Archive for the ‘Local Govt Study’ Category

By readbetween

It doesn’t strike me as too likely that people who spend their valuable net time visiting “A Journal of Montana politics and culture” are necessarily looking for a junior staffer of said site to tell them how to vote. That said, Jay is interested in some endorsin’ in the local races and, since most of my friends get sullen and withdrawn when I try to interest them in hearing my views on the bottom of the ballot obscuranta, here on 4&20, for just a couple minutes, I can stand as though I’m in the Rose Garden and say “I’m the Endorser.” hehe.

Let’s start with Missoula County, which offers voters two major elected positions and four ballot questions.

Missoula County Sheriff. I’ll get out with it early: vote for Don Morman. Mike McMeekin’s tenure as sheriff has been marked by complaints from within the ranks about his dictatorial style of management and marred by incidents in which prison abuse went unpunished while whistle-blowers got fired. It’s time for a change.

Missoula County Commissioner. Jean Curtiss is back up for election, running against Jim “Funky Font” Edwards. Curtiss sits on a whole slew of county boards and commissions, staying very involved in the nuts and bolts of the county’s services, particularly the health and welfare variety. Jim Edwards tried to run for mayor because of his anger about construction on SW Higgins Avenue but couldn’t because he lives in the county. So he’s running for county commissioner. His signs look funky, relying on an atypical political font and omitting his party affiliation (Republican), but he’s angered neighbors with a plan to put in a gravel mine on his river fronted ranch, a move whose zoning change required approval by the county commission and was timed for election season (since delayed). Overall, Curtiss has been a diligent public servant and Edwards’ motivation is off; government doesn’t need more malcontents. Advantage: Curtiss.

Open Space. There are two reasons not to like this and neither of them seems to be enough to keep me from voting for more of the stuff that makes Western Montana so stinkin’ spectacular. In case you’re wondering, the objections that could be levelled against this plan to spend $20 million–split 50/50 between county and city lands–to secure places, through easements and purchase, that have not been developed so that they won’t be developed are as follows:

1. The county does not have a very good plan for spending the money. When the city did its last open space bond, it had a detailed plan for how to spend the money, and it has just updated that plan this year. The county has a loose set of criteria so it’s not real clear just what we’ll be getting out in the far reaches of Missoula County for our money.

2. Open Space benefits some more than others. Living in the shadow of Mount Jumbo, I can testify to this. The Rattlesnake neighborhood is a terrific place to live and one reason is the huge swath of undeveloped mountain that looms over it. Everyone paid for that; property values in my neighborhood are the primary beneficiaries. Oh yeah, and the elk.

Still, who can say no to the best measure there is for preserving something integral to Missoula’s identity? It’s more property taxes–$20 per year for the average homeowner–but it’s also paying for the closest thing to a value that all of Missoula shares as there is. At least, that’s how I read the situation. I guess we’ll know Wednesday if that’s not so.

Missoula County Local Government Study Commission. Missoula County had its own study commission (even though the city’s got considerably more press), an elected body examining the forms and powers of county government. The LGSC recommended two questions for the ballot though their full report contains a good deal more that they found out while studying.

The first recommendation of the LGSC is that the county adopt a charter. The charter’s adoption would allow the county more leeway in deciding the sorts of laws it would like to pass. Not a lot more since zoning and taxation, the two most powerful things the county could do, are controlled by state statute, but more than it has right now when it can only pass resolutions already authorized by state law. Opponents charge it is a power grab and the dawning of tyranny in Missoula County. The danger seems less than that to me. I’m in favor of self-governing powers. For a more expansive take on the issues, read Mea Andrews’

One interesting note: the County LGSC was split 3-3 on recommending the charter (one member was derelict of duty for much of the process) and so the question only got on the ballot by way of a compromise that builds a 2010 referendum into the charter that would permit county residents to revoke the charter, just in case the County Commission starts setting up checkpoints on Highway 200 or otherwise abusing its new legislative powers under the charter.

The LGSC also proposes creating the position of Citizen Advocate. In my experience, county government is pretty accessible though not so much as city government. Some departments–elections comes to mind–are supremely helpful. Others seem more interested in doing their job than letting people know what they are doing at their job. If the Citizen Advocate conceives of the position as a way to get county residents involved in county government, I think it will be money well spent. Whether that is the case will depend on the person and whether the County Commission wants to make it so.

