Retired Whitefish Councilor Sees Political Civility Decline

By Beacon Staff

Shirley Jacobson, after nearly a decade as a Whitefish city councilor, is ready to enjoy time with her grandkids and leave behind the long meetings and seemingly endless stacks of paperwork.

Not to mention, her retirement is a welcome reprieve from what she describes as an increasingly hostile and contentious political environment that has escalated locally in recent years. Jacobson said the political atmosphere today in the Flathead, and particularly Whitefish, is far different from what she saw when she first took office in 1999.

Jacobson, a popular councilor, said civil dialogue too often breaks down into name-calling and even threats. More people, she believes, are complaining for the sake of stirring the pot. She points to both special interest groups such as the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors and individual residents who bring negativity – especially through letters to the editor – instead of constructive conversation.

“It’s hard on Whitefish,” she said. “It was getting more and more difficult for me to sit there and listen to them.”

“I don’t know why this is happening,” she added.

Jacobson makes it clear that she would have happily finished out her term, which has one year left, if her son and his family hadn’t recently returned to town. The political environment, she said, “isn’t the reason I’m leaving at all.”

After Jacobson announced that she would retire at the end of 2008, several people stepped forward to vie for her seat. At a work session on Jan. 5, the remaining councilors interviewed three candidates: John Murdock, Fred Jones and Frank Sweeney. Later in the evening at a regularly scheduled public meeting, the councilors chose Sweeney with a 4-1 vote.

Sweeney, an attorney, was previously the chairman of the Whitefish City-County Planning Board. He has also been involved in a number of other volunteer positions, including with the Trail Runs Through It group in Whitefish and the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people.

“I want to participate,” Sweeney said. “I think it’s your responsibility if you’re going to complain about something, you need to step up and do something. If I want to have a voice I might as well step up and have a full voice.”

Jacobson said perhaps the most pressing issue Sweeney will encounter right off the bat is the well-documented and ongoing legal dispute between Flathead County and Whitefish. The tussle essentially boils down to the two sides trying to come to an agreement regarding who has jurisdictional authority over a roughly two-mile area – the planning “doughnut” – outside of Whitefish city limits.

Sweeney has already found himself in the middle of the disagreement, as he owns property directly on the city limit line on Lost Coon Lake. He was previously a county resident but in October, upon his request, the city annexed his property.

Part of the reason he asked to be annexed, Sweeney said, was so he would be eligible for a council position. He said the primary reason, though, was because he found himself in the position of having to decide what government he should answer to, so he went ahead and made the call.

“If I’ve got to choose who’s going to govern what happens on our property, I choose our neighbors and our friends in the city,” Sweeney said.

Councilor Turner Askew cast the lone dissenting vote against Sweeney at the Jan. 5 meeting. Askew said he favored Jones, the former president and CEO of Whitefish Mountain Resort, because of his experience in handling finances. Along with his position at the resort, Jones also served on the planning commission and city council in Park City, Utah.

Askew said he spoke with Sweeney and assured him the decision wasn’t personal.

“I just thought at this point in time we needed someone with a financial background as opposed to a lawyer,” Askew said.

As for Jacobson, she said it would behoove disgruntled residents to do their research and take part in the whole political process before simply showing up at city council meetings: “There’s nothing wrong with people putting their opinions out there, as long as they know what the issue is.” By the time the council is ready to vote on something, she reminds, the political ball has already been rolling for a while.

“There are squeaky wheels out there, then they step back and watch the sparks fly,” Jacobson said.

With that said, Jacobson is ready to relax with her family.

“It’s time to just enjoy life a little bit,” Jacobson said.