In Whitefish, Small-Town Politics Take on a Big-Time Feel

By Beacon Staff

The race is over. Let the healing begin.

That is the sentiment expressed by newly elected Whitefish City Councilor Bill Kahle. In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 election, the Whitefish political landscape had become one of contentiousness, even bitterness at times. It wasn’t necessarily a function of the candidates themselves as much as a product of outside influences, with mailers and interest groups sparking the fire, and public intrigue fanning the flames.

Small-town politics took on a big-time feel. If nothing else, it was obvious many people believed this year’s election was important.

The end result: a thorough makeover for the council. Incumbent Frank Sweeney was voted out, bringing in three fresh faces to the six-member council. Sweeney, who was at the epicenter of the pre-election political wrangling, said he’s “disappointed,” adding that he believes the “negative attacks” might have alienated some voters from the political process. He doesn’t know if he’ll run again in the future.

“We have some healing to do,” Kahle, 41, said. “This was obviously a very contentious race. I don’t want to see this divide our town. As a town, we’re facing some pretty serious issues that require us to come together and work together.”

Kahle, a real estate developer, garnered the second-most votes in the election, which saw four candidates vying for three open seats. Chris Hyatt, a 43-year-old business consultant, was the top vote-getter with 28 percent. Phil Mitchell, 56, nabbed the final seat with 21 percent, slightly more than Sweeney’s 19. Mitchell is a retired businessman. Whitefish, using a mail-in ballot system, had a 42-percent voter turnout.

The new councilors will be sworn in on Jan. 4, 2010. They join Ryan Friel, John Muhlfeld and Turner Askew.

“The people voted more for a change than more of the same,” Mitchell said. “I think it is a dramatic change of direction.”

Among the close observers of the election was Denise Smith, executive director of the Flathead Business and Industry Association. Her group took the unusual step of publicly supporting three candidates – Kahle, Mitchell and Hyatt. Smith believes those three will make the council more business friendly. Overregulation, she contends, has given Whitefish an unwelcoming business climate over the past few years.

“I don’t think they’re going to go in overnight and change all of these regulations and undo what this council has done,” Smith said. “But I think the voters said, ‘Enough is enough. You can’t over-regulate and you have to listen to the people who are your constituents.’”

For critics of the current city council, overregulation has been perhaps their loudest battle cry. Land-use laws such as the critical areas ordinance, as well as the city’s enforcement techniques for laws like the sign ordinance, aren’t conducive to a business-friendly environment, the critics argue.

Yet supporters of the council emphasize the importance of such laws and enforcement to protect the area’s natural resources, as well as the city’s charm. Sweeney, as the only incumbent in the election, became the poster child for the current council during this election and, as incumbents often are, was targeted.

Whitefish area residents Rick Blake and Tim Grattan sent out mailers to voters calling on them to vote against Sweeney. One mailer, accusing Sweeney of “power-mad extremism,” ended with: “Defeat Frank Sweeney. Vote for Hyatt, Mitchell and Kahle.”

Kahle, who called Sweeney to distance himself from the third-party mailers, said at the time: “There’s not a place for that kind of rhetoric in a municipal election, particularly because I think it was unjustified.”

When the new councilors take office in January, several big issues will await them. First off, all three agree that finding representation for the so-called “doughnut” people is a top priority, with Kahle saying it’s “probably the most pressing issue we’re going to face.” Whitefish and Flathead County have squabbled in court over who has jurisdiction over a roughly two-mile area surrounding Whitefish called the “planning doughnut.”

Currently, Whitefish has authority, but questions remain on how to best govern a population outside of city limits. The new councilors believe better communication lines must be opened up with county officials.

“One of the things I’ve been very adamant about from the beginning is that we need to find representation for them,” Hyatt said. “If we can’t find representation, then we need to send them back to the county.”

“I will champion that cause,” he added.

Mitchell said the city needs to work harder at solving disputes without litigation, calling lawsuits “a last resort.” Whitefish has been involved in several lawsuits in recent years, including the doughnut litigation with the county and a legal tussle with Mrs. Spoonover’s ice cream parlor over the sign ordinance.

Also, the Montana Supreme Court recently upheld a district court decision against Whitefish, ruling that the city violated a couple’s right to equal protection under the law after the city denied the couple a building exemption permit for a house on Whitefish Lake. The city must pay $440,000.

“I know (people) are tired of lawsuits,” Mitchell said. “I think they’re fed up with that.”

Whatever the legacy of the current council turns out to be, Kahle said it’s time to focus on moving forward.

“The city of Whitefish has asked for change and they’ve gotten it with three new faces on the council,” Kahle said.

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