Municipal Elections Set Up City Councils Amid Rapid Growth

New Kalispell city councilor focused on addressing affordable housing, downtown revitalization

By Dillon Tabish
Voters cast their ballots at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on Nov. 7, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Kyle Waterman met a lot of neighbors in recent months.

The 42-year-old, who grew up in Helena and moved to Kalispell nearly five years ago, toured the historic neighborhoods surrounding downtown and also sent out postcards seeking feedback about the town and its direction.

The effort not only informed Waterman of a few issues facing the growing city, it also propelled him into a first-time leadership role on the city council.

Voters last week elected Waterman to the Kalispell City Council with 261 votes. He unseated longtime incumbent Jim Atkinson, who drew 214 votes. Karlene Osorio-Khor received 192 votes.

Waterman, who works as a nonprofit consultant and will be sworn in Jan. 2, will join the eight-member council representing Ward 3.

“I’m excited to have that support and to know that I connected with people and was able to win their support,” he said. “I’m looking forward to serving and taking some of that information I learned from the public.”

Tim Kluesner, an incumbent in Ward 4, was re-elected, garnering 387 votes. Challenger Sid Daoud received 124 votes.

The Ward 3 and 4 races were the only contested races in this year’s municipal election. Mayor Mark Johnson ran unchallenged, as did Ward 1 councilor Sandra Carlson, Ward 2 councilor Chad Graham and Municipal Judge Lori Adams.

The issue that rose to the surface of Waterman’s surveying involved affordable housing concerns in Kalispell.

“That was a majority of what I heard, people wanting to see Kalispell grow but don’t want to be priced out,” he said.

Waterman said many people he spoke with expressed frustration over the lack of affordable rental options, as well as home buying opportunities.

He said he also received a lot of feedback about Kalispell’s new plan for downtown, which seeks to improve walkability and other issues in the historic heart of town.

“It’s a vision and it’s a bright vision,” he said. “The next step is to take it into action. That will take a lot of work.”

He said he’s concerned with the current proposal to reduce traffic from four lanes to two lanes on Main Street without establishing alternate routes that could help the flow of vehicles. He said he does oppose the expansion of U.S. Highway 93 around the courthouse to four lanes and hopes the city can come to an agreement with the state and county.

“I think it would be a travesty to see four lanes around the couplet. Right now that’s how we slow down traffic entering downtown,” he said. “It would rip apart the neighborhoods if we were to do that type of change.”

He said the city should continue to gather feedback from residents before making any permanent changes and is excited to be part of the new vision.

“I do believe there is the right sequence to slowing traffic down and making downtown more of a destination,” he said.

“Kalispell has a lot of opportunities, and I think there is so many things we can do right the first time that would be ways to do smart growth and be responsible with our money.”

Voter turnout in Flathead County was 21 percent with 4,771 voters casting ballots out of 22,547 registered voters.

In Columbia Falls, incumbent mayor Don Barnhart handily defeated challenger John Rallis, drawing 562 votes to Rallis’ 75. It was the first contested mayoral race in 16 years.

“I think people understand that I understand our government and our city and how to operate it efficiently,” Barnhart said.

“I’ve proven myself over quite a few years … We’ve had a good council since I got involved in 2001 and the councils have always been forward looking and worked well with our managers.”

Four city council candidates were running for three open seats. Incumbent councilors Jenny Lovering (466) and Mike Shepard (438) were both re-elected and newcomer Paula Robinson (509) will be joining the seven-member governing body. Challenger Stephen Duffy received 289 votes.

Incumbent councilor Dave Petersen, whose term is expiring, did not file for re-election.

Columbia Falls is enjoying healthy economic growth as the tourism industry benefits local businesses and families increasingly move into town.

Barnhart said the council will remain focused on helping maintain the economic momentum sweeping across city. Outdoor recreation and tourism have fueled healthy economic gains in a community that has been hit hard by shrinking industrial sectors. Weyerhaeuser Co. closed its mills and administrative offices in recent years, but the news that SmartLam is purchasing one of the former sawmill sites and efforts to revitalize an industrial yard have provided optimism that industry is poised for a local rebound.

“We want to keep our taxes as low as we can and work to make this city a better place to live,” Barnhart said.

In Whitefish, William Hileman, an attorney at Trieweiler, Hedman, Hileman & Lacosta, was elected municipal court judge. He received 842 votes and Kristi Curtis, a city prosecutor in Whitefish, received 621. Municipal Judge Bradley Johnson is retiring.

Three council candidates ran for three seats, making it an uncontested race. Incumbent Andy Feury ran along with newcomers Ryan Gregory Hennen and Melissa Hartman. Incumbents Jen Frandsen did not file for re-election and Pam Barberis withdrew her candidacy.

Whitefish’s city government encompasses six councilors and the mayor serving as the legislative body and an appointed city manager who oversees daily operations.

In Lincoln County, voters rejected a pair of school bonds that would have funded the development of a new elementary and middle school. The Eureka public school district was seeking $18.15 million to construct a new kindergarten-through-eighth-grade building that would attach to the existing Lincoln County High School, creating an updated and cohesive campus with new multi-use learning sections for each grade and centralized and expanded kitchen facilities.

For the 20-year bond, property taxes for a home in both districts valued at $100,000 would increase an estimated $166 annually, or roughly $13.86 a month, according to the school district. For a home in just the elementary district, property taxes for a home valued at $100,000 would increase roughly $132 annually, or $11 a month.

In the elementary district, 813 voters were opposed to the request and 550 were supportive. In the high school district, 1,069 voters were opposed and 649 were in favor.

In Troy, Dallas Carr was elected mayor. Carr received 173 votes. Challengers Charles Ekstedt received 108 and Chris Penner had seven. The incumbent mayor, Darren Coldwell, did not run for re-election.

In Libby, four candidates were running for three seats on the city council, and Gary Beach (417), Gary Armstrong (399) and Kristin Smith (362) were elected. Arlen Magill received 220 votes.

In Eureka, incumbent mayor LeeAnn Schermerhorn ran unopposed for another four-year term. One person ran for an open seat on Eureka’s four-member council, Breean C. Reyes. In Rexford, no one ran for the mayor position, and the council will have to appoint a person to the role. In Troy, one person, Shawna Kelsey, filed for one of the two city council positions that are open. The council will have to appoint a person to the other seat.