Entering Whitefish City Politics

By Beacon Staff

While the candidates are quick to distance themselves from such arrangements, it is clear that many people are dividing this year’s Whitefish City Council election into two camps: incumbent Frank Sweeney on one side and the three remaining candidates on the other side.

In recent weeks, mailers were sent out taking swipes at Sweeney and calling on people to vote for Bill Kahle, Phil Mitchell and Chris Hyatt. Incumbent Nick Palmer will also be on this year’s ballot, but he has withdrawn from the race. The four remaining candidates are vying for three seats on the six-member council.

The mailer, sent out by Grouse Mountain Lodge developer Tim Grattan, drew criticism for targeting Sweeney and creating more divisiveness in an already sensitive election. But the mailer is only one reflection of efforts to break the candidates into two groups. Further evidence can be found in political action committees and chatter on the street.

“To lump us together for political reasons, I think is inappropriate,” Kahle, who contacted Sweeney to separate himself from the mailer, said. “It unfairly characterizes the election, frankly.”

Sweeney echoes Kahle and points out that the grouping doesn’t appropriately reflect the candidates’ individual beliefs. Hyatt, at a question-and-answer forum, reminded that he is an “independent person” and Mitchell has outlined a distinctly independent platform as well.

“If you look at the actual positions, I don’t think there’s that kind of a divide,” Sweeney said.

On the surface, the pitting of Sweeney against the other candidates is yet another commentary on the ongoing debate over how regulatory the city council should be. Critics of the current council, of which Sweeney is a member, describe policies enacted over the past several years as overly regulatory. But supporters scoff at this notion.

“You’d have to level the same criticism at the county or Kalispell,” Sweeney said. “Councils are responsible for enacting ordinances; it’s one of their jobs. You could make that argument about anybody or everybody.”

Denise Smith of the Flathead Business and Industry Association cautions against breaking public sentiment into “conservative versus liberal.” She said, in some cases, it’s a matter of “long-term residents versus newcomers,” though that applies to the discussions she’s had with her organization’s members rather than the candidates themselves.

Both the FBIA and its PAC, Smith said, are supporting Kahle, Hyatt and Mitchell, who has been outspokenly critical of the current council. Smith interviewed those three candidates and not Sweeney. Montana Conservation Voters has endorsed Sweeney. Smith said it’s unusual for her group to support so many candidates, but this election her members felt all three candidates reflected their business values.

“It’s not typical to come out in full support of all of them, but we’re doing it this time because that’s what our members want us to do,” Smith said.

A major talking point heading into the election is the city’s handling of a downtown streetscape project that broke ground on Third Street in September. The council has defended its decision to move forward with the project, arguing that there was ample time for public input during the several-year planning process. City officials have used the terms “11th hour” and “blindsided” to describe the late movement against the project.

Critics point to a petition that garnered more than 600 signatures against the project and another petition that garnered more than 70 signatures from downtown business owners and merchants in opposition. Smith said the “streetscape is huge” with her members. There’s a general feeling that a new council might take another look at the project.

Palmer, who was initially going to run for re-election, announced his withdrawal from the race after the city voted in August to move forward with awarding a contract for the first two phases of the streetscape project. Palmer and Askew voted against the contract.

Whitefish is no stranger to rhetoric and controversy when it comes to its city politics. While elections transpire with hardly a peep in Columbia Falls, and a bit louder of a peep in Kalispell, Whitefish residents like to get active. Multiple groups send out questionnaires and hold forums, and the voter rate is high. Election season usually stirs up emotion.

But even for Whitefish’s standards, this year’s election seems to be especially contentious. The mailer, in particular, ruffled feathers. Grattan explained his motivation for sending out the mailer by saying that he believes the current council has taken a “real hard swing towards, in my view, stopping or slowing or discouraging growth.”

Like many other people, Grattan used the critical-areas ordinance, a land-use law, as the poster child for the regulatory debate. But most who were angered by the mailer were more concerned about the attacks on Sweeney than the attacks on city regulations. In one part, the mailer links Sweeney to “power-mad extremism” in reference to his voting record. It ends by saying, “Defeat Frank Sweeney. Vote for Hyatt, Mitchell and Kahle.”

“There’s not a place,” Kahle said, “for that kind of rhetoric in a municipal election, particularly because I think it was unjustified.”

Another pre-election controversy that surfaced was a phone survey paid for by the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors. NMAR hired a Washington D.C.-based organization to conduct surveys “to better understand the issues facing the citizens” of the Flathead Valley. The Washington group subcontracted the assignment out to an organization that used questioners based in Fargo, N.D.

Several residents who were polled said the interviewers misrepresented or refused to divulge who hired them. Whitefish City Attorney John Phelps sent a letter to the polling company requesting forthrightness. After NMAR was identified as the hiring agent, John Sinrud, government affairs director for NMAR, said Phelps told him the poll was fine. The same survey, Sinrud said, was conducted in Kalispell without issue.

“There’s no way on God’s green earth you could look at this poll and say it’s impugning the city of Whitefish,” Sinrud said.

After the controversy got back to the polling company, Sinrud said two employees lost their jobs, though he couldn’t say for sure if there was a connection. Sinrud, who said NMAR isn’t “supporting or opposing candidates anywhere,” said the fallout from the survey was regrettable.

“It was just very unfortunate,” Sinrud said.

If nothing else, the clamor is an indication of the election’s significance in the community’s eyes. Askew, who is viewed as the most conservative councilor, believes changes are in store.

“This is a very important election,” Askew said.

Mail-in ballots in Whitefish go out on Oct. 14 and are due by Nov. 3.

Related: Whitefish City Council Candidates Q & A