Go to a public meeting in Whitefish, listen to the boisterous booing and exuberant clapping, see the finger pointing and crying, and it’s clear the city is at a crucial stage with elections looming.
Councilor Shirley Jacobson said she hasn’t seen contentiousness this intense in Whitefish politics since her previous stint as a councilor when she and Chet Hope were ousted by voters in the 2001 elections after a barrage of last-minute negative campaigning, which was later found to be illegal by Montana campaign laws. Jacobson returned to the council in 2005.
She thinks the bickering hurts everybody.
“It’s tough, it’s real tough,” she said. “It takes the focus off the reason you’re doing what you’re doing.”
One of Jacobson’s main concerns, she said, is that the finger-pointing atmosphere – where proponents and opponents of certain issues squabble both outside the council chambers and inside – clouds the issues for the public. She said usually one-third of the population agrees with the council on a given issue, one-third disagrees and one-third is in the middle. The undecided third, she said, deserves adequate breathing room to evaluate the issues.
“These are the ones that this contentiousness sways,” Jacobson said. “These are the ones it hurts, because they don’t know where they stand.”
Much of the tension stems from timing: a controversial critical areas ordinance and a sweeping growth policy are simultaneously coming to a head right before a crowded city council and mayoral election. The results are heated public meetings and widespread political maneuvering.
Now that the growth policy has reached the final stages before adoption, a heavily disputed issue is the two-mile area surrounding Whitefish, often referred to as the “planning doughnut.” At the last growth policy hearing, which was by no means the most heated recent public gathering in Whitefish, a group of people voiced concern over zoning regulations in the doughnut and their lack of representation in city politics.
“If you take a vote out there (where I live),” Jack Silliker said at the meeting, “you’re going down. Leave us alone.”
Tom Thomas said he felt the residents in the doughnut were treated like “second-class citizens.”
“I honestly believe this is America,” he said, “and I believe we have the vote.”
But the supporters were equally passionate, including a speech by a teary-eyed Pat Arnone and a group of others who stood up to thank the city and its various boards for their hard work.
Keith Bogart, who spoke at the hearing, said in a later interview he bought an 8.4-acre piece of land 29 years ago in the doughnut when the land wasn’t zoned. He put a home on it with the intentions of eventually retiring and selling it. Now he’s been retired for more than a year and says he can’t sell his land. He has had a host of interested buyers, but they all back out, he said, because they say they can’t do anything with the land if it’s not commercial. The area where he lives, along U.S. Highway 93 south of Whitefish, is no longer an attractive residential area, he said.
“You people sit there and you have the power to make my life either miserable or you can make it conducive to everybody,” Bogart said of the council, “including those of us who have lived here for years and years. Morally it’s not right. They can do it, but they’re missing the point, I think. The question is: Should they do it?”
“We’re just stuck out here,” he added.
Bogart acknowledged that the proposed growth policy will not change zoning or put him in a worse situation than he is now, but it does nothing to help him or the many others who he said have been stranded by current zoning regulations. They see this policy, he said, as their only chance to change the zoning regulations. He feels many long-time landowners’ retirement plans are being ruined.
The planning doughnut controversy joins a series of issues in Whitefish that have kept the city busy the past few months, including a successful lawsuit against the city; the mayor’s resignation; the formation of an anti-critical areas ordinance group; a formal response to the group by the city council; and a string of eventful, often emotional, council meetings and public hearings.
Turner Askew, who is running for council this election, thinks the council could use some conservative voices for balance. He believes the current council and mayor are liberal and think too much alike to bring fair discussion to issues. Askew said there’s more bickering in city politics now than he’s seen, including when he was a councilor.
“When I served on the council four years ago,” Askew said, “there was diversity on the council. There was an exchange of different viewpoints and discussion of different viewpoints and I fear some of that is lost today. It’s a big election.”
Councilor Nancy Woodruff said she doesn’t view the vocal meetings as signs of contention. Instead, she says it’s a reflection of strong public participation, which is a good thing. The divisiveness, she said, has mostly been manifested by a small group of people and the media. She admitted that the heated issues put the council in a touchy situation, but not one that detracts from meetings and public process.
“I wouldn’t deny that it does put pressure on the council,” she said. “But I don’t see that being manifested in the meetings themselves. There’s a lot of talk going in the press and other venues.”
Woodruff did say recent months have been the most intense of her tenure, but she attributes much of it to the upcoming elections. Overall, she said she’s very pleased with how the growth policy has come along, including the active public participation at hearings.
She hopes the critical areas ordinance process can similarly smooth itself out.
“There’s incredible public engagement,” she said. “We’re doing something different. I’m hopeful things will settle down after the elections and we’ll have a more constructive atmosphere again.”
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