Make Missoula Safer aka “the marijuana initiative.” Is there any worse way for law enforcement to be spending its time than busting adults for possession of a plant? That’s the basic question posed by this ballot initiative, which easily made it through the petition process that the West Broadway revisionists couldn’t get through and probably has broader support than most think. The initiative wouldn’t make marijuana legal in Missoula but it would establish a citizen review board to supervise the sherrif’s department’s compliance with the recommendation of the initiative that marijuana be a very low priority for the cops. If you think the government has very little business peddling liquor but banning smoke, this one’s a no-brainer in so far as it pokes a little hole in prohibition. Say Yea.

Enough with the county-wide questions. Missoula City Council and Mayor get elected in odd years so there are no city posts on the ballot. There are, however, ballot questions that could considerably restructure city government.

Missoula City Local Government Study Commission. You can read my tales of the city LGSC as well as consider rather lengthy posts and discussion on their proposals to redraw the ward map and return to partisan elections for city posts. I’m opposed to both, for reasons in those posts.

Two judicial posts are contested on the ballot and here’s my take.

District Court Judge. Dusty Deschamps got the most votes in the primary election and Governor Schweitzer appointed him to the post, which was vacated midway through in accordance with tradition. Karen Townsend was the second place finisher in the primary and is still vying for the post. Both have been deputy county attorneys for decades.

I voted for one of the losers in the primary because I would like to see more judges come from the defense, rather than prosecution, side of the judicial system. That said, either of these folks would be fine judges. Townsend would be breaking ground as Missoula’s first female district court judge. I voted for her.

Justice of the Peace. Karen Orzech has been Justice of the Peace for two terms and no one, not even her opponent, is complaining about the job she’s done. She emphasizes discretion and forbearance as key attributes of her position as the person who sets bail or sets the arrested loose on the own recognizance. Her opponent Casey Gunter is well familiar with how the justice system works from his time with the Missoula Police Department, for which he now serves as a school resource officer. He got into that position by being one of Missoula’s founding officers for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, the program responsible for brightening the wardrobe of so many slack-ass stoners. Considering the number of drug cases the courts see, I would rather not have someone steeped in the hyperbolic propaganda of D.A.R.E. as the gatekeeper to detention. Vote to retain Orzech.

Finally, the state legislature. There are many good candidates on the ballot but I voted for a party and not a person in these races and the reason is simple. One of the very few things that could derail a second term for Beatle-rifically popular Gov. Schweitzer is an abominable legislative session in 2007. If you give the Republicans a majority in either house of the legislature, you can bet that’s what you’ll get. I would rather see something productive in the 2007 session. Electing Democrats isn’t a guarantee of that but electing Republicans virtually guarantees political posturing instead of policy-making.

That’s all I got. Go vote. Then go volunteer.

The Missoula County City Local Government Study Commission wants to return to partisan elections. As I understand it, an understanding that I was led to by questioning the commissioners about the plan, this would not be a move to partisan primaries. It would simply be a change by which candidates would be required to identify themselves with a political party or declare their independence.

The proposal to return to partisan elections was not a major topic of conversation for the LGSC. It wound up in the recommendations at the last minute, when Bob Oaks spoke up at the conclusion of the March 15, 2006, meeting during which the LGSC’s recommendations were set, after the recommendations had been set, and said, according to the minutes, “When I ran for this [LGSC] I ran on supporting partisan elections. I don’t how to get that on our work plan but would like to try and make it so.” Well, the LGSC carved out some time during an ancillary meeting on April 24, a Monday meeting at an unusual location that attracted two members of the public, one reporter and the cameraman from MCAT in addition to the LGSC members. (By contrast, the March meeting calling for public comment on potential recommendations attracted dozens of people.) According to the minutes of April 24, the LGSC adopted a return to partisan elections recommendation by a 4-3 vote, with the fourth yes vote expressing a good deal of ambivalence about the move. There was hardly a groundswell of support for the partisanship recommendation.

