In 2005, less than a quarter of Whitefish voters went to the polls for city elections. By 2007, Whitefish held a mail-in election and turnout more than doubled. Compared to Kalispell, where one in ten locals voted, the 2007 Whitefish turnout was a wild success.
In the 2007 election, hydrologist John Muhlfeld bested a commercial real-estate broker, Turner Askew, by the wide margin of 1141 to 692 votes. Both businessmen are frugal stewards of the public dollar and can keep taxes down. And both currently serve on the Whitefish City Council. This fall they face off in the biggest race in the Flathead, for the mayor of Whitefish.
The 2007 and 2009 Whitefish elections were ugly to watch. Real estate speculators spent gobs of campaign cash to muddy a clean-water debate. But water belongs to the people and is viewed by most locals as a precious resource still worthy of protection.
In fact, Whitefish remains one of but a handful of cities across Montana that still acquires its drinking water from the surface. Most towns drill wells, but Whitefish chose in the 1990s to maintain an abundant and clean surface water system from Haskill Basin and Whitefish Lake.
Whitefish is successful because people still believe that it is a local’s town. Old-timers and newcomers have been through “thick and thin” to balance that Whitefish character where locals can work hard and enjoy the great outdoors, raise a family and grow a small business.
Montana has a long history of high voter turnout, topping states across the nation. But in the 2010 election, turnout plummeted statewide, with Whitefish-proper participation well below state average.
And as the subsequent Montana Legislature so aptly portrayed, low turnout often benefits the fanatical fringe. To mitigate the Legislature’s insular dogma, Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed nearly 90 bills, many with his red-hot branding iron.
Fringe politics thrives with low voter turnout. As former Congressman Pat Williams recently articulated in a column, “Low voter turnouts and lack of reasonable stability in our political choices are dangerous for America both here at home and certainly abroad.”
Earlier this year, Councilor Askew voted against mail-in ballots, while Muhlfeld backed them. Whitefish voters will receive ballots in the mail by mid-October.
In a news story announcing his candidacy, Askew indicates that he wants to champion the work of half the city council, those members elected in 2009. That election was decided by 90 votes, with plenty of campaign money influencing Whitefish from outside the district.
Muhlfeld’s campaign literature states that “being an effective leader requires a balanced approach to problem solving, compromise and mutual respect.” It is those qualities that Muhlfeld has demonstrated during his past decade of public service.
One could hope that the future of the Flathead municipalities excites voters the same way the Flathead Valley Community College trustee race did. In that case, moderates endorsed and voted for the best trustee candidates for the community. And they won, big.
Voting is a patriotic duty. The character of communities like Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls depends on who votes this fall. And old-timers know it.
Whitefish has prospered into a recreational economy. Still topping the minds of locals are jobs, great schools, access to parks and trails, and the conservation of public land and water. Clean water, recreational access, and a vibrant local economy are all part of the public good.
Whitefish can expect more raucous elections for the next couple of years. The current races appear to be becoming as ugly an as any in recent memory.
The voters in cities across Montana should get turnout rates back up to historic levels. Locals can assure that their community is put first, by simply going to the ballot box.
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