Whitefish Council Candidates Square Off for Open Seats

Housing, water quality take center stage at recent candidate forum

By Tristan Scott
Whitefish candidates, from left, John Muhlfeld, John Repke, Frank Sweeney, Katie Williams and Richard Hildner, pictured Sept. 30, 2015. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

WHITEFISH – Candidates for Whitefish City Council framed a slate of issues they say should be at the fore of the city government’s agenda in the next four years, highlighting a scarcity of affordable housing, the erosion of city-county government relations, a need to foster responsible economic growth, and the deteriorating water quality in Whitefish Lake as among the most pressing issues.

The candidates, who convened for a public forum in Whitefish Sept. 30, said resolving the issues would play a prominent role in shaping the future of a community facing change at a pivotal moment.

Four candidates are vying for three open council seats, while Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld is running unopposed for a second term.

Incumbents Richard Hildner and Frank Sweeney are seeking second four-year terms to council seats, while first-time candidates John Repke and Katie Williams round out the race. A third open seat is currently held by Sarah Fitzgerald, a former councilor who was appointed to fill out the term of John Anderson after he resigned in May. Barton Slaney has withdrawn as a candidate, but his name will still appear on the ballot.

The Nov. 3 Whitefish election will be conducted by mail-in ballots only, and ballots will be sent out Oct. 14.

The forum was sponsored by the Whitefish Pilot and Whitefish Chamber of Commerce and held at the Whitefish Community Center. It was moderated by Pilot Editor Matt Baldwin and Chamber Director Kevin Gartland.

Sweeney, a Whitefish attorney, and Hildner, a retired teacher who previously worked in fire management for the U.S. Forest Service, were both elected in 2011 and say they hope to remain in their positions to help usher in new changes to Whitefish and see other projects and measures they helped craft through to fruition.

Williams, manager of the Great Northern Brewing Co.’s Draught House, and Repke, a semiretired financial analyst, both said they are eager to serve the community in a new capacity. Williams said she identifies with the affordable workforce-housing crisis and works on ground zero in a service industry that has transformed into a revolving door of seasonal employees who cannot afford to live in Whitefish.

Repke said his background in corporate finance gives him a unique expertise and an added value as a prospective councilor.

The candidates mostly agreed on the state of Whitefish, the need to diversify its economy while preserving its “grit” and integrity, and the council’s priorities.

The sitting councilors and Repke said the city appropriately spent its tax-increment finance district revenue and said the remaining unallocated $4 million should be spent before the tax district sunsets in 2020.

Praising the work of past councils and their TIF spending, Hildner suggested the remaining money could be used for property acquisitions adjacent to Whitefish City Beach, or to spur economic growth and business improvements.

Sweeney and Muhlfeld both said the council has spent TIF money wisely, calling the decision to build a new City Hall building and parking structure and the reconstruction of Whitefish High School landmark projects.

The remaining revenue could be spent on extending city utility lines to areas that need an extension of services, they said.

Muhlfeld suggested investing the money in light manufacturing and reinvigorating the former Idaho Timber facility, which has been the subject of the recent highway corridor study.

Williams was more critical of the city’s use of tax-increment money to build a new city hall because the new facility won’t increase the city’s tax base.

Lamenting the need for affordable housing, she said the money could have been invested in a solution to the scarcity of workforce housing.

Only 58 percent of the city’s workforce could afford to live in the city, she said, an unfortunate scenario given that the construction of new hotels will only augment the need for service industry workers.

Williams said that though she may be young and inexperienced, she represents a faction that is underrepresented in local government.

“I embody the grit that we were all talking about today,” she said. “I am a hardworking Montanan who leads and helps develop a growing business. I am boots on the ground and I want to live in Whitefish and I am bringing that perspective of a lot of people who are going to be footing the bill 30 years down the road.”

The candidates all agreed that Whitefish Lake is a major local entity and top economic driver for the city, and they raised concerns about a 2012 study by the Whitefish Lake Institute that confirmed septic pollution in the lake due to outmoded and failing septic systems.

“As goes the lake, so goes Whitefish,” Hildner said. “It is perhaps the most important resource as we look toward the future.”

Muhlfeld said the city is pursuing planning grants and actively working to improve “hot spots” along the lake and upgrade systems and it is the first community in the state to adopt a nutrient trading program.

He and other candidates expressed frustration and disappointment over the breakdown of communication between the city of Whitefish and the Flathead County commissioners, as well as the county planning office. Much of the squabble is due to the legal battle over planning jurisdiction of the so-called “doughnut” area outside Whitefish, which has vexed councilors at every turn.

“Water quality issues certainly don’t start and stop at jurisdictional boundaries and in order to have any plan be successful we need the cooperation of Flathead County,” Muhlfeld said. “We need the cooperation of our commissioners.”

Sweeney added: “It is the most vexing question that the city will have to deal with over the coming years. At the end of the day we have attempted to and will continue to work with the county commissioners and planning board, but in recent years they just don’t seem to have been willing to listen no matter how may overtures we have.”

The candidates also took turns articulating an intangible quality of Whitefish when they were asked to define the “grit” that makes the community so unique.

“It is the authenticity of a working town. We don’t want to be, we don’t aspire to be an Aspen or a Vail or any of the other major ski towns,” Hildner said. “We are originally a railroad town, a timber town, and it is the community spirit and the work ethic that provides the grit of Whitefish. It is not cookie-cutter storefronts, it is our unique character because that is what drives us.”

Repke, who attended the Chamber’s recent affordable housing summit in Whitefish, lamented the dearth of affordable housing, and said if the “grit” of Whitefish is a critical piece of the town’s allure, then working people need to be able to afford to live here.

“It is a very difficult problem that has been listed as a crisis,” he said. “I do believe that the community is much richer and healthier if the whole spectrum is represented.”

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