And I can’t say that I see the merit in the proposal. The logic offered by its proponents is two-fold. First, voter participation in municipal elections has declined five percent in the decade since municipal elections went non-partisan on the recommendation of the previous LGSC (which voters endorsed by a two-to-one margin). A return to partisan elections, the logic goes, would increase turnout. Second, the first thing people want to know about a candidate is his or her party affiliation, and people are using the lack of identification to disguise their positions, so candidates should be forced to identify themselves.

The first argument assumes that partisan elections should be the baseline against which non-partisan are judged. Further, it maintains that lower voter turnout is attributable solely to deviation from that baseline and that the observed decline in voter turnout–which I have not been able to verify–is a significant result and not merely statistical static or attributable to, say, antipathy toward politics deriving from a general malaise. It strikes me as specious, logic discovered to support a position that had already been adopted rather than an overwhelming pile of evidence pushing to an evident conclusion.

As for the second argument that people want to know party affiliation and candidates should therefore be required to list one next to their names, it too rests on premises that are not self-evident. Primarily, it assumes that party affiliation is a meaningful label. (I realize that even questioning whether this is so might be heresy to bloggers battling for the soul of the Democratic Party, but I haven’t been one to believe in essences since I decided the voice in my head was just that.) In a two-party system, however, parties are less vehicles for a trenchant ideology than amorphous coalitions trying to be just big enough to get power and hang on to it. Further, I don’t see how anyone who wants to know party identification can’t find it out simply by asking the candidate–they’re in the phone book, after all–unless the person isn’t wondering until they see the names on the ballot for the first time upon showing up in the voting booth. At that point, the political decision-making process has been reduced to product labelling.

So what’s behind those labels? Well, in local politics, there’s a central committee. A return to partisan elections will put a great deal more power in the hands of a very few people involved with the local party organization. Candidates who seek the patronage of the central committees will have significantly greater financial and organizational resources at their disposal. In return, they will owe some allegiance to the central committee. That won’t necessarily be abused, but it certainly opens the opportunity.

Further, requiring partisan identification puts true independents at a significant disadvantage. I would not want to identify myself as a Democrat or Republican if I were to run for city council. It’s not because I don’t have sympathies with one party or another, but because those sympathies change as parties change their priorities. In the past, I have voted for Republicans, Libertarians and Democrats. For the last five years or so, I haven’t had much choice but to support Democrats because the Republicans have careened into religious and ideological fanaticism with disastrous results. But there’s no guarantee that Democrats won’t similarly be corrupted by power if they can stop aborting their attempts to get it. Party identity is fluid over the long term and identifying with a party is an invitation to be carried along by the organization rather than staking out principled grounds and defending them.

Now, if we had an election system like instant runoff voting, in which voting for a less-than-majority ideology didn’t mean supporting an opposite view, I would have less of a problem with partisan elections. Party identity would likely mean a lot more. But with two major parties and a system that offers significant advantage to someone identifying with, and therefore owing allegiance to, one or the other, partisan elections do more to benefit organizational insiders than the public good.

–posted by readbetween

The Missoula City Local Government Study Commission–the woefully conflicted body elected to examine the forms and powers of the city government–has made its recommendations. (Read the insert in the Missoulian for the short, sweet version.) Several of those recomendations are on the ballot on November 7 although some of the most thoughtful and well-reasoned do not take the form of ballot questions, which is why it’s worth looking at the report.

However, with the election coming, the ballot questions are pressing. And the biggest question on the ballot is whether the city council ought to be made up of nine wards instead of six with a single representative from each each instead of the current scheme of double representation. I’m conflicted, but, ultimately, I am voting no.

The main reason is a feeling that we should be conservative in changing the structures of government, being reasonably sure that the consequences have been foreseen as well as possible. The deliberation over this proposal was not thorough; I watched much of it in person. While there was meeting after meeting, there was little actual listening going on. But that’s just process. More importantly, I’m not cure the costs are worth the benefits.

So what are supposed to be the benefits? The primary rationale seems to be that the ratio of citizens to representative will being lower under the new scheme. Doubtless, a lower ratio is preferable but I just don’t see how the difference between representing close to 11,000 and 7,000 people would really lend itself to a much more robust process.

Another advantage of a smaller number of council members relies on social science research to claim that a smaller body would have better group dynamics. I’m skeptical; it seems like the internal dynamics of any particular body has more to do with cohesion and congeniality than exogenous factors like the number of members. Certainly, the LGSC’s own experience as a woefully divided group of seven does not compare favorably with the less tense, though hardly rancorless) council of 12. Also, larger bodies are more likely to have members with some unusual and specific expertise to contribute to the whole. Considering how much work is done in committee, it seems like having a larger number of diverse skills would be an advantage.

