Builders and Realtors Increase Political Clout

By Beacon Staff

In response to what they perceive as an increasingly regulatory environment for development, groups such as the Montana Association of Realtors and the Montana Building Industry Association are ramping up their political activity to unprecedented levels. A growing number of these organizations’ local chapters have staff employees who are now paid to attend government meetings, lobby for or against proposed laws and report back to special government affairs committees.

The Flathead Valley is leading the political charge, particularly with the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors, which publicly questioned the contract and salary of Whitefish City Attorney John Phelps last week. Local officials aren’t always enthused with the political meddling.

Last October, NMAR hired a new government affairs director, George Culpepper Jr. He is a full-time staff member. Nearly anyone who frequently attends local government meetings, particularly in Whitefish and at the county level, has seen Culpepper. Sometimes he’s there just jotting down notes to take back to the NMAR government affairs committee and board of directors, while other times he addresses proposed laws and policies. He is, in essence, a localized lobbyist.

“We view that politics is an investment too,” Culpepper said.

Last week, Culpepper expanded his political influence when he was appointed to the Flathead County planning board.

For NMAR, Culpepper is a way to keep checks and balances on local governments. For some local officials, he’s a thorn in their side, something Culpepper himself acknowledges. He said: “You have to have thick skin for this job.” Meanwhile, Denise Smith of the Flathead Business and Industry Association is also active in the local political scene, as is Charles Lapp, who is a part-time employee of the Flathead Building Association.

Katie Chamberlain, executive director of the building association, said Lapp’s part-time position has existed for two years. The group is currently creating a full-time government affairs job similar to Culpepper’s. There have been 35 applicants and Chamberlain hopes to have someone in place by the end of the year. Among the applicants is County Commissioner Gary Hall, who finished his term in January.

After the new employee begins, Chamberlain said she will also push to “mobilize” a team of 20 to 30 volunteers who will attend meetings as well. Their influence will extend throughout Northwest Montana.

“As a group we’re becoming larger and stronger,” Chamberlain said.

The increased political activity of these groups has been making waves recently. In one example, the MBIA filed a lawsuit against Flathead County disputing the county’s subdivision regulations. The local building association, NMAR and the state’s Realtors group supported the litigation.

Also, Culpepper has sparred with Whitefish officials in several instances, including at a city council meeting last week. For weeks leading up to the meeting, NMAR requested a series of documents concerning City Attorney Phelps. Culpepper referred to these concerns in the public comment portion of the meeting and then later on the councilors harshly rebuked him while dismissing his allegations of an improper contract for Phelps.

Councilors had also reacted angrily when NMAR’s board of directors requested documents regarding the critical areas ordinance from previous City Manager Gary Marks earlier this year. In an interview, Councilor Nancy Woodruff said NMAR’s tactics teeter on the line of personal attacks, not professional dialogue, and she questioned the motives for going after Phelps. NMAR also has had similar document exchanges with the city of Polson. Culpepper insisted his organization’s actions are in the name of business.

“This never is personal and this is never about attacking someone,” Culpepper said.

Woodruff described NMAR’s political methods as “mean” and disruptive to the political process.

“I don’t find it appropriate for them to target particular individual staff members,” Woodruff said. “I think all their political engagements should be with the council and I don’t think they should be going after employees we’ve hired. They should come to us.”

She mentioned a possible political motive for bringing the Phelps issue, and others, to public attention.

“I suspect they’re looking forward to the next council election,” Woodruff said. “I think it’s all about politics. They’re trying to build a case and build some public sentiment.”

Glenn Oppel, government affairs director for the state’s Realtors association in Helena, said Culpepper is one of six local government affairs directors in the state. Associations in Great Falls, Helena, Missoula, Bozeman and Billings have equivalents to Culpepper. Overall the MAR has 14 local chapters. Flathead is by far the biggest with 1,100 fee-paying members.

Oppel said it’s necessary for his association to be “proactive about monitoring and influencing the local decision-making process.” Part of it, he said, is keeping an eye on newly proposed laws, while the other responsibility is making sure municipalities properly carry out existing laws. Oppel said the Realtors Political Action Committee (RPAC) is the second-largest business PAC in the state.

In the Flathead, NMAR actively supported Jim Dupont, the winner, in the county commission race. Hall, the incumbent who lost to Dupont, said he feels these groups “definitely had an influence in the election,” but holds no grudge. He generally thinks their political participation is healthy and promotes “accountability” for local governments. Hall, however, acknowledges that the “relationship is strained at times.”

Overall, NMAR is the most politically active Realtors association in the state, Oppel said, but added: “There’s basically a blueprint for all of these local associations that bring on government affairs officers.”

“We employ a lot of tools in our government affairs functions,” he said.

Dustin Stewart, executive director of MBIA, said his association’s lawsuit against Flathead County is in response to what he considers a growing trend of “over-regulation” that limits the progress of development. Referring to how the other groups joined the lawsuit, Stewart said development and construction organizations often band together, at both the local and state level.

Stewart said as of last week there were already 92 development-related bills expected to be discussed at the 2009 Legislature. He believes the number will grow to more than 150. Stewart is gearing up to not only lobby against many of those bills, but to also bring forward three bills favorable to his organization regarding subdivision regulations, workers compensation and impact fees. Stewart thinks the number of land-use bills is excessive.

“That’s an overwhelming burden,” Stewart said. “And quite frankly it’s ridiculous.”

The Montana Association of Realtors first employed a full-time government affairs director in 2001, Oppel said. Flathead was the first to do the same on a local level in 2002. There were two predecessors to Culpepper, who previously held a similar position for a local Realtors group in Colorado as well as the top state position in Washington. He regularly attends meetings in several counties from Saint Ignatius to Eureka, including the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Culpepper said NMAR’s board of directors has explicitly asked him to be more heavily involved in local politics lately. Look for that trend to continue right up until the 2009 local elections, when a number of important city council positions will be available throughout the valley. About the elections, he said firmly: “We will be involved.”

“Montana is pretty young in terms of political involvement (for Realtors), but they’re on their way,” he said. “And the political involvement isn’t going to stop.”

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