Whitefish Council to Legislators Targeting Local Measures: ‘Shame on You’

City officials slam Montana lawmakers for bills that would rescind public health ordinance requiring masks, prohibit affordable housing program

By Tristan Scott
Whitefish City Hall. Beacon file photo

In a blistering rebuke to state lawmakers sponsoring bills that undermine local control, members of the Whitefish City Council on Tuesday night slammed the Republican representatives for carrying two statewide measures targeting local ordinances — one that would dismantle the city’s affordable housing program and another that invalidates a public health measure requiring face coverings to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The local elected leaders, some of them with decades of collective experience crafting ordinances tailored to the unique needs of a booming resort town, questioned how lawmakers from distant communities — Billings and Belgrade — could summon the audacity to issue restrictions on Whitefish’s carefully considered laws and programs.

“For them to restrict our ability as a local community to identify what our health and safety needs are, I find it offensive in every way I can think of,” Councilor Frank Sweeney said during the Feb. 16 Zoom meeting. “How dare they?”

The council members convened as the statewide measures, House Bills 257 and 259, cleared committee hearings and garnered Republican support in the Montana Legislature. The Whitefish officials fumed over the proposed legislation even as they acknowledged the bills were likely to become law and braced for the immediate consequences.

The first bill, HB 257, sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, would invalidate requirements that businesses enforce local mask mandates like the one in Whitefish, as well as others imposed by four of Montana’s largest counties despite the lifting of the statewide mask mandate by Gov. Greg Gianforte. The bill would prohibit local governments from enforcing the measures or taking “retributive action” against businesses who opt not to impose a mask requirement.

Even as Gianforte rescinded the statewide mask mandate imposed by his Democratic predecessor, he said local ordinances could remain in effect and has repeatedly stressed the need for “personal responsibility.”

Flathead City-County Health Officer Joe Russell said HB 257 “clearly contradicts the message of the governor,” whose previous statements have consistently propped up the jurisdictional authority of local municipalities like Whitefish to enact “additional controls as they see fit.”

On Wednesday, Gianforte told reporters he wouldn’t comment on legislation that he hasn’t yet received, but Russell said he’s “going to take him at his word.”

“I don’t think he sees this local control as local overreach,” Russell said Thursday. “I’m putting words in his mouth, but from what I have seen him do, he seems pretty good to his word.”

“All I can tell you is I think if the governor sticks to his word, he’s probably not going to [sign HB 257 into law],” Russell continued. “This is a city council that has the authority to do this. Whitefish is home rule. I don’t understand how legislators think they can do this to a home rule city. I think it’s going to end up in a court battle if they do it. I don’t think Whitefish is going to stand by.”

Hinkle told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 2 that the measure is “designed to rescue Montana’s small business owners from arbitrary orders that through threats and coercion seek to force business owners to turn away customers and deny customers access to their goods and services.”

On Feb. 12, members of the committee passed the bill on a 12-7 vote along party lines, and this week the measure passed its first and second readings on the House floor.

The other bill that drew the ire of Whitefish City Council members, HB 259, would abolish the city’s affordable workforce housing program by prohibiting its “inclusionary zoning” ordinance, a statute requiring that a share of some new residential construction be designated affordable for people within a certain income bracket.

Sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings, who co-owns a construction firm along with her husband, supporters of HB 259 say inclusionary zoning saddles the building industry with cumbersome regulations while doing little to solve the housing crisis.

Prior to adopting the ordinance, Whitefish city officials went through an extensive public process that included input from builders, workers and business owners, as well as untold volunteer hours. The inclusionary zoning ordinance serves as the centerpiece of the Whitefish Legacy Homes Program, which at about 18 months old remains in its infancy, and has produced little in the way of tangible development. But the program is designed to help working residents with moderate incomes enter the housing market who otherwise couldn’t, a challenge that in Whitefish and communities like it is becoming increasingly prevalent.

Longtime Whitefish City Councilor Andy Feury, who previously served as mayor, said it was “unconscionable” for a Billings lawmaker to assume she understands the needs of a community like Whitefish.

“To Representative Vinton, from all the people in this community whose hopes of having a home here but who couldn’t afford one given the present market situation and finally had some hopes given our legacy housing program, shame on you,” Feury said. “I will at least give you the credit for having the transparency to say it’s simply about builder profits. You didn’t mask that at all. But you don’t know what you’re talking about Representative Vinton. I am pretty sure that you didn’t take the time to read our affordable housing program. I really apologize to the thousands of volunteer hours of every one in this community that worked hard for a couple of years to make this happen only so one ideologue from a community that doesn’t share that problem is able to shoot this down. I hope that everyone in Billings remembers that and I hope to God that she doesn’t get re-elected.”

Councilor Ben Davis, a general contractor in Whitefish who helped craft the program that Vinton’s bill would dissolve, described the legislation as short-sighted, and testified against the measure before the House Local Government Committee earlier this month.

“Whitefish is a community that is different than a lot of others in this state,” Davis said during Tuesday night’s council meeting. “The fact that the state Legislature is unwilling to let the citizens of this community make decisions that are correct for them that might not be correct for other cities is just absolutely infuriating. Unfortunately, I think we are going to have to prepare ourselves for both of these bills being passed.”

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