Whitefish at a Crossroads

By Beacon Staff

Mayor candidate Turner Askew says Whitefish is at a “crossroads.” And the signs – particularly the numerous campaign signs dotting front yards – point to a voting populace that seems to agree with his assertion.

Whitefish residents clearly feel there is much at stake in this year’s city council and mayor races, with sharp ideological divisions characterizing a contentious election season thus far. While these divisions are highlighted in editorials, mailers and gossip sessions, they are perhaps most aptly defined by how voters are aligning in support of the two respective mayor candidates: Askew and John Muhlfeld, both current councilors.

Askew, a 71-year-old real estate broker, addresses the divide when he says: “My opponent is an environmentalist and I’m a businessman.” Of course, it’s not that simple, as Muhlfeld, 38, is also a successful businessman, cofounding and serving as president of a wetland and river restoration company called River Design Group that was recently named one of Outside magazine’s 50 best places to work for the second straight year.

But Askew’s sentiment carries meaning. Even if the mayor’s position is officially nonpartisan, there are distinct political overtones that give this fall’s race an obvious sense of conservative versus liberal, a fact not lost on former longtime Mayor Andy Feury.

Feury, who supports Muhlfeld, says the lines between conservatives and liberals have always been drawn in Whitefish, but he feels that during his stint on the council from 1991-1997 and as mayor from 1999-2007 the issue was less black and white.

“We had some diverse councils with some very different political points of view,” Feury said last week. “People would say, ‘I’m putting on my Whitefish hat – I’m not putting on my liberal hat, I’m not putting on my conservative hat.’”

“Those lines have been drawn far more sharply than before,” he added.

Both candidates, however, are quick to express their desire to represent the entire population of Whitefish, which is part of the mayor’s job description. Maybe more than anybody in city government, the mayor is in a unique position to facilitate the softening of those sharply drawn lines.

“I think it’s important that we keep that pendulum in the center,” Muhlfeld said. “I want to keep balance on the council. If the perception is that you’ve swung too far to the left or too far to the right, ultimately you’ve polarized a segment of the community.”

In Whitefish’s governmental structure, the mayor carries both symbolic and tangible significance as head of the council. Unlike a place like New York City or Missoula, which have strong-mayor systems, it is the city manager – not the mayor – who takes on more executive branch duties. But the mayor plays other important roles.

Feury likens Whitefish’s mayor position to “being the coach of a football or basketball team.” The mayor presides over meetings and makes efforts to ensure that all members of public are getting equal opportunity to voice their opinions, while also serving as the tiebreaking vote if the six-member council is deadlocked.

As such, the mayor is expected to be the steady, even-handed presence that both the city government and public rely on for proper execution of the policymaking process.

“As the mayor, you represent everybody in the city, not the different special interest groups,” Askew said.

Muhlfeld was appointed to the council in 2006 after the departure of Tom Muri and was then elected to a four-year term in 2007 as the top vote-getter with 1,411 votes. Askew tied Martin McGrew in a recount during that election with 696 votes. McGrew was chosen for the council in a tiebreaking vote but was later forced to vacate his seat because of residency concerns, which allowed Askew to replace him.

The mayor position, Muhlfeld said, demands a comprehensive knowledge of the city’s laws and issues.

“That requires an individual who does their homework, understands the issues and, bottom line, understands how to run a meeting,” Muhlfeld said, adding that as deputy mayor he has presided over meetings the past two years when Mayor Mike Jenson was out of town.

Both candidates are touting economic development as a primary priority, with an emphasis on putting locals to work. Askew said Whitefish city government can do its part for the economy by properly taking care of its own finances: “You can’t borrow your way out of debt.” And he believes the city needs to look at laws that may be hindering growth, including building regulations that contractors find “onerous.”

“We keep passing legislation, but do we get rid of legislation that doesn’t work? No,” he said.

Askew said the city should make sure the widely scrutinized critical areas ordinance remains true to its intended purpose – preserving water quality – without becoming an obstruction to economic growth. For his part, Muhlfeld sponsored an amendment that would abolish the controversial steep slope stipulation in the ordinance. The planning board is considering the proposal.

Muhlfeld said Whitefish should promote its quality of life to attract high-tech enterprises and other entrepreneurs even if their clientele is located outside the area, which is the case with existing companies such as The ZaneRay Group and Total Label USA.

“The incentive is there right now,” he said. “The incentive is that Whitefish offers a high-quality living environment.”

“Those are good-paying, sustainable jobs,” he added, “that are in some ways insulated from the real estate and development economies.”

Askew believes the city should foster a business-friendly regulatory environment, one in which development along U.S. Highway 93 South is part of the conversation. The Highway 93 strip, he said, is increasingly relevant as the city grows. As a general rule, Askew intends to reach out to the business community.

“I think good growth should be encouraged,” he said.

Askew said he wants to “champion” the education issue and recently took to the editorial pages to promote a plan in which the city would move City Hall into Mountain West Bank and use the money saved to help fund a high school upgrade.

Also stressing the role city government can play in education, Muhlfeld said he would like to “engage the school board” and look at training opportunities for young people. Another priority for Muhlfeld is working to secure trail and conservation easements while furthering Whitefish’s recreation-friendly reputation. Muhlfeld has been endorsed by the Montana Conservation Voters.

Both candidates have stated their intent to stay above the squabbling taking place in letters to the editor and mailers. Askew said there “is way too much money being spent” on a small-town election, while Muhlfeld said the negative tone is “unfortunate.”

Ultimately, they hope the election comes down to the issues facing Whitefish and a clearheaded assessment of who is better equipped to deal with those issues.

