Opinion

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Uncommon Ground

Who You Gonna Trust?

Townsfolk in Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Whitefish get to decide where we are going and what type of place we want it to be when we get there

I’m grateful for people who serve our communities. The clear sense of the duty that locals feel to their towns can be seen in the multiple candidates running.

In Columbia Falls, five people are running for three council seats. Kalispell has six people seeking to represent four wards, with two contested races.

Whitefish has six people seeking three seats on the town council.

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld is in for another four-year term. Muhlfeld has a solid reputation in town and again runs unopposed, now seeking a third term. In 2015 Muhlfeld secured almost 80 percent and nearly 1.200 votes.

That same year Whitefish elected Richard Hildner with 950 votes. Frank Sweeney and Katie Williams also won, each earning nearly 900 votes. Columbia Falls elected Doug Karper, Darin Fisher and John Piper, each garnering over 300 votes. Kalispell, Ward 3 elected Rod Kuntz with just over 200 votes.

The sense that I get by talking to people makes it feel like a transformational time for towns. We’re seemingly bursting at the seams. The infrastructure is having a hard time keeping up with the accelerated growth. Progress is coming fast. Stuff is changing.

Anyone walking or driving around town has figured out it’s busier, businesses are prospering, the sidewalks and streets are crowded, and things move fast.

In ways it feels like a decade ago, before the Great Recession, when construction was booming and good-paying jobs were plentiful. Much has changed over the decade.

There are more economy-driving tourists. Public trails and community spaces have flourished but the affordability of housing has greatly diminished. And exorbitant rent for working families is the norm.

Whitefish has taken big steps to change the housing crunch for workers. The city worked with the local Chamber of Commerce, the Whitefish Housing Authority, the Whitefish Planning Board and a citizens committee to enact a regulatory plan to assure developers build some affordable houses as a nexus to subdivision approval.

Nearly two decades ago, when I served on the local planning board, it proposed to the city an inclusionary approach. The city had other plans. Things changed. Whitefish has been growing up for a while, deciding what kind of town it wants to be, act like, and who it wants to serve.

Back four years ago, Williams campaigned on a plank that workers should be able to own a house in the town where they work. Things began to change.

Williams and Hildner, one of the hardest working and nicest politicians I know, put in countless long hours throughout many years to assure that workers got some housing opportunities as the generous retirees seeking our way of life and recreational amenities sped into town.

Whitefish has the fewest incumbents seeking reelection for a city council in the valley. Only Sweeney seeks reelection as Hildner and Williams are retiring from elected politics, leaving two open seats.

Sweeney is a steady voice for locals living in town. Sweeney remains a steadfast proponent of the Whitefish Trail and is an avid equestrian and outdoorsman. I’ve known Frank for a long time and I trust him.

Beyond his duties to our town, Sweeney also serves on the board of the Montana Innocence Project, dedicated to exonerating the innocent and preventing wrongful convictions.

As former Sen. Dan Weinberg, who founded the Montana chapter of the Innocence Project, once rhetorically asked me; if you don’t believe in justice what do you believe in?

Sweeney is a good guy; he’s one of us, a part of Whitefish, like you and me.

From now to November voting townsfolk in Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Whitefish get to decide where we are going and what type of place we want it to be when we get there.