From detailing their budget priorities to experience door-knocking by rollerblade, Missoula City Council candidates showed their stripes this week at two debates hosted by the Missoula County Democrats.
Participants included: Gwen Nicholson and Eric Melson in Ward 1; Sierra Farmer, Timothy Garrison and Mirtha Becerra in Ward 2; Gwen Jones and Sam Kulla in Ward 3; Amber Sherrill and Alan Ault in Ward 4; Bob Campbell, Dave Bell and Lynn-Wood Fields in Ward 5; and Sean McCoy and Sandra Vasecka in Ward 6.
Candidate Rebecca Dawson in Ward 2 did not attend the forum.
Tax Increment Financing, city expenditures and prior experience divided the field, which consisted of incumbents and newcomers alike. Their favorite burger, passenger rail support and Mountain Line expansion met with more unanimity.
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In Ward 1, renter and trans activist Gwen Nicholson said her approach to improving Missoula’s housing woes would focus on securing better protections for renters. Likewise, her opponent Eric Melson — who rollerbladed through the Northside to drum up support — wanted stronger landlord-tenant laws and to redefine affordability as attainability.
In Ward 2, candidates for the two-year seat proposed different options for a ward where much of Missoula’s growth has been targeted. Timothy Garrison suggested loosening subdivision requirements on elements like parking and landscaping.
“When you’re talking affordable housing,” he said, “those things aren’t important to the person who just needs a place to live.”
His contender, current Councilor Sierra Farmer, instead thought about beefing up the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund and looking at creative approaches to housing developments. Councilor Mirtha Becerra, who also currently serves the city and formerly worked as a planner, suggested factoring in transportation costs and relying on public-private collaborations.
Councilor Gwen Jones in Ward 3, the longest-serving councilperson up for reelection, also pointed to the AHTF and the support of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency on the housing front. Her challenger, renter Sam Kulla, wanted to support better jobs and higher wages in Missoula.
Alan Ault from Ward 4, who has previously run unsuccessfully for City Council, pushed for speeding up permitting processes to streamline development. Councilor Amber Sherrill, meanwhile, pointed to land-banking options and public-private partnerships.
In Ward 5, the only ward with a primary on Sept. 12, Dave Bell brought up the idea of a universal application for renters. Former Missoula Police Department officer Bob Campbell suggested looking at community development financial institutions. And Ward 4’s third candidate, Lynn-Wood Fields, a filmmaker, wanted to see more use of accessory dwelling units.
Councilor Sandra Vasecka, who currently represents Ward 6 and rents there, urged deregulation.
“I think that the more that the government gets involved,” said Vasecka, “the less affordable housing is going to be.”
Farmer and Planning Board Chairman Sean McCoy, for his part, wanted to see the city make it easier to perform home improvements like building a fence or fixing a roof. He also trumpeted tax reform at the state level.
Calling city services the “lifeblood” of the community, Ward 1’s Nicholson said her top budget priorities would be basic city functions—although she noted she would like to see less police funding. Melson in Ward 1 pointed to sewer, water, fire and police as his top priorities.
“How do we tackle growth?” he also asked.
Garrison in Ward 2 said infrastructure would be his chief concern, but he would represent the desires of his ward, not his own interests. Farmer said her No. 1 priority is public safety, which includes not only fire and police but also usable bike lanes.
“My priorities are my constituents’ priorities,” said Becerra in the 4-year Ward 2 seat. One of those priorities she’s heard, Becerra said, are sidewalks.
For Jones in Ward 3, there’s no priority ahead of tax reform at the state level. For Kulla, however, the top priority would be finding a way to give tax credits to fixed-income earners at the local level.
Like her colleague Jones, Sherrill’s top priority out of Ward 4 was tax reform. Her opponent Ault, who wanted to cut spending, said, “I firmly believe we are not getting value for our money.”
Ward 5’s Campbell was also critical of government spending in its current form.
He said he hasn’t knocked doors where anyone reported, “I could just use more taxes on my property tax bill.”
One of his contenders, Fields, said she would work to implement a local option sales tax like the one that has benefitted her hometown of Whitefish. And Bell said his top priority is the Crisis Intervention Training housed with MPD.
Perhaps the most divergent thinking came out of Ward 6, where McCoy said, “I think we do a pretty good job with our budget.”
He nonetheless suggested adding metrics to find fat to trim. Vasecka, meanwhile, touted her experience bringing forward seven amendments this year alone to reduce the mayor’s budget. Although none of them ultimately passed, she was confident with four more years on council she could lower the city’s spending “just a smidge.”
From his rollerblade excursion, Melson said he believes Ward 1’s infrastructure needs to be improved, particularly on the Northside. Similarly, Nicholson said the closure of the Northside Pedestrian Bridge is illustrative of the sentiment that the neighborhood is “cut off and alienated” from the rest of the city.
Ward 2 saw agreement among all of its candidates: Farmer targeted growth and the need for smart development. Garrison honed in on growth and traffic. And Becerra keyed into the impacts of growth on fire services, infrastructure and schools.
In Ward 3, Kulla again pushed for better jobs and pay, while Jones focused on increasing housing inventory.
Ault railed against “speedways” as the biggest threat to Ward 4. Sherrill instead said the most significant issue she sees is taxes on fixed-income recipients
Campbell in Ward 5 said housing is his area’s No. 1 concern. Property taxes are Fields’, while Bell identified opposition to the Fort Missoula Commons multi-use project.
The Ward 6 candidates had a rare moment of agreement over the Johnson Street Community Center, which both Vasecka and McCoy pegged as their constituents’ primary concern. They differed in their approaches to removing it; with McCoy promising a “laser focus on finding a new place for that” and Vasecka describing her cooperative effort on council to demolish the current facility within 3 years.
On the best-burger debate, candidates split between Wally and Bucks and the Missoula (Mo) Club offerings.
Elections are scheduled for Nov. 7.