Whitefish Council Q & A

By Beacon Staff

Six candidates are running for three open seats on the six-member council to replace Ryan Friel, John Muhlfeld and Turner Askew, whose four-year terms are finished at the end of this year. Muhlfeld and Askew are running for a four-year mayor term to replace Mike Jenson, whose term is finished at the end of this year.

Whitefish has a mail-ballot election. Ballots will be sent out Oct. 19. Residents who do not receive a ballot should come into the Flathead County Election Department at 1035 First Ave. W. in Kalispell to see if they are an inactive or unregistered voter.

The Whitefish city council 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: John Anderson
Age: 43
Occupation: Attorney, Small Business Owner
Years in the valley: 6

1. Whitefish is at a critical juncture in its history. We cannot rely on the success of the past to propel our future. We have just begun to turn the economic corner and need to stay focused on our community’s recent economic success.

I am a strong candidate because I have had success creating jobs and helping businesses. When I assumed chairmanship of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce nearly two years ago, we successfully changed our focus to economic development. Our new programs created jobs and helped business by bringing people together to solve problems. I would bring this focus and leadership to the council.

2. Continuing Whitefish’s economic success is the most pressing issue facing our city. We have a diverse economy that has started on the road back to prosperity. Our economy ranges from the railroad, to tourism, to high tech, to manufacturing. This diverse range of businesses, coupled with world-class amenities, offers a rare opportunity to both expand economic opportunities and maintain the character of Whitefish. These, in turn, help resolve budget concerns and unite our community.

3. I believe this issue has become overly politicized. The ordinances that gave rise to these issues do not apply to the large subdivisions and have been otherwise amended. This has eliminated many of the concerns. Those few concerns that remain are currently being reviewed by the city. This leaves the issue of Whitefish continuing to cultivate a business-friendly economy by planning for future growth in the extraterritorial jurisdiction. To do so, Whitefish will have to engage in a public process that considers an assortment of solutions, ranging from annexation to working more closely with the county planning department.

4. As a citizen of Whitefish, I prefer that City Hall be downtown. However, I am not sure why folks are in such a hurry. Ultimately, the location should be the result of community involvement and thoughtful consideration. There is no doubt that having all city departments under one roof would be more efficient, but there are other issues with higher priority.

5. Remarkably, Whitefish is one of the very rare places where the tax base has increased. I believe this is because Whitefish has a vibrant downtown and amenities like the Whitefish Trail and The Wave, as well as full-time emergency services. All these things combine to make Whitefish a safe community where people want to live and work. This, in turn, results in higher property values. Consequently, the best thing the city can do for its budget is to maintain the character of Whitefish as it plans for future growth.

Name: Richard Hildner
Age: 65
Occupation: High School Teacher
Years in the valley: 28

1. After years of attending city council meetings, hearings and workshops, I’ve decided that now is the time to seek a seat on city council and represent the citizens of Whitefish. My long involvement in city government, beginning in 1988, gives me a deeper perspective on the history of council actions than any other candidate.

2. The cost of wastewater treatment is going to increase significantly in the next 10 years unless there is a major change in federal discharge regulations. We must begin planning for this increase now by assessing our needs and budgeting accordingly. It is important that citizens not be faced with a huge fee increase at the 11th hour.

Citizen involvement in the location and design of a future City Hall is an important issue for all of us and should not be rushed. There is time to make a smart decision and not get caught in the trap of being pennywise and pound-foolish. We must be mindful that the City Hall decision is one that will outlast this generation of council candidates.

Another major decision that will also require extensive citizen input is the design and development of Depot Park. This is an unprecedented opportunity to develop community space in the heart of downtown and showcase our community spirit. We have to get it right the first time.

3. The city and county must work together to create an elected citizens’ council that can represent the interests of both the city and doughnut residents. It will not be easy but I’m convinced it can be done. In the interim, it is incumbent upon both city and county officials to stay at the table in an effort to resolve the few issues that have become so divisive.

4. While the final decision on the location of City Hall is ultimately in the hands of the city council, it should not be made in haste and not without the widest possible public input. That said, it makes sense to me to have City Hall located where it is convenient to the largest number of users and enhances the character of Whitefish. The more centrally it is located, the more it strengthens the city core.

