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Engen's return

The mayor comes back from rehab to a warm welcome — and some awkward questions

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The old adage holds that Americans prefer to vote for the candidate they’d most like to have a beer with. Here in Montana, we’re often granted that opportunity. We’re accustomed to seeing our politicians sipping wine at the next table or tossing back shots of Jameson at the bar. But in a state where drinking is an ingrained part of the culture, it can be hard to delineate between a party-hearty politician relating to his constituents and someone struggling with a real problem.

On Nov. 28, Missoula officially learned that Mayor John Engen, by his own assessment, had crossed that line. Engen acknowledged in a press release that he recently completed a 28-day inpatient rehab program. “I’ve learned that I can’t drink safely,” he wrote. He went on to assure the city that “I am confident I can live a healthy, productive, sober life, as millions of other alcoholics do on a daily basis.”

Engen’s open letter was penned after a monthlong absence from city hall, the circumstances of which were carefully managed—one might fairly say obscured—by city staff.

We can hardly applaud the tendency to secrecy, which hasn’t exactly been a rarity in Engen’s administration, but we can still be proud of the mayor for owning up to a problem. And we can applaud the understanding of a community that has so far received Engen’s news in a spirit of concern and generosity.

Engen’s drinking habits were far from a mystery. At least one Indy staffer has stood in line behind an obviously intoxicated Engen, and stories of the overindulged mayor out on the town aren’t hard to find. And yet local media—the Indy included—has looked the other way. Which says something about our respect for Engen’s privacy, our discomfort with wagging a hypocritical finger and, just perhaps, the community’s complicity in enabling the mayor’s self-destructive behavior.

As uncomfortable as that suggestion is, awkward questions remain. Did the mayor’s drinking problem affect city business? Was there a precipitating event—as is so often the case with substance abuse—that convinced the mayor of the need to seek help? City officials say Engen won’t discuss the matter further.

In his letter, Engen thanked friends for intervening and encouraging him to seek help. He emphasized that he intends to be a “serious, sober” mayor as he prepares to run for re-election in 2017. For another mayor, in another town, a story like this might spell the end of a political career. For Engen, a popular mayor in an empathetic community, it probably won’t.

Missoula, like any friend, owes it to Engen to support his recovery. We also owe it to him—and to ourselves—to hold him to the standards he’s pledged.

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