As the city of Whitefish seeks to address a dilemma involving nearly 5,000 disenfranchised residents on the outskirts of town, City Attorney John Phelps believes the best option, while unprecedented and complex, is to change the city’s charter to give those residents a voice in city government.
Whitefish has changed its charter only twice since 1981.
At a Jan. 22 city council meeting, Phelps presented councilors with what he feels are the city’s three main options in dealing with the representation controversy: pursuing a change in state legislation, annexing selected areas of the doughnut or changing the city charter. A charter change could give an undetermined number of council seats to residents from the doughnut. In the interest of time, feasibility and fairness, Phelps thinks the charter change is the best option, though he said it would be a difficult process.
“Right now it holds the most hope,” he said.
Phelps is wary of annexation because it tends to bring its own controversy and troubles. Meanwhile, pursuing a change in state legislation, as has been offered by Rep. Mike Jopek, D-Whitefish, is ambiguous and potentially drawn-out. The process wouldn’t start until the 2009 Legislature and even then there’s no guarantee any amendment would pass.
“With an amendment to the state law, the Legislature could change the whole way local government works,” Phelps said. “But you’re basically turning (state law) upside down and we’re the only ones asking for it. It would be very difficult.”
Before pursuing a charter change, Phelps said two things need to happen. First, city officials need to gather input from doughnut residents to gauge their feelings. That could come in the form of a poll, an open house or a network of neighborhood planning groups. Second, he said he wants to talk to the Montana attorney general’s office and eventually pursue a formal opinion from Attorney General Mike McGrath, which, if granted, would have the effect of state law. Until the city gets more feedback from doughnut residents, Phelps said there’s not much he can do.
“For now, I’m pretty much on hold,” he said.
Since the original city charter was adopted in 1981, Phelps said it has only been tweaked twice: in 1985 and 2006. The most recent was a change to extend the mayor’s term from two years to four years, a relatively small amendment. The basic framework has remained the same since 1981. A reshuffling of the entire city representation format would be a substantially larger project, he said.
“It would require us to amend several different provisions,” Phelps said. “With the mayor, we just crossed out two years and put in four.”
According to state law, if the attorney general approves a request for a written opinion, the opinion is then completed and sent back to the requestor within three months unless the issue is complex enough to require additional time. Lynn Solomon of the attorney general’s office said the request process is difficult. The request, a formal question of law, must be accompanied by a legal memorandum, which requires significant research in order to describe necessary legal points and the requestor’s own conclusion on the question.
“This isn’t a question that can just be whipped out,” Solomon said.
The council discussed Phelps’ suggestions at the Jan. 22 meeting. The idea of holding an informal open house to allow residents the opportunity to talk directly to councilors was popular. Also, Mayor Mike Jenson raised the possibility of forming neighborhood planning groups to encourage face-to-face dialogue. But he wants the council to decide what it wants first, which could happen as early as the Feb. 4 meeting.
“I’m not going to start that dialogue without council consensus,” Jenson said.
Also, Whitefish Councilor Shirley Jacobson said she discussed the representation issue with doughnut residents, which prompted her to suggest: “Maybe we should give them back to the county.” Before the 2005 inter-local agreement that gave the city jurisdiction over the doughnut area, the county had final say on land-use decisions.
Now that the issue is formally in the sights of city officials, Phelps doesn’t expect it to die down until action is taken.
“It’s one of those things that once you start it,” he said, “if you’re going to bring up the issue you’re going to have to follow through.”
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