5. The city has always had a balanced budget; the law requires it. It speaks volumes about the character of our city employees that they were willing to make personal sacrifices to ensure the city could meet its financial obligations. Building activity is picking up and if July resort tax revenues are any indication, we may have turned the economic corner. We must continue to budget wisely with an eye toward increasing cash reserves. The current budget has increased those reserves to about $300,000. As those reserves continue to grow the city will be better positioned to smooth out the impact of any unforeseen costs, take advantage of investment opportunities, and plan for the future while it takes care of the employees who have been so dedicated to the city of Whitefish.

I’m ever mindful that Whitefish is a special place and city councilors are the custodians of that gift.

Name: Life Noell
Age: 29
Occupation: Whitefish Mountain Resort Lift Attendant
Years in the valley: 8 years full-time, off and on since 1996

1. I am running for city council because I am sure that now is the most important time to participate in government. Also, I want to further my civic involvement in Whitefish. As a current member of the weed control advisory committee, the bike-pedestrian trail committee and the park board, I feel that I have learned to appreciate my community for new reasons, and as a bumper sticker that I saw so perfectly put it: “The problems we face in the future will not be solved by the minds that created them.”

I want to offer my energy toward serving the betterment and sustainability of my community. Also, I feel I am a strong candidate because I care deeply for people and I believe I represent a diverse constituency.

2. My top issues, and not necessarily in order, are:

The budget needs help because it’s ever so tight, and the doughnut needs some fixing because it hasn’t been done right. The critical areas ordinance needs to be streamlined because it makes building a fight, and a new City Hall needs to be discussed because ours is a poor sight.

The high school needs replacing so we need to fix it, and the river cleanup is so very important we need to de-slick it. The bike-pedestrian trail system is growing so we need to connect it, and the connector bridge plans are building so we need to fund it.

Our hydroelectric plant should be turned on to help us save cash, and our lake needs protecting to make sure it lasts. Our economy needs some boosting because business can be slow, and the downtown project needs to be finished because we need our roads.

3. We should stay in communication with and harbor respect for the county. We must work to get representation for the doughnut residents and we must all stay patient. I believe that we need to simplify the CAO by continuing to look into the “slope” and “administrative/enforcement” sections, and any other sections that are either redundant or hard to understand.

4. I prefer the current site because it seems to be the most financially responsible option and because that location has historical significance. I believe it’s a perfect spot for a new and improved building. Other locations are too far from the center of town. The tight budget is a good reason to pursue an inexpensive City Hall.

5. I have faith in the current city staff and their ability to steer the financial strength of our city. The citizens of Whitefish have continually found ways to keep Whitefish desirable to tourists and I believe our resort tax funds are well spent. I would like to see people from the public offer their opinions about how to keep us financially strong. I think the people hold the answers. I admire the decisions of our city staff in regards to spending and I believe that we must always set aside funds in good years for unforeseen troubles or future projects.

Name: Frank Sweeney
Age: 58
Occupation: Attorney
Years in the valley: 12

1. I am passionate about Whitefish. We have loved this place since we set eyes on it in the late 1990s. The community here is the most involved and engaged I have ever seen. I have the pertinent experience: 32 years of practicing law representing large corporate clients all over this country as well as individuals in private business and family matters. I have worked on some of the most complex and successful projects undertaken by this community over the past 10 years, focusing on our great community resources: clean water, access to public lands, a vibrant downtown, fiscal responsibility and standing up for the rights of Whitefish. I have demonstrated an ability and willingness to understand the depth of issues we face and the fortitude to see them through.

2. -The heath of our economy. Our success is predicated on fostering the growth of our key economic drivers: tourism, health care, small and midsized business development, clean and healthful environment and our schools.

-Our relationship with the county government. We need to work with our commissioners to create the best structure for us as a community to govern ourselves. Whitefish should be treated with the same respect and deference that the county demonstrates with other communities in our valley. We want to provide our citizens and neighbors in the “doughnut” with a political voice at the table when decisions are being made that affect them. I am an ardent supporter of creating that structure.

-Infrastructure projects/budget issues: We need to focus our attention on making the right long-term decisions about projects such as the new high school, the location, need and timing of a new City Hall, and the health of Whitefish Lake and Whitefish River.

3. Invite the county back to the table to fashion an agreement that our community believes is fair and reasonable and take this opportunity to create the structure that gives our neighbors in the “doughnut” a real and direct voice in the decisions that affect them.

