City Councilor Stakeout

By Kellyn Brown

On a dark street in suburban Whitefish, something sinister was underway. A private eye, sipping cheap coffee from a dirty Styrofoam cup, peered through binoculars at a neighborhood window, smirking at the apparent scandal he had uncovered. His eyes slitted, he pulled a cigar from his rumpled trench coat and lit up, the smoke climbing toward the moon. Inside, a young couple stirred.

The sleuth scribbled notes about his piping hot case. The gumshoe biz in the Flathead can be slower than cold molasses, see? This drowsy mountain town, while ripe with gossip, is short on serious scandal – perceived or real. But not this year, not with Whitefish-gate, not with the scene unfolding in front of him. John Muhlfeld (again!) was staying over at his fiancée’s house, which is located outside city limits. Two months earlier, Muhlfeld was elected to city council – garnering the most votes of anyone in the November election – to represent the people of Whitefish. But he’s not sleeping at his home inside the city! Ah-hah!

That accusation – a question of residency involving where a grown man slept – surfaced weeks prior to the private investigation, which inspired my fictional narrative above (I don’t know the sex of the spy nor if he or she drinks coffee or smokes, nor if there was any Tom peeping. I made it up). What’s real is that a detective agency was hired to work undercover on the case, which is about as strange as it gets in the small-town political arena. A lawsuit followed the probe, asking a judge for a temporary restraining order alleging Muhlfeld didn’t actually live in the city he represents and that should prevent him from being sworn in to the council.

A District Court judge promptly denied the request and Muhlfeld, last week, took the oath of office. But the covert happenings in Whitefish, which began as a whisper campaign against the popular councilor and snowballed into a privately funded coup, is evidence of how polarized the city and its suburbs have become. Those who live in the so-called “doughnut” – the expanse surrounding Whitefish where residents are affected by city rules but not allowed to vote for those who make them – have been driven to take drastic measures.

Thus, when a left-leaning candidate was elected whom some suburbanites believed had broken the rules, a private detective entered the picture. And, whatever the subsequent investigation actually entailed, it drums up (for me) images of Columbo, wearing a beige trench coat, smoking and sitting in his 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet convertible outside Muhlfeld’s fiancée’s home.

This case, of course, would be below Columbo’s pay grade. It’s a plot not capable of sustaining a made-for-TV movie. Muhlfeld argued in court that he and his fiancée plan on moving into the home he owns, but his current roommate needed more time to relocate. He pointed out that he still intends on living there and most of his belongings are still there, including his fish. Columbo doesn’t do small fish – ever. He’s far too busy busting legitimate villains.

In the future, private investigators in Whitefish should be used sparingly. In this instance, all the addition of a P.I. provided was a tawdry and paranoid element to an already emotional row. Residents of Whitefish’s outskirts have the right to be upset, but at least one of the council’s first orders of business will be to remedy a very undemocratic taboo: dictation without representation. Mayor Mike Jenson has supported creating townships, which would give doughnut-dwellers a small voice. There is stiff opposition to the idea, but at least some solutions and compromise are being batted around.

Those who can’t vote for the Whitefish City Council, but are affected by its decisions, are not about to stay silent – nor should they. But attacking the issue through public discourse, with the fresh eyes of newly elected officials is infinitely preferable to shady stakeouts of well-meaning public servants. I hope residents on both sides of the doughnut debate iron out their differences. Columbo, after all, has bigger fish to fry.