Kalispell’s Lost Art of Communication

By Kellyn Brown

As the city of Kalispell has stared down unhappy unions, frustrated developers and a budget shortfall, its staff and council have appeared severely out of sync. There’s either a communication gap among these decision-makers, or they have opted to ignore each other.

In late July, when city officials announced that Kalispell Fire Chief Randy Brodehl had retired, it’s unclear who actually knew it was coming. The retirement followed months of speculation in which firefighters were confused about who was in charge, city officials refused to comment on Brodehl’s status and trust had publicly waned between Kalispell and the firefighters’ union.

Two months later, when it became clear that Kalispell’s revenue could not pay for its budget, the ramifications of the shortfall appeared to take the city council by surprise. Mayor Pam Kennedy told City Manager Jim Patrick that she had to read about the Parks and Recreation Department layoffs in the media. Seriously? Nobody told the mayor.

“The council did not say go lay off employees,” Kennedy said at the time. “The council said bring us a plan and so that does concern me.” The city did do a commendable job eventually balancing the budget without cutting more staff, but it would have been easier if the two most important branches of city government had been unified, or at least talking, before making such an important decision.

This lack of communication may have already cost the city money. For years, Kalispell has worked to write up a plan that would require developers to pay impact fees that, in theory, would help pay for infrastructure needed to support additional traffic. But a plan that is still murky has developers, whose projects are in limbo until one is clear, rightfully frustrated.

Additionally, why should they pay the fees when previous builders didn’t have to? Why are they being asked to shoulder more, when the construction economy is stagnant? Why didn’t the city have something in place years ago to take advantage of commercial development when it was at its peak, and before the north side of Kalispell became a commercial hub?

Phil Harris, developer of the Hutton Ranch Plaza, recently argued: “It is totally inappropriate to charge any new impact fee when it was not even in the books to be discussed when the project was conceived.”

He makes a solid point. In many ways, developers can argue that they are now being asked to pay for the city’s mistakes and make up for the fact that its impact-fee plans have been bogged down with little direction. At the same time, developers have sometimes been responsible for slowing down the traffic impact fee deliberation. The silver lining in all of this is that Harris made his case at meeting between city officials and developers, in which both sides spoke candidly about obstacles facing future development and at least agreed to try to work out a solution, possibly phasing in any potential impact fees.

But the problem is that developers had to ask for the meeting, one that should have been held months, if not years, ago and hosted by city officials. Such a meeting also could have been announced and open to the public.

Every city is flush with rivalries and disagreements, and every bureaucracy is gifted at thwarting solutions. But Kalispell city officials could do plenty more to improve their communication skills with both their peers and the public they serve. The decisions city staff suggests and the council votes upon have far-reaching effects. And, no matter the circumstances, not everyone will agree with them.

But when one branch of government isn’t speaking with the other, when layoffs are taking elected officials by surprise, when it’s unclear – for months – who is running the fire department, voters have the right to be worried.

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