As the largest city in one of the fastest growing counties in Montana, Kalispell is destined to tackle pivotal issues in the near future.
The U.S. 93 Alternate Route, or bypass, is approaching completion, a watershed moment that will significantly redesign the city’s transportation grid.
A redevelopment vision for the core area is slowly morphing into reality as efforts continue on an industrial rail park that could be a catalyst for revitalization.
Engineers are preparing to unveil an urban renewal plan for the southern portion of Kalispell that could shepherd change in a massive, mixed corridor that includes a 25-acre site for a new school and the contentious city airport.
Those are just a few of the many discussions, along with the perennial urban planning decisions and debates, that Kalispell will surely face in the coming years.
Amidst this heightened activity comes the latest municipal election, which features only one contested race for the city council this year in the largest ward in Kalispell.
Rod Kuntz, who was appointed to the council in August 2014 after Randy Kenyon retired after 14 years, is running to retain his Ward 3 seat against Karlene Osorio-Khor and Christopher Cunningham. Ward 3 encompasses a large section of downtown and features roughly 5,140 residents.
Incumbents Kari Gabriel (Ward 1), Wayne Saverud (Ward 2) and Phil Guiffrida (Ward 4) are all running unopposed.
The city council consists of eight councilors — two from each ward — and the mayor. Councilors serve four-year terms.
Election day is Nov. 3. Kalispell’s polling station is at the Flathead County Fairgrounds.
A local resident since 1985, Kuntz had never served in city council before gaining traction with fellow councilors who voted him in among 11 applicants for Kenyon’s seat. Kuntz helped spearhead a neighborhood effort to address parking congestion around Flathead High School and helped organize the permitting program, both as a resident and then as a councilor.
The city implemented parking restrictions last month after several revisions, including one that allowed staff and students to purchase passes along with residents. That distinction sparked a lawsuit from a group of residents against the city, claiming the new parking district fails to adequately solve the problem. The group, organized under an LLC named Westside Neighbors Association, includes Kuntz’s council opponent, Karlene Osorio Khor.
Kuntz disagrees with the lawsuit’s claims and says the new district appears to be working.
“It’s transformative. It worked,” he told the Beacon.
When asked why he agreed with allowing students and staff to buy permits instead of limited it to only residents, he said it was important to strike a balance with the school district.
“After listening to the students and staff, and after looking at the big picture, I asked myself, ‘What would that mean to the school if only residents could park there?’ Maybe the district would then have to acquire land or pass a levy for more funding. Then that would affect all taxpayers in the city. And it’s not their problem,” Kuntz said.
Kuntz likes to use his strategy with solving the parking woes as an example of being open minded and determined to find the best solution for all residents.
“As councilors, we can’t be agenda driven. We need to be vision driven,” he said. “Establishing that vision is going to take community input and some real leadership.”
Kuntz and fellow Ward 3 representative Jim Atkinson have organized regularly scheduled town hall meetings in recent weeks to gather input from residents.
Kuntz said one of his priorities, if elected, would be to study possible long-term funding mechanisms that could help the city address aging infrastructure and other costs that are currently supported largely by property taxes. He also said supporting the revitalization efforts of the core area plan will be vital as well as ensuring that the city government is not stifling business growth.
A graduate of Flathead High School, Osorio-Khor has served on multiple community boards, including the Kalispell Planning Board and Impact Fee Committee, and is a property owner in downtown. She ran unsuccessfully against Ward 3 representative Jim Atkinson in 2013, garnering 281 votes to Atkinson’s 428. She also was one of the applicants seeking to fill Kenyon’s seat in August 2014 and finished seventh out of 11 in vote tallies by the council.
Osorio-Khor said she was motivated to run again for a Ward 3 seat as an “anti-establishment candidate” who would provide a new perspective on council.
“I think people are just desperate. They just don’t feel like the people at city council listen to them anymore,” she said. “They don’t feel like they can make any impact and the city council will do whatever they want. And that’s just wrong.”
Osorio-Khor expressed frustration over the council’s recent decision to enact the parking district near Flathead High School. She supports a district that limits parking to residents but is opposed to an unlimited number of staff and students being able to purchase permits. She joined the group that sued the city on Sept. 2, claiming safety, traffic and over-parking issues persist.
She said the council needs to be more transparent and give the public proper time to review proposed ordinances and other action items before it makes decisions.
She used the city’s growth policy as an example of an important issue that the public should properly review before any changes are made by the council.
Casino regulations are another topic up for review, and Osorio-Khor said in her campaign flyers that new regulations could require casinos to be placed inside another business, such as a restaurant, that hide them from people traveling through the city’s corridors. This could keep the city family friendly, she said.
When it comes to the core area plan, Osorio-Khor said more of downtown should be included in the proposed revitalization project. She claimed the city improperly used taxpayer funds to visit Washington, D.C. to meet with agency officials and lawmakers to discuss federal transportation grants that could expedite the redevelopment project.
“They need to be thinking about nickels and dimes,” she said.
A 26-year-old employee at ImagineIf Libraries, Cunningham said he was motivated to run for council for the first time to “help the community the best I know how.”
He said he would be interested in scanning through city ordinances and weeding out the “old ordinances that really aren’t applicable to our community” and get rid of over regulations.
He would like to see improved recycling opportunities for residents and possible incentives that the city could create for cooperatives.
He said he favors market socialism and would like to establish an economy that “tries to protect people from abuses.”
“I do have capitalism influences, but fundamentally I do believe the means should be socially owned rather than privately owned,” he said.
In terms of addressing revitalization efforts in downtown Kalispell, Cunningham said reducing traffic and slowing vehicles down on Main Street would help businesses thrive. He said he strongly supports the downtown redevelopment plan that would address urban blight around the railroad tracks.
“There are a lot of storefronts that are still empty and a lot of development up north of town, but it would be nice to work with other councilors to see how we can revitalize downtown,” he said.
He also said Kalispell needs more affordable housing.
If elected, he said he would gather public input and information before making pivotal decisions.
“I like to look at the way things have been done historically and apply critical analysis,” he said. “There are times when I eel that we become complacent with the status quo. It’s good to challenge things or at least have a dialogue about where we’re going. Sometimes the issues are not as controversial as they seem.”
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