News & Features

New City Governments Take Shape in Flathead Valley

Voters on Nov. 5 selected leadership in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls

Despite low turnout in the all-mail election that took place Nov. 5 in the Flathead Valley, voters tapped leaders to fill seats on city councils in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, with growth, development and affordability topping the list of prominent issues for successful candidates in all three municipalities.

In Kalispell’s only contested city council race, challenger Ryan Hunter unseated incumbent Rod Kuntz for the Ward 3 seat.

Hunter received 459 votes to Kuntz’s 328 votes. Kuntz had held the council seat since 2014.

“I think Rod, my opponent, ran a strong race,” Hunter said. “I have a lot of respect for him and the service he provided when he was on the council and the tough race that he ran.”

One of Hunter’s first priorities is to repeal a motor vehicle lodging ordinance that the council narrowly approved this September. The controversial ordinance allows law enforcement to investigate and issue civil infractions to individuals sleeping in their vehicles on Kalispell’s city streets.

Hunter’s campaign focused heavily on affordable housing, and he wants to work with the council to develop a community-needs assessment plan to identify gaps between income and housing prices.

“It was an essential focus of my campaign,” Hunter said. “A lot of voters responded to it and recognized the need.”

His other priorities include improving bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, which the city is currently working on.

“I want to follow up on the completion of that and look for ways the city can work toward building out that infrastructure,” he said.

In Kalispell’s Ward 1, incumbent Kari S. Gabriel ran unopposed and received 573 votes. In Ward 2, Sam Nunnally ran unopposed, winning 737 votes. Sid Daoud of Ward 4 ran unopposed, earning 336 votes.

In Whitefish, voters were faced with a slate of five candidates vying for three council seats, while Mayor John Muhlfeld saw no challengers in a successful third-term bid, drawing 1,227 votes.

Frank Sweeney, the lone incumbent, won a third term after garnering 929 votes, while newcomers Steve Qunell and Rebecca Norton settled in for their inaugural terms on council, drawing 883 votes and 793 votes, respectively.

One immediate issue every candidate identified as having gained urgency in Whitefish is growth, with the post-recession boom driving development to a degree that’s testing the boundaries that defined previous boom years.

“We have been through these booms before, and we have managed them, but given the size to which we have grown we are seeing even bigger developments, and trying to accommodate them has been brutal,” said Sweeney, an incumbent serving on council since 2009, when he was appointed to an empty seat (he was elected in 2011 and again in 2015). “Our infrastructure has really been stretched pretty far, from traffic to roads to water capacity, and our biggest problem right now is how we manage that development and integrate it. Integration is key.”

Qunell and Norton both have experience in local government, with Qunell serving as chairman of the Whitefish Planning Board, as well as on the Board of Adjustments and Lakeshore Protection Committee.

Norton has also served on the planning board, and cut her teeth in local government serving on the tree committee, which remains a point of pride as she boasts of Whitefish’s urban forest of 7,400 trees.

In Columbia Falls, city councilors Darin Fisher, John Piper and Doug Karper all survived their bids for reelection, despite facing challengers in the form of Clay Lundgren and Steve Hughes. Piper skated to victory with 525 votes, while Fisher won with 504 votes and Karper, who has served on council for more than two decades, drew 472 votes.

The candidates will grapple with growth and the prospect of a resort tax, which could provide an extra funding source to help steer grown and alleviate property taxes. An advisory committee is currently working to formulate the proposal, which would be forwarded to council, likely early next year, and then move on to a public vote.

Of the 23,647 Flathead County residents eligible to vote, just 4,797 voters cast ballots in the nonpartisan municipal election, for a voter turnout of 20.29 percent.

If you enjoy stories like this one, please consider joining the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. For as little as $5 per month, Editor’s Club members support independent local journalism and earn a pipeline to Beacon journalists. Members also gain access to www.beaconeditorsclub.com, where they will find exclusive content like deep dives into our biggest stories and a behind-the-scenes look at our newsroom.