After 18 months in office, Kalispell Mayor Bill Boharski struggles to maintain his conservative coup
There is a revolution of sorts taking place in the Flathead Valley. Though technically bloodless and political in nature, it has not been without its casualties, and it’s far from being over.
The city of Kalispell has been locked in the breech of political battle for 18 months, adjusting to the new policies, direction and leadership of a distinctly conservative, and often controversial, City Council and its new chairman. Key managers have bailed out, morale of city employees is unarguably very low, and citizens are wondering just what is going on in their City Hall.
At the forefront of the revolution is 37-year-old Mayor Bill Boharski, a mechanical engineer and staunch conservative who believes stimulating the economy, improving the efficiency of government, and cutting taxes should be the watchwords of the city.
While those may sound like typical political notions, Boharski doesn’t fit the typical image of a conservative politician—especially not one who has five terms as a state senator under his belt. Nor does his appearance suggest he would be at the center of so much controversy. The fair-haired, bearded mayor’s deep voice is low, but resonates off the bare, cream-colored walls of his tiny office in City Hall. His manners are not those of a slick, gilded politician. Rather, they speak of a confident man of conviction who is articulate, even-toned and devoted to the cause. And then there is the wheelchair, his mobile platform for 16 years, since a rollover in a Jeep during his senior year at Montana State University left him permanently paralyzed.
|Photo by Jim Blow|
In Boharski’s attempts to innovate, he has frequently encountered resistance and has stepped on a few toes.
But it is, perhaps, Boharski’s new philosophy of government and distinctly different management style that have stimulated the most controversy.
Weary of the bureaucracy and political gamesmanship in Helena after 10 years as a senator, Boharski decided in the mid-’90s to switch his problem-solving attention to city government, an arena he believed—and still believes—might allow him to achieve a more direct impact on the community.
“I really enjoyed the philosophical, large-policy issues of the legislature,” he explains, but “the difficulty with the legislature was that ... things don’t happen. There’s a resistance to wanting to do the things that need to get done to really make a difference.”
During his 1997 campaign for mayor, Boharski tried to run with an emphasis on leadership and philosophy, rather than promising specific results. What he did promise to the voters was a commitment to a “conservative mentality and a progressive mentality,” which he believes will make a Kalispell a more successful community. For him, success isn’t necessarily keyed to a few prominent issues. Instead, resolving government’s day-to-day issues, both big and small, determines success. As Boharski sees it, he owes the public an honest effort to do the right thing for the community. But of course, the right thing is not always easily defined without applying individual philosophy of right and wrong. And his are definitely influenced by his conservative conviction.
As Boharski puts it, “I’d like to think that people know that whatever means it takes, that are of a conservative nature, we will do what we can to build the economy.”
And of course, to the mayor, and the majority of the city council, Kalispell’s economy is the linchpin of the city’s future. Expanding the economy will expand the tax base, allowing taxes to be lowered by spreading the burden over more people and businesses. In keeping with the conservative model, if the government can improve its efficiency and limit its spending, taxes can be lowered even further.
“By and large, virtually all of the money the city gets is from property taxes,” Boharski explains. “That being the case, there are only two ways to make government work better and be less of a burden to the public ... cut spending and build the economy.”
The council did reduce property taxes—five mills’ worth last year—but tax cuts and spurring the economy aren’t enough for Boharski. The mayor is adamant that there is no level of government or private sector that can’t be improved.
Therein lies the root of the most controversy. In Boharski’s attempts to innovate and improve service, he has frequently encountered resistance to changes which go against the grain of existing practices, and has stepped on a few toes. Either by personality, position or authority, he and the council have been unable to implement concerted change without frequent, and often bitter, conflict.
Within five months of taking office, the council fired the city manager of 18 months, Clarence Krepps, for being difficult to work with and pushing his own agenda. And the controversy didn’t end there.
Immediately after Krepps was fired, the chief of police, Ad Clark, and assistant chief, Don Hossack, resigned their positions, followed a month later by the director of the Planning, Economic and Community Development Department, Larry Gallagher, and the redevelopment manager for the city, Ross Plambeck. Throughout most of 1998, the press was replete with accusations and innuendo. Meanwhile, the city of Kalispell watched its government evolve into an all-too-real soap opera.