Those arguments seem to me to be pretty easy to knock down. Can they really be the reason the LGSC has gone through so much to push the nine ward plan? As I see it, there is a real rationale that has not been plainly stated. Right now, Ward 2 contains both the Northside/Westside and Grant Creek. These are very different neighborhoods with very different needs. They need to be split from one another. Even the Ward 2 councilmen, both from Grant Creek, admit this. But rather than make a recommendation that Council reapportion the wards to account for this, the LGSC went for a wholesale change to the structure of government since this was the only way they could be certain their recommendations would amount to something. In the process, they have introduced features likely to have unintended consequences.

The unintended consequence that concerns me most centers on the enhanced advantage of incumbency in a single-representative system. One of the best things about double representation is that it offers an increased possibility for turnover. Incumbents have a huge advantage in almost any election, and, in municipal elections where name recognition is important, it’s magnified. With one representative per ward, the only way turnover is likely to occur is if the incumbent decides not to run again. With two per ward, there’s a chance every two years that one of the incumbents will let go of power. It is hard enough to get new blood in government; we shouldn’t make it harder without a good reason.

I just don’t see the good reason. And with the process having been such a poor one, making major changes can only serve to increase the bitterness and animosity that came into focus throughout the local government study process. Change should be taken slow, and I don’t see a reason to rush to nine wards.

I’m open to being convinced otherwise, but you’d better do it quick.

–posted by readbetween

Somebody once suggested there is an inverse relationship between the importance of a political issue and the pettiness involved in its disposition. Don’t take my tales of the Missoula City Local Government Study Commission (LGSC) as an argument for the premise, but it could certainly be a data point in the analysis.

The City LGSC–taking care to distinguish it from the county LGSC, to be addressed in a later post–started meeting in late 2004 and, within months, had already descended into contention. In the end, the LGSC wound up with a two-member minority whose work is not going on the ballot. However, understanding the dynamic created by the minority is important to understanding why the majority acted the way that it did.

The minority’s leader is Jane Rectenwald, a sort of passive-aggressive poison pill dead set on replacing the mayor with a city manager. Her main method of argument is faux-humble questioning meant to lead you right to her conclusion. She was a disagreeable presence at most meetings, ignoring responses to her points and continually trying to hijack the process by , for instance, hanging posters declaring the foregone sensibility of her opinion at every meeting, even when it was clear the majority of the LGSC had zero interest in a city manager, having examined the question at some length with outside experts.

And the majority was right to be uninterested. Rectenwald advocated switching to a city manager on the premise that a city manager constitutes professional management and the current administration of the city is unprofessional because it is political. The argument is flawed, and one doesn’t even have to examine the competence of current city administration to debunk it.

Leading a heterogeneous city is inherently political, requiring choices among competing and often incommensurable values. Mayors are elected to make such choices; city managers pledge to be apolitical administrators. That works if there is general consensus on the course the city should be charting. If there are differences, and there are those in Missoula, the city manager will become a focus for discontent. Mayors get zapped for making politically unpopular choices all the time but that’s the design of the political system.
City managers are sworn to be something like municipal eunuchs, excised of political preferences. Simply the accusation of playing politics is enough to ruin a city manager’s career. Anyone who knows Missoula city politics knows such an accusation will not be long in coming.

But Rectenwald never gave up her advocacy of a city manager, even when it became clear the rest of the LGSC wasn’t inclined to concur. In the end, one other member, Alan Ault, joined her in a minority report. His move seemed motivated as much by the increasing animosity on display in the meetings as any strong sense that a city manager would fix the problems Rectenwald maintained were pressing.

Rectenwald did, however, succeed in poisoning the atmosphere of the LGSC so much that the meetings became almost intolerable. As a result, the recommendations that came out of the majority do not appear to be the result of good policy-making but rather a political hatchet job dressed up in some flimsy rhetoric about improving public attitudes toward city government.

