Long before the trees begin changing colors, the arrival of fall in Whitefish is announced emphatically in the “Letters to the Editor” and “Opinion” sections of local newspapers.
As has become tradition during election season, August and September bring pages of political opinions in Whitefish, with civically active community members engaging in the type of heated discourse not typically found in towns of fewer than 10,000 people with volunteer city councils.
Even back in July, a bipartisan letter signed by five notable residents pleaded for a clean race that focuses on the issues. Among the five names were Bob Brown, a former secretary of state and Republican legislator, and former Democratic Sen. Dan Weinberg.
“Divisive, disrespectful, and inaccurate information about opponents have no place in our community,” the letter stated.
To what degree their advice has been heeded is an open question, though skimming a sampling of letters since then, one runs into words such as “mean-spirited,” “outright lies,” “distasteful,” “shameful” and “dirty politics.” And that’s just from August. The November council and mayor elections are still months away.
After the 2009 election, one of the three winning councilors, Bill Kahle, lamented: “We have some healing to do.”
“I don’t want to see this divide our town,” Kahle added.
During that election, Mayor Mike Jenson wrote a letter echoing a much-discussed concern in which he suggested that the contentiousness discourages people from running for office. Yet, here in 2011, six candidates are vying for three seats on the six-member council, compared to four candidates in 2009.
Even Frank Sweeney, who expressed doubt that he would run again after losing the 2009 race in which he was the subject of highly publicized mailers, has thrown his hat into the ring. But Sweeney said he and other candidates he has spoken with enter with some trepidation.
“The people I’ve talked to in the race all expressed to me that they were approaching it very gingerly and approaching it with a cautious approach with what went on in the last election,” Sweeney said last week. “They think we really don’t need that in this town.”
“I clearly had hoped – and do hope – that we can have a different tenor as we get into this election,” he added, “and talk about what the issues are and solutions are instead of attacking someone individually.”
One of the central figures in the last election was Rick Blake, a wealthy philanthropist who spent over $13,000 of his own money – more than any other group or individual – on political material such as advertisements and mailers. Blake lent his support to the three winning candidates – Phil Mitchell, Chris Hyatt and Bill Kahle – while criticizing Sweeney.
Blake, who garnered both vocal opponents and supporters, was ruled to be operating within state ethics laws, though his actions, in part, prompted a public meeting with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices to discuss ethics in small-town politics.
Two elections ago, Blake challenged Councilor John Muhlfeld’s residency in court. A judge ruled against Blake. Muhlfeld, still a councilor, is currently running against fellow Councilor Turner Askew for mayor.
This year, Blake and Sweeney are again sparring publicly. In a letter, Blake accused Sweeney of supporting “divisive, heavy-handed laws” and declared: “Mr. Sweeney would love to muzzle me. No chance.”
Blake was responding to an earlier opinion piece written by former Councilor Nancy Woodruff who referenced Blake’s past actions. Woodruff said the “last two elections were characterized by mean-spirited, personal attacks.”
“We are too small of a community for this not to tear us apart,” she wrote. “And frankly, the dollars spent and tactics used seem out of line for a volunteer position in a small town.”
In a recent editorial, Sweeney addressed Blake and said “you … have brought unprecedented, dirty politics to Whitefish’s election and it’s time you own up to your deeds.”
Last week, in an email to the Beacon, Blake said he plans, using his own money, “to be active again this fall,” including a survey he will send to all candidates “soon.” While his critics accuse Blake of fostering contentiousness, he counters that, in fact, by supporting three candidates last election who don’t promote “bitter, divisive regulations that tear apart our community,” Whitefish is now less divided.
“We are on the way to healing,” he said.
One opinion piece from late August penned by Councilor Phil Mitchell appears to have implications for the current council. Reacting to a Whitefish Pilot letter titled “Endorsements for the ‘Whitefish Way,’” Mitchell lampooned the letter writers and their supporters, writing that they should “get out of Whitefish’s way.”
The first letter, signed by 12 Whitefish residents, endorsed Muhlfeld for mayor and Sweeney and Richard Hildner for council. Those three candidates, the letter stated, will promote the “Whitefish way,” defined as placing high priority on access to outdoors and a strong downtown, among other characteristics.
In an interview last week, Mitchell said he believed one line in the letter that discusses unnamed people who support “sprawl” and undermining “the health of our downtown” was directed at him and Askew.
Mitchell said he was “very sad” to see that Mayor Jenson signed the letter. He intended to discuss the matter publicly at the Sept. 6 council meeting.
“Everything we’ve done over the last two years he has basically trashed,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think that’s how you treat fellow council members if they don’t get their way.”
He added: “I will not be talking to Mike anymore unless it’s in a public forum.”
Jenson could not be reached for comment before the Beacon went to press.
Mitchell criticized the “Whitefish way” as being over-regulatory and harmful to economic growth while causing cash shortages for the city. In his letter, he mentioned Muhlfeld, Sweeney and Hildner by name, but not Jenson.
Asked if feuding publicly with the mayor and calling out a fellow councilor would make meetings awkward until a new council takes over in January, Mitchell said he doesn’t believe so, though he plans to hold Jenson and fellow councilors “accountable for the next four months.”
“Damn right I am – I’m done playing nice guy,” Mitchell said.
Along with Sweeney and Hildner, the other council candidates running in November’s election are Doug Wise, Mary Vail, John Anderson and Life Noell. Wise said candidates can’t allow themselves to get caught up in the opinion pages.
“We can’t control what happens outside our realm,” he said. “There are people with emotional attachments to this city. What’s great about this country is they can voice their opinions.”
Wise believes the early chatter will begin morphing into focused discussion on issues as the election nears. Ultimately, “we all have to work together,” Wise said.
“I think that’s key here,” he said. “The guys way on the left and way on the right, it doesn’t matter – it’s compromise. No matter who gets elected, you have to work together.”
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