Still, Boharski believes both he and the council did everything possible to assuage fears and diffuse conflict. To the mayor, it comes down to a fundamental change that had to happen, even though it was bitterly resisted by a few managers in the city government.
“In government, you don’t have a bottom line to meet,” the mayor says. “There’s too much of a disconnect there. To me, it’s probably the most frustrating thing about trying to make local government work. That and the fact that the city manager form of government is really a strange creature.”
If it were up to Boharski, he would change the function of the city manager’s position to have administrative responsibility only, much like Missoula’s system. To him, policy matters should be decided and acted upon by an elected official, not a professional manager hired by the council. Yet much of the conflict over the last 18 months has stemmed from disagreement on what is policy and what isn’t, or more directly, what the mayor and council should be directing and what they should not.
Nonetheless, Boharski doesn’t have any problems with the new city manager of six weeks, Chris Kukulski. Still, it was the inability of Boharski and the council to institute change through the last city manager, Krepps, that resulted in him being fired. Indeed, the complex web of negotiation and delegation that makes up local government seems to confound the mayor.
“Too many decisions are political in nature rather than just practical in nature,” according to Boharski. “Those [policy] decisions should be made by an elected official, rather than one hired to do so.”
|Photo by Jim Blow|
“When we first came in after the election of 1997,” says Boharski, seen here in a special meeting of the city council, “...there were people who were just unwilling to accept what the voters had said.”br>
“People come up to me all the time and ask if I can do anything about [a problem],” he says. Often, he adds, he hears, ‘“Well, you’re the mayor’ quite frequently. In title, I am the mayor ... but the public believes I have a lot more control than I do.”
In the Real World
Perhaps that’s why Boharski would like a structure in Kalispell that mirrors something more executive—like the governor’s authority. By his model, he says, the mayor would install new directors, as appropriate, after the election with individuals the mayor is confident will respond enthusiastically to policies and priorities of elected officials. Such a system would certainly allow a hands-on mayor like Boharski to fix problems and affect changes in a swift manner with much less conflict. In the simplest terms, Boharski would prefer to talk about it, make the decision and get it done. And if there is any question of whether it should be done, let that decision be made by an elected official. Boharski insists it’s not a bid for more power, but his argument is less than convincing.
“A lot of those decisions are ‘This is a case we need to take care of because the people responsible to the voters have decided it,’” he says matter-of-factly. “When you have that discussion with a professional, he will say there are some reasons not to [fix the problem] because there are some other problems that have to be shored up first.”
In the end, that’s why Boharski is reluctant to place blame on the City Council for rifts between the council and city management. In his view, the council began to legislate changes in policy that some managers were reluctant or simply refused to implement.
“When we first came in after the election of 1997,” the mayor explains, “... there is no question in my mind that there were people who were just unwilling to accept what the voters had said.”
To Boharski, the early problems stemmed from a city manager’s agenda that didn’t match the council’s new, decidedly more conservative stance.
“The city manager [Krepps] was not interested in following the direction the council wanted to take,” Boharski says. “We talked to him time after time after time. ... I’ll bet there were 25 times I sat down and tried to convey the message to him.”
As a result, according to Boharski, Krepps accused the council of forcing him to violate his code of ethics. Boharski and the council didn’t see it that way. Ultimately, the struggle could not be resolved, and Krepps was fired.
“The bottom line is the council makes the policy decisions, and it’s [the city manager’s] job to implement them,” the mayor says. “[Krepps was] far too much into the policy issues and I am convinced that Clarence wanted us to fire him.” A similar conflict developed between the council and police chief.
“[Clark] knew we were going to come in and make him more accountable for his department,” Boharski explains. “Well, he had twenty-some years in, and he was running the department the way he wanted. He didn’t want to implement new ideas. ... When you do something for 25 years and you get it set the way you want it, you don’t want to change. And he said, ‘I’m leaving.’”