4. I believe we need to make that decision as a community. It is not a decision that I think just a few members of a council can make in a rush without much more in the way of public input. As a general proposition, I favor a “downtown” location but will be guided by sound economic considerations and our community’s preference. Whatever solution is found by the council and the community should be fiscally responsible and represent our town as one that values its institutions.

5. As a general proposition, as the economy recovers, our budget issues become more manageable. That said, we always need to be evaluating what we are doing and why. We need to continue to focus on keeping our expenses in line with our needs and the value our community places on the services we expect and require of our public servants.

Name: Mary Vail
Age: 52
Occupation: Entrepreneur and Owner of Winsome Fragrance Co.
Years in the valley: Permanent resident since 2004, property owner since 1996

1. I am running for Whitefish City Council because I want to serve my community. Whitefish is a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family. I am an entrepreneur with a successful business, Winsome Fragrance Co. I currently serve as treasurer on the Whitefish Community Library Board. After spending the last nine months working hard to transition the library from the county to the city, I have met many community members who have served in public office. This has inspired me to serve as well. I work well with people and have a passion for making our town better.

2. These are challenging economic times. We must make sure our city fees and regulations do not discourage job creation. Our city must live within it means. I oppose any increase in city taxes or fees unless we face a real emergency. Our high school needs substantial repairs. This should be our focus before spending on a new City Hall. We need common sense spending on the city council.

3. I favor allowing doughnut people, who currently are represented by county commissioners, to vote on who will regulate their property. That is true representation. I will vote against the referendum because it restricts the vote to city residents and does not allow the doughnut residents to vote. The referendum, if passed, means more litigation and conflict with the county. It’s time to work together to make our valley a better place to call home.

4. I am seeking community input from an Oct. 19 forum that will be conducted by the city before deciding on a preferred City Hall location. I would prefer that we use some of the TIF funds for necessary improvements at the high school before considering City Hall. The TIF does not expire until 2020, so we have plenty of time to make this decision. The community needs to reach a consensus on whether this is the best use of our tax dollars, and if so, where to build the City Hall. I oppose spending $50,000 for a consultant to make this decision.

5. The city manager, mayor, city councilors and all department heads need to sit down and work together to devise a cohesive plan to strengthen the budget. The city cannot continue to borrow from reserve funds in order to balance the budget. The best way for the city to get its financial book in order is for the voters to elect city councilors who make this a priority. I promise it is my priority.

Name: Doug Wise
Age: 66
Occupation: Retired Businessman
Years in the valley: 16

1. After I retired, my goal was to participate in community affairs so I could give something back to our wonderful city. Currently I am vice president of the Whitefish Lake Golf Association, vice president of the Whitefish Parks and Recreation Board, Sergeant at Arms for the Whitefish Rotary, board member for the Hugh Rogers WAG Dog Park and a member of the Whitefish Moose Lodge.

My background in business makes me a strong candidate: a bachelor’s degree in business administration, 40-plus years experience in business and Company Commander in the United States Army. With all my years of management experience, I understand budgets and the need for economic development, bringing spending under control and the ability to compromise to get things moving.

2. (A) A new high school for Whitefish. Our children are our most important asset and are the future of our city and our country. The current school is in dire need of replacement due to structural and other problems.
(B) The budget. Whitefish’s budget needs to be brought under control. It is way out of line when compared to other cities in Montana.
(C) The doughnut. This issue needs to be resolved so we can get on with our business.
(D) Economic development. We need to create more jobs – not just talk about it.
(E) Become more “business friendly.” We need to change the perception that Whitefish is not business friendly as a result of all the burdensome regulations and fees. And we should be more reasonable in our treatment of our existing businesses so they can prosper and grow.
(F) City Hall. We need to settle this issue.

3. The city council should meet with the county and form a task force consisting of doughnut residents so a compromise can be reached. By doing this, it will be far easier for everyone to respect the decisions reached by our elected officials. There shouldn’t be any more lawsuits or referendums. You cannot have legislation without representation.

4. Until we provide a new high school for our students, there should be no new City Hall. The public can provide input and help with the selection of the site location and the building. However, we need a budget before that project can be undertaken.

5. First, we must stick to a budget and get our spending under control. Second, we need an economic development plan to attract new business. Our economic recovery has slowed to a crawl. If Canada experiences a downturn in its economy or a recession, Whitefish will be in a lot of trouble. Third, a task force should be formed consisting of city councilors, staff and local business owners to explore how to reduce the budget, cut our spending and determine why our per capita expenditures are so high compared to other Montana cities our size.

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