It appears Missoula’s highly polarized, fractious City Council will soon have a progressive majority.
The biggest swing was in Ward 2, where Pam Walzer narrowly ousted conservative incumbent Don Nicholson. In Ward 1, Jason Wiener thumped Justin Armintrout. And in Ward 3, Stacy Rye held onto her seat by handily beating former member Doug Harrison.
Despite more conservative candidates winning in Wards 4 and 5 — Lyn Hellegaard and Renee Mitchell, respectively — “From a progressive point of view, we’ve got a 7 to 5 progressive council,” Councilman Bob Jaffe said.
But in Jaffe’s eyes the Council took a significant hit by losing Ward 4 Councilman and Vice President Jerry Ballas, often a swing voter. While not the most progressive guy, “his understanding of the process was excellent, and he was a very critical thinker,” Jaffe said. “He was an asset to the council.” (Though Jaffe also said Ballas was too often “mean and nasty to people and it created a lot of hard feelings.”)
With Nicholson and Ballas now gone, it could mean that the Council can move forward on one of its — and Missoula’s — most contentious issues: growth and development, particularly infill.
In 2008, the Council will have seven members “all pretty open about not being against infill — all for smart growth,” Jaffe said. “That was not the case with Jerry, and certainly not with Don.” Last month in an interview Nicholson told NewWest.Net, “We’ve overbuilt apartments badly. We need to let the market do its thing.”
Jason Wiener said the shift in the Council will, for instance, have implications for the city’s in-progress zoning rewrite. He recalled Nicholson once saying that City Council is the keyhole through which any zoning changes pass, and so the persuasions of the new council members will certainly affect the process. Wiener, for one, wants to help form a “forward-looking development code that allows people to do attractive development.”
While Wiener recognizes the progressive majority, he said he would “really prefer that decisions do not come down to a 7 to 5 vote…We need a broader consensus than that.”
Don MacArthur of the Missoula Planning Board said a broad consensus might be hard to come by. “It’s clear that Missoula is clearly divided” — especially over growth and development issues, he said — “and there’s certainly no mandate for one idea or another.” He added that the 8 to 4 progressive majority from a few years ago, and the things it did, resulted in a backlash by voters, “and we’re still fighting the stalemate of the backlash.”
What’s unclear at this point is where exactly new members Lyn Hellegaard and Renee Mitchell stand on these issues. Jaffe, at least, is concerned, based on some of the things he heard during debates, that they may not be fully cognizant of the nuances of planning and growth policy, or simply “against change.” MacArthur, too, isn’t quite sure what to expect.
Tuesday’s election drew a record number of voters — 46 percent, more than 23,000 ballots. Debbe Merseal, the election office’s chief deputy clerk and recorder, said she’s tracked voter turnout back to 1981, and this off-year election drew the most interest of all.
It’s attributable to the mail-in ballots, Merseal said. “It makes it more convenient for the voter.”
But it wasn’t just the mail-in ballots. Matt Singer, director of the nonpartisan political action organization Forward Montana, knows his organization had something — and maybe a lot — to do with it, too.
During the weeks and months running up to the election, Forward Montana registered more than 1,000 voters — more than one-third of all the city’s new registrants. It launched the Pink Bunnies get-out-the-vote campaign, organized events such as Candidates Gone Wild, made hundreds of phone calls, and in general, worked to rouse a demographic often apathetic in the realm of local politics.
“I think it’s cool we had an impact without telling anyone what to do,” Singer said.
But that’s not to say Forward Montana’s effect wasn’t partisan. Nicholson and Ballas were two of the Council’s more senior and conservative members. Singer said his organization did a lot of work in Nicholson’s Ward 2, which, he said, “is traditionally younger, lower income and more progressive.”
Plus, as Singer pointed out, Nicholson and Ballas failed to show up for Candidates Gone Wild, which attracted about 150 people, primarily the young and politically engaged. “If you have a way to talk to the voters, you should,” Singer concluded. And Ballas, specifically, could have done more in the way of outreach to convey his message, Singer said.
Singer acknowledges that the council, while its members have no official political affiliation, will be more liberal come 2008, and there will probably be a “rough seven-member majority” that will align well with Mayor Engen. But, echoing MacArthur, “There’s no clear agenda that there’s a giant mandate for,” he said.
“I’d like to think Forward Montana had everything to do with the (record voter turnout),” Singer said, “but the (mail-in) ballots had something to do with it, too.”
Nicholson and Ballas did not immediately return phone calls for this story.