Relations with the police and fire department unions were strained during contract negotiations last year, degenerating into a slow-down by police officers last summer. The police union became defensive when the council hired a negotiator to represent the city in contract talks, which had previously been much more informal. Boharski denies the council had ulterior motives and says they had no choice but to hire a negotiator who understood the intricacies of the law. For his part, the mayor fails to see why the negotiations went sour.
“Of all the things that have happened,” Boharski says, “I am still, to this day, absolutely amazed that there is this police controversy with the city council. As hard as I have tried, I can’t see what the problem is. The pay is good, the working conditions are good, they are well staffed, they’re well equipped, they’ve got a good boss, and Kalispell is a pretty darn safe city to work in. I just don’t get it.”
Still another key manager left the city within a month of Krepp’s firing, when the city’s Planning, Economic and Community Development Director, Larry Gallagher, also resigned. To that debacle, Boharski’s reaction is the same as the rest.
“My perception,” the mayor says of Gallagher’s departure, “was that Larry had a plan in his head of what he wanted Kalispell to look like. And if it didn’t fit that mold, then it wasn’t gonna happen. And I don’t think that’s the real world.”
Get on Board, or Get Off
In recent months, press coverage and public opinion have stressed the divisions between the council and the city employees during all of the firings and resignations in Kalispell. But overall, Boharski sees a silver lining in the cloud over City Hall.
“Every one of those stories was made out to be a bad thing, but I think every one of them has turned out for the better,” the mayor says with conviction. “Change is not necessarily bad.”
But people fleeing Boharski’s administration offer a differing view. Outgoing interim city manager Al Thelen commented in an interview last month with The Daily Interlake that there are good people working for the government but the council should make sure people know they are appreciated. He also noted morale is still very low.
In contrast, Boharski isn’t much of a proponent of back-patting as a matter of routine. The notion of building esteem, he says, is “a mantra of many liberals and kind of a pop-psychology.” He doesn’t expect nor need people to pat him on the back.
“My belief is that individuals, by the fruits of their own labor, build their own self-esteem,” he says. “When you do things right, then you ought to feel good about what you are doing. I know this is controversial ... [but] ... it is not the job of the council, it is not the job of the mayor, and frankly I don’t think it’s the job of the manager to sit around and tell people what a great job they’re doing. When you’re a professional making 50-plus thousand dollars a year, if you need somebody telling you what a great job you’re doing, you probably ought to get a different job. Does my boss [at Semitool Inc., where he works part-time] have time to call me up and tell me ‘Great job, Bill, and here’s a $10 bonus?’ That’s ridiculous. I mean, that’s how you deal with six- and seven-year-old children. What we build with that mentality ... is ... they’re going to do things to make themselves look good to the elected people ... and that’s not what your goal should be.”
In the end, the whole process seems frustrating for Boharski, who contends that the existing structure of Kalispell’s government doesn’t permit him to work out problems the way he’d like. All those managers, city attorneys, directors and negotiators are just too many layers for him. The engineer in him wants to simplify the process, solve the problem and move on. The debate is over. Here’s what we’re going to do. The ultimatum seems inevitable —get on board or get off.
Even with the conflicts and discord, there is no question in Boharski’s mind that the city is better off today. He notes the tax base is building, the city government is operating more efficiently, and taxes were cut last year.
“We’re getting our equipment more up to date, the government is operating from a more cost-effective standpoint, we’ve got more police protection on the street, we’ve got better fire protection on the street, the roads are better, there’s been more job creation, money has been invested in the city, and the parks are in better condition. From that standpoint, I think the city is operating extremely well,” the mayor says.
But things can definitely get better.
The morale issue continues to haunt Boharski, but he brushes it aside. Although he would prefer to do without all the acrimony, Boharski believes spirited debate is good for the city, and he remains positive and committed to the job of mayor.
“Public service is probably the most challenging job that you will never finish,” he says. “Even with all the problems, things can only get better.”
And perhaps, that is a perfect position for someone who appears almost consumed with desire to solve problems, one way or another.
“My life is set,” he explains. “I’m in a wheelchair until I die, and I’m generally a pretty happy person about that. I enjoy working on problems, whether it’s designing something for Semitool or whether it’s [finding] a better way for the city of Kalispell to work ... whatever it might be, that’s fun to me.”