Chairwoman Sue Malek deserves the biggest part of the blame for that. Quite simply, Malek was a terrible choice to chair the LGSC; she does not know how to run a meeting in which competing views are aired. As the term of the LGSC wore on, her interactions with Rectenwald turned openly hostile; Malek often interrupted Rectenwald, it appeared, simply because Malek couldn’t stand the sound of Rectenwald’s voice. At one point, the LGSC had to hire a professional facilitator because Malek couldn’t even pretend to fairly chair an important meeting. As a result of her dismal leadership, the minority’s accusations that the majority was just there to railroad policy through took on an increasing appearance of veracity.

Malek’s most egregious offense took place after a group containing majority and minority members of the LGSC got together and wrote an information pamphlet that was mutually agreeable, no small feat considering how uncivil things had become by that point. Malek disbanded the pamphlet-writing committee, recreating it with only members from the majority, producing a document that did nothing but make the majority’s case. She showed contempt for debate, preferring to rig the information in her favor and appearing to fear that the majority’s proposals could not stand up to counter-arguments.

She might be right to fear that. But it is also the case that poor procedures do not necessarily yield poor policy. It might be possible to separate the commissioners from their work and endorse their recommendations regardless. Next up, a look at the LGSC’s main recommendation–rearranging Missoula City Council.

posted by readbetween

Montana’s 1972 constitution is just packed full of interesting provisions–the right to a clean and healthful environment, the right to privacy, or, my favorite, the right to know (“No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions.”).

One unique provision of the constitution allows a city or county to elect, at ten year intervals, a commission to study the form and powers of the government. Sort of like a minature constutuional convention on the local scale, shorn of the powdered wigs and knickers.

In Missoula, both the city and the county elected to have one of these local government study commissions (LGSC) back in 2003. In 2004, the voters picked seven candidates each from two lists of names that I’ll admit to not recognizing a single one of by way of a disclaimer for some of their behavior. And by late 2004, the LGSCs were off on their mission of hearing why people elected to study government and what they want to change. The results are a list of measures on the ballot for next Tuesday.

I followed the LGSCs closer than most people since I’m interested in structural change to political systems and how it can be accomplished. I was just tickled to think I could see it happen in my hometown. Over the next week, I aim to introduce the measures on the ballot along with whatever background info I can give from my observation of the process. As you’ll see, I have strong opinions on some of them and still haven’t made my mind up on others. So maybe some of the locals will have a piece to say.

Oh, and while I’m speaking about bringing up some local Missoula issues, tonight’s the beginning of the West Broadway Charrette process; that’s going to build some kind of consensus about that wide strip of asphalt cleaving one side of downtown Missoula from another. On Thursday, the city takes a look at Russell and Third streets, a topic dear to the blog host (and near to his home). These meetings won’t be your last chance to have a say on what these roads look like but there’s nothing like getting in on the ground floor to make public policy a real romp.

To people embroiled in debate over the great political questions of our day–inequality, civil liberties, perverts in Congress–what shape a road takes might seem like a pretty piddling matter. Well, it’s not. And there are two reasons you should care.

The first is what one of my teachers (Ever notice how students might get a degree but somehow teachers always stay teachers?) calls the Churchill principle: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” The design of a road matters concretely to the quality of life of people as they live it everyday. Build a road designed for big rigs and high volumes and that’s what you’ll get–along with bare sidewalks, occassionally pancaked pedestrians and demand for more big roads. Build a road that’s good for cars and for everything else that could use it and you’ll wind up with not just a better driving experience but also a place that invites people into it. That’s good for commerce. More important, it’s good for community.

People who see each other on sidewalks and bikes interact with one another differently than people sealed inside cars. Building roads that encourage people to leave their cars allows people to see one another as fellow travellers and not just boxy metal impediments to commuting quicker. Believe me, it changes people’s attitudes. I can tell a few stories on that score.

But I promised two reasons you should care about the meeting and I want to get back to it. So, number two, you can make a difference just by showing up. Seriously, there will be maybe one hundred people tops at the meeting tonight and, likely, even fewer on Thursday. So already, you’re one percent of the vote. Not that there will be any voting but there will be plenty of chance to be heard. And that’s hardly like bumping up against billion-dollar corporations and national party machines to have a say.

So, take a moment, my politically-immersed companions, and let the windmills alone for a minute. Your city is making policy.

–Posted by readbetween

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