Commentary: Admirable Arguments in Whitefish

By Beacon Staff

All eyes are on Whitefish city government. Council meetings attract large crowds where people cry, shout and accuse the city of totalitarianism. Lawns around town are dotted with campaign signs. A spat between the councilors and a county commissioner has spilled over onto the editorial pages. An election is approaching and everyone knows it.

We could all could learn a thing or two from the resort town’s apparent divisiveness.

Call Whitefish anything but uninformed, uninvolved or inattentive. The tense environment at the city council meetings is just one indication to the contrary, so is the loaded field of candidates running for council and mayoral seats. Seven vie for three spots on the council; three hope to be mayor.

It’s hard to know an election is approaching in Columbia Falls or Kalispell. There are no campaign signs, little passion and only a handful of challenged seats. In Columbia Falls, three incumbents are running unopposed. For Kalispell’s four open seats, only two are being challenged. Surely, city council elections matter more than each city’s docile mood indicates. Surely, not everyone agrees with every decision these councils have made. Yet public participation is, to say the least, unenthusiastic.

This apparent apathy could be, in part, because most citizens are relatively indifferent to the direction of each of these respective cities. They shrug, hoping to keep the status quo. But where are those who showed up at Kalispell planning board meetings furious over an approved subdivision, or those in Columbia Falls who thought city money would be better spent on roads than a public park? They must be out there, somewhere, still fuming.

Maybe their complaints weren’t enough to entice supporters to rally around a new candidate, which is a shame. Even if the majority of voters are pleased with their public officials, fielding an opponent at least shines a brighter light on the issues affecting our Flathead Valley cities and raises public discourse.

I live in Kalispell, yet I know exactly what’s at stake in the Whitefish city elections: a growth policy that includes a two-mile “planning doughnut” which gives that city jurisdiction over land outside its limits; a Critical Area Ordinance that has already lost a court challenge. I know about these issues because supporters and opponents have been vocal in their views before the Whitefish City Council – and candidates for Whitefish office have been pressed about their views on each.

In a recent interview, Whitefish Councilor Shirley Jacobsen said, “The contentiousness here is just awful. Just awful.” It may be awful, but isn’t the alternative just as bad: a city where no one is paying much attention at all.

A friend of mine who lives in Whitefish told me that candidate representatives have actually knocked on his door asking for support in the upcoming election. Many in Kalispell, including myself, would have a hard time naming which city councilors are even being challenged this year. Where are the signs? Fliers? How can we differentiate between candidates?

Life here and in Columbia Falls is apparently peachy. I suppose I have few complaints, but I wonder whether that’s a manifestation of good public policy or my own ignorance. As we in Kalispell and C-Falls yawn through two elections, in Whitefish many voters are wide-eyed and eager to drill candidates about pertinent issues.

Who, exactly, is better off?