“To create jobs, I think you have to understand and be an ambassador for the small and large businesses,” Askew said. “That’s not necessarily where someone like my opponent who has more of an environmental bent would stand.”

Muhlfeld points to both his city government and business record, along with his vision for the future, as evidence that he is most qualified for the job.

“I respect Turner’s service to our city,” he said, “but given the point where our city is at I do feel I’m in a better position to lead our city over the next four years.”

The Whitefish mayoral candidates were asked the following five questions:

1. Why are you running and what makes you a strong candidate?
2. What do you feel are the most pressing issues facing the city and why?
3. How should the city address the ongoing “planning doughnut” dilemma?
4. What is your preference for the future location of City Hall and why?
5. Whitefish is emerging from a budget situation that the city manager characterized as “dire” in 2010. How can the city continue strengthening its budget, including cash reserves, as the economy recovers?


Name:W. Turner Askew
Age: 71
Occupation: Real Estate Broker

Years in the valley: 18 years full-time

1. I’m running for mayor of Whitefish to create jobs, maintain our fiscal house and work to maintain Whitefish as a special place in Montana. I have served for eight years as a councilor and two as vice mayor. I have over 30 years of experience in creating economic growth in the communities that I’ve lived in. I worked with those local communities to bring in jobs and help the communities grow and maintain their economic vitality. As the mayor of Whitefish I will serve as your ambassador to the business community, both large and small, helping them create jobs for our local residents.

2. One of the most pressing issues will be the creation and preservation of our local jobs. Without jobs for our local families, we will start to change the face of Whitefish. Second is our ability to work on the resolution of the interlocal agreement between the county and Whitefish. We need to start working together for the betterment of all of Whitefish and the surrounding community. The third issue is to make our schools stronger and at the same time work on keeping our property taxes and city budget in line.

3. The city needs to work with the county to protect those issues that are important to Whitefish, e.g.; water quality. Yet, on the other hand, we need to respect the citizens in the county and the fact that they have rights too and their rights need to be respected. As mayor I will bring both sides together to work out our differences.

4. As mayor I will weigh each location very carefully and listen to all the citizens of Whitefish about where they may want their City Hall located. Some of the issues that are important to me are that we maintain a sound budget, consider the schools and their health, and consider how the location will affect our business community. 

5. This will be difficult! Currently we have 4 percent growth in our budget from last year while borrowing $300,000 from a dedicated fund. What needs to happen is that our budget has to reflect our citizens’ needs. If those needs mean that we should reduce our budget, then we should and it will be the council’s job to determine where those reductions should happen. The council will also have to consider the current reappraisal that occurred two years ago and consider the higher property taxes that will take effect over the next four years and balance those home budget concerns as well. 
However, I believe that steady job growth and a stable economy will help solve most of our budget concerns.

Name: John Muhlfeld
Age: 38
Occupation: President/Hydrologist, River Design Group, Inc.
Years in the valley: 18

1. I have served on the council for the past six years and for the past two years as deputy mayor. I am intimately familiar with the history of many of the ordinances and regulations and this institutional knowledge is critical to moving Whitefish forward. I have the ability to bring people together to work toward common-sense solutions that are in the best interest of Whitefish. The mayor should ensure we are providing a forum that fosters good debate and respectful dialogue, and encourages solutions that are in the best interest of Whitefish. I have demonstrated these abilities over the past six years as a city councilor and more recently as deputy mayor.

2. The economy. We need to focus on diversifying our economic base with sustainable, good-paying jobs that are insulated from the boom and bust cycles of the real estate and development economies. To accomplish this, I will draw on my business background and tap the local knowledge base that we have in Whitefish to help attract new businesses to Whitefish. We have options to leverage TIF dollars to help engage private-public partnerships and facilitate redevelopment of several areas in the downtown core, including other locations such as the Idaho Timber and former North Valley Hospital sites. We need to stimulate growth and development while maintaining the character and uniqueness of Whitefish. While we are in this economic slowdown, we need to prepare the city for opportunities so when they do knock at our door, we can expedite the review and approval process.

The budget. We need to continue to build up our cash reserves and be responsible stewards of the public’s tax dollars.

Access to public lands, clean water and conservation. We need to continue working with our neighbors, the DNRC, FWP, and the county to secure additional trail and conservation easements that will provide access to public lands around Whitefish in perpetuity. This should include working with Stoltze Land and Lumber Company to acquire development rights for our domestic water supply watershed in Haskill Basin.

3. We need to reengage with the county and open the lines of communication. In an ideal situation, the county and city would have more tools available to provide meaningful representation to the doughnut residents. This requires legislation in Helena, and I would encourage our local legislators to take up the issue at the next legislative session. This issue has dragged on way too long, and the people in the doughnut deserve meaningful representation and a voice in land-use and zoning decisions that affect their properties.

4. I don’t have a preference on location. This decision needs to be made by the citizens and voters. The citizens should decide where City Hall is located, what it looks like, how much money we spend and where it ranks in terms of other priorities. We have set a public forum date of Oct. 19 to discuss this very issue.

5. Through the 2011 budget process, we increased our year-end cash reserves by over 8 percent. We did this by not raising taxes and adopting a balanced budget. Similar to private enterprise, we demanded tough decisions of our government and city staff, which included some layoffs in planning and building, the parks department and public works. We need to be frugal in this economy and be responsible with taxpayer dollars. By continuing to promote a strong economic environment in Whitefish, we can anticipate even greater resort tax revenues, which in turn will be rebated back to the taxpayers to help keep taxes down.

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