In Shift to the Right, Voters Choose Newcomers

By Beacon Staff

A few days after an Election Day that saw incumbent elected officials across the United States unseated, Tammi Fisher, the 33-year-old local attorney and next mayor of Kalispell, felt her new obligations and responsibilities setting in.

“I’m kind of hell-bent on hitting the ground running,” she said.

In her first run for elected office, Fisher defeated incumbent Mayor Pam Kennedy handily on Nov. 3, winning 63 percent of the vote, according to the final, unofficial results of the Flathead County Election Department.

Upon learning that she would not be serving a third term, Kennedy called it, “a tough year to be an incumbent.”

“Mayors across the United States have been losing this year and it seems as though many have been blamed for the national economy,” Kennedy said.

With the economy in the Flathead still struggling, Fisher’s victory was among several others throughout the valley, particularly in Whitefish, that saw candidates running on pro-business platforms swept into office. In Kalispell’s Ward 2, newcomer Jeff Zauner unseated incumbent Hank Olson, a fixture in local Flathead politics for decades. Out of the three contested races in Kalispell, Ward 3’s Jim Atkinson, who has served on the council since 1988, was the only incumbent who managed to hang onto his seat, narrowly defeating newcomer Marc Rold, 352-300.

“The winds of change were blowing pretty hard,” Atkinson said. “The economy accounted for a great deal of it.”

Atkinson surveyed the results of elections across the country and across the valley and concluded many voters likely said to themselves, “I’m upset with the government from the national level on down; the only thing I have to say about it is my vote.”

“If that’s the case, I don’t know why in the world I’m still there,” he added. “I’m real pleased the voters deemed me valuable enough to stay on.”

Although council seats are nonpartisan, if their campaigns are any measure, the addition of Fisher and Zauner moves the ideological composition of Kalispell City Council a notch or two to the right. The council’s more conservative members, Ward 4’s Tim Kluesner and Ward 1’s Bob Hafferman, (who faced no challengers in this election), could see more council decisions swinging in their favor.

Recent votes like the adoption of the current city budget and the adoption of transportation impact fees faced stiff resistance from Kluesner and Hafferman. Having two more council members agreeing with them on important votes could increase the pressure on the council’s moderate members to swing those decisions one way or the other.

As for what issues the council will be tackling, Fisher is already drawing up a list for when she begins in January, and said she is focused on “making my vision clear and setting up some goals that will help me bring my vision into reality.”

Fisher plans to set up a “citizen task force,” to begin reviewing the overall city budget and the individual departments, to “see where the money is going and where it’s gone,” and to offer the mayor and council advice on “where we can cut the fluff.” This task force would be made up of “business owners, government workers, non-government workers, taxpayers from across the board,” Fisher said, to go through the budget, “line-by-line and get some responsible answers from department heads.”

To comprise this task force, Fisher intends to solicit applications from the community, review the applications and make appointments based on those applications.

Fisher also plans to revisit the lease of Kalispell City Hall, which is done through a New York firm for a dollar a year in order to lock in a fixed rate on payments. The city hall lease arrangement was a key part of Fisher’s campaign, repeatedly questioning whether Kalispell really owns the building.

“I don’t want New York involved in my city hall,” Fisher said. “We need to look at that structure and see what we can do without penalty in getting out of that lease agreement.”

The improvement, reconfiguration and possible runway expansion of the city airport has also become a prominent issue recently with the formation of a community group questioning the necessity of the changes. Fisher said she is open to making necessary improvements to the airport while remaining skeptical of runway expansion – but she is wary of accepting federal dollars.

“I’m very cautious when someone wants to throw money at you,” she said. “There’s always a consequence and I would want to be very clear about what those consequences would be.”

Fisher asserted during her campaign that the city’s transportation impact fee policy was based on flawed data, and needs to be revisited as well, a move in line with doing anything and everything to draw business and development to Kalispell and stimulate the economy. That includes preparing downtown for the imminent construction of the U.S. 93 bypass.

“What do we need to do to ensure that the bypass has a beneficial effect on our downtown area?” Fisher said. “We need to reach out to potential development and say, ‘This is a great spot.’”

She is also considering auctioning off on eBay.com a series of bronze statues commissioned for the intersection of U.S. 93 and Highway 2, depending on the city’s contractual obligations to the sculptor. It’s a move, she said, that would “set a clear standard from here forward we’re not going to be looking at these types of expenditures in the city government.”

When asked whether her involvement as an attorney in ongoing litigation against Flathead County over the Lakeside Neighborhood plan could make for future conflicts of interest, Fisher asserted that it would not, and she would maintain a clear boundary between her legal practice and her mayoral responsibilities.

“My commitment to my community is the same as to my clients,” Fisher said. “I will continue to remedy the wrongs to my clients and I will continue to remedy the wrongs to my community.”

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