Why didn't two sue?

| July 16, 2009

Since the Missoula City Council took up the rewrite of the city's zoning ordinance, five minority members have persistently argued that the public process surrounding the document doesn't comply with state law. Yet when the minority took their objections to the courts on July 10, only three members—Lyn Hellegaard, Dick Haines and Renee Mitchell—signed the lawsuit. What happened to the other two members of the minority, Jon Wilkins and John Hendrickson?

Wilkins, who lives on a fixed income, says his finances kept him from participating in the lawsuit. Plus, he wanted to wait and see how the deliberations played out in the Plat, Annexation and Zoning Committee.

"If we didn't get the hot subjects that needed to be fixed, then I would have been for the lawsuit," he says.

Hendrickson declined to provide an explanation to the Independent, but used the comment portion of council's July 13 meeting to remind everyone that he had formally asked the Committee of the Whole to hire an outside attorney to review City Attorney Jim Nugent's legal opinion of the document. Nugent says the document is a rewrite, not a rezone, and not subject to the stricter state zoning regulations. Council President Ed Childers didn't put Hendrickson's item on the committee's agenda.

"This all could have been alleviated if [the item] was allowed [on the agenda]," Hendrickson said at the meeting. "I guess my colleagues felt that you left them no option."

The three minority members who filed the lawsuit want a writ of mandate, which would prohibit the city from approving the zoning rewrite until the legal questions are settled in court. The writ would also order the city to "provide due process and public notice and participation prior to modifying zoning regulations." Lastly, the writ requests attorneys' fees for the petitioners.

Wilkins says that he supports his colleagues in spirit, but wishes they could have waited.

"I wanted to see if the hot points could be ironed out," he says. "But now you have it where the sides won't talk to each other anymore."

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