins spoke, Councilwoman Pam Walzer fiddled with her computer, only periodically looking up. Mayor John Engen stared straight ahead. Childers, as he did with Snodgrass, smiled serenely.
"I probably am trying to figure out how the pieces work together," Childers says of Matthew-Jenkins' testimony. "And it may or may not be the pieces that she's talking about."
Childers acknowledges he sometimes has a hard time tracking Matthew-Jenkins, but he tries.
"The story really has no relevance to what we do, but it's certainly an interesting story," he says. "You know, I couldn't tell you the details. There's some woman in some other state who was a member of the Legislature that had a problem. And Kandi's apparently had a problem. A lot of what I'm wondering is why she chooses this venue."
Matthew-Jenkins says she speaks before the council because it's the only way she can be sure someone hears her. The 60-year-old mother of six claims CPS, which is directed to protect children who have been or are at substantial risk of abuse, neglect or abandonment, steps way out of bounds. Specifically, she says the agency preyed on her family for profit.
"I know after being within the court system, if I were to sit down to write my personal affidavit and file it, it would go nowhere," she says. "No one would hear it. No one would know about any of this."
When not testifying in front of council, Matthews-Jenkins runs a furniture business with her husband, John Jenkins. The couple sells homemade wares at the Saturday morning People's Market. Jenkins, a soft-spoken man, says his wife advocates for the disenfranchised. She looks out for the underdog and doesn't like "sideways talk," he says.
Matthew-Jenkins' passion for local issues has led to political aspirations. The pro-life, self-proclaimed "Christian Constitutionalist" ran unsuccessfully for the Montana Legislature in 2000, for Missoula mayor in 2001 and again campaigned in 2008 for state Senate. Most recently, she's thrown her hat into the ring for the upcoming general election as a candidate for House District 99.