The lawsuit recently filed against the City of Whitefish attempting to invalidate the affordable housing program based on inadequate public process is an unfortunate abuse of the legal system and is contrary to the intent of public participation laws. The lawsuit alleges that one individual did not receive enough opportunity to participate in the public process leading up to the passage of the program. However, it is very hard to reconcile this allegation with the fact that we personally witnessed extensive public testimony from this individual, cumulatively totaling hours of oral comments over several months leading up to the passage of the program, not to mention dozens of pages of written opinions. To say that there was never an opportunity to be heard defies the facts and common sense.
CommUnity Consulting (Mayre Flowers), a Kalispell resident, purports to be an individual consultant working in the best interests of the citizens of Whitefish, but it is very hard to understand how this lawsuit does anything to achieve that goal. The public and its elected representatives decided to enact this ordinance, despite repeatedly hearing this individual’s dissenting opinion. But now CommUnity Consulting seeks to unilaterally invalidate the ordinance through this lawsuit, and to what end? Hear the exact same public comments a second time, for another vote on what was already decided by the electorate, with the same outcome? In the meantime, leaving the law in limbo, preventing the creation of affordable housing, and wasting public resources on legal costs? This is certainly not in the best interest of Whitefish residents and developers, and it begs the question of who is actually behind this lawsuit and what the true goal is.
Having a robust public process is fundamental to our democracy and the public process. The process leading up to this law being was long and exhaustive, spanning two years. Every major piece of legislation our city adopts is not perfect out of the gate and is why our City Council and staff frequently review and update major public policies. The public process in this case was a transparent and honored process. Staff wrote the text of the law. The governing bodies amended the ordinance based on public input, and the steering committee recommended a draft ordinance that was reviewed and debated by the City Council during two public hearings. The lawsuit is without merit, and as citizens and elected officials we find it very disappointing that we must spend our time and resources on something such as this.
We commend the volunteers, public and staff that committed countless hours to serve our community to provide housing to those that form the fabric of our community.
Ben Davis is chair of Housing Steering Committee and Whitefish Housing Authority; John Muhlfeld is the mayor of Whitefish and Housing Steering Committee member.