Six Candidates Compete for Kalispell Council Seats

Growth, housing development, homelessness and water rates are among top issues; election to be held Tuesday, Nov. 7

By Maggie Dresser
Kalispell City Council Chambers on March 16, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Kalispell City Council will see three contested races this election season, with six candidates vying for three council seats in Wards 1, 2 and 3.

As issues like population growth, water rates, housing and homelessness have dominated the council’s agenda in recent years, leaders are working to mitigate the city’s growing pains and plan for Kalispell’s future.

In the municipality, three seats currently held by Kari Gabriel in Ward 1, Sam Nunnally in Ward 2, and Ryan Hunter in Ward 3 are open. Each councilor is seeking reelection.

Sid Daoud is seeking reelection in Ward 4 and is running unopposed.

Kalispell City Council Chambers overflow with attendees during a public meeting with discussion about Depot Park on Jan. 23, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Ward 1

Running for Ward 1, incumbent Kari Gabriel has been a city councilor for the last 20 consecutive years after starting her first term in 2003 when she was appointed to the seat after her predecessor left the region. She moved to the Flathead in 1997 and works as a practice manager at Calm Animal Care in Kila.

In the two decades Gabriel has spent on the council, she has watched Kalispell’s drastic growth and believes the police department has not kept pace with the population surge and would like to see more staff.

In order to keep up with the growth, Gabriel says adding housing inventory to the city is crucial in order to curb home prices. She also supports keeping impact fees low for developers to encourage new construction and to prevent costs from rising higher.

As housing prices rise, utility rates have also risen in recent years, particularly after the council voted in 2019 to increase water and sewer rates while simultaneously reducing developer impact fees to offset costs. This past August, rates were increased again as a response to inflation.

“I know people have complained about water rates, but you have to pay for what you use,” Gabriel said. “That’s a good incentive to conserve.”

To address the city’s homelessness crisis, Gabriel would like to see the council work with local nonprofit agencies and the cities of Whitefish and Columbia Falls to help unhoused individuals.

Earlier this year, Gabriel voted for a slew of ordinances that limited access to the city’s public spaces and covered structures. The new municipal laws were prompted by ongoing disruptions and disturbances in areas like Depot Park.

Also running for a seat in Ward 1, Wes Walker moved to Kalispell four years ago and works remotely as a cyber security analyst.

Walker believes that issues of housing and homelessness are tied together, and he would like to see the city form an affordable housing plan to help bring different housing options that would drive costs down. He also believes the city should be strategic about how it plans for growth, and he supports infill, mixed residential and commercial use developments.

Although he supports new construction, Walker says he does not support decreasing impact fees for developers.

“I don’t think we need to subsidize developers,” Walker said. “Impact fees should have been raised in 2019 and we could have paid for the growth with impact fees. I think it’s unfortunate we have had to raise water fees.”

Like Gabriel, Walker also supports emergency services and calls the police and fire departments “some of the most important things the city does.”

Ward 2

In Ward 2, incumbent Sam Nunnally is seeking reelection for his second term on city council.

Nunnally has spent most of his life in the Flathead Valley and manages the Flathead County Fairgrounds.

Like Gabriel, Nunnally credits the city’s low impact fees, which he voted to decrease in 2019, for the spike in development in recent years and says the added inventory helps lower housing costs.

“I think Kalispell is pro-development and there’s opportunities to improve that … we need housing,” Nunnally said.

Nunnally says inflation has impacted the city’s spending and while the council received pushback for increasing water rates in August, he said it was “out of the city council’s hands.” He acknowledged the council also voted to hike utility rates in 2019, but he said it was only a small increase.

In response to the growth in the homeless population, Nunnally hopes to work with local social service providers while including other communities in the conversation. He, too, voted for city ordinances that limited access to public structures following complaints.

Bolstering emergency services is another priority for Nunnally and he hopes the council can create a “long-term vision” for the fire and police departments.

Also running in Ward 2, Gabe Dillon is attempting a second run on city council after he lost to Chad Graham in 2021.

Dillon moved to Kalispell in 2015 and previously worked for Foys to Blacktail Trails before taking on trail consultant work and guiding for Whitefish Outfitters and Tours.

Having moved to the Flathead from Denver, Dillon supports infill development instead of urban sprawl. He also wants to see city planning that includes multifamily units along with mixed commercial developments and increased walkability with pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure.

While he supports development, Dillon does not support reduced impact fees for developers, and he believes city expenses should not instead be passed on to residents in their utility bills.

“I’m definitely on the side that we should not have lowered impact fees for developers,” Dillon said. “I think developments should pay for themselves.”

Dillon acknowledges that the homeless population’s growth has caused disruptions in the city’s public spaces and said it’s “become a real problem.” While the council passed ordinances that addressed some short-term issues, he said long-term solutions need to be laid out.

Kalispell City Hall. Beacon file photo

Ward 3

Running in Ward 3, Ryan Hunter is seeking reelection for a second term. He has lived in the Flathead for 14 years and works for the Flathead Land Trust.

Hunter views the housing shortage and the homeless crisis as intertwined issues and identified inaccessibility to affordable housing as one of the root causes of homelessness.

“Rather than being focused on short-term responses to the homeless situation, I’ve been very focused on long-term solutions to the crisis, which I believe is addressing the housing crisis,” Hunter sad.

For example, earlier this year, when the council approved three ordinances designed to limit occupancy in public parks facilities, Hunter opposed two of the measures, including one restricting the construction of shelters on public property, which he said was redundant — the city already had the authority to remove undesired shelters, he said, while the ordinance “needlessly” extended restrictions to things like sun shades parents use to cover their babies at music events in Depot Park. Hunter voted in favor of a measure capping the amount of time a party can occupy a covered structure unless they secure a permit for extended use, but characterized the general tenor of the city’s response as designed “to show the public that we are doing something about the situation rather than having any meaningful practical impact on the problems.”

Instead, Hunter has largely focused his energy on improving housing access as a means of addressing homelessness.

Drawing from his work with the Flathead Land Trust, Hunter also wants to see the city continue infill development to promote efficient growth, preserve open space and reduce sprawl. He also wants to see a more pedestrian and bike-friendly transportation plan.

While Hunter supports housing developments, he is against cutting impact fees for developers and advocates for keeping utility rates low for residents. He instead suggests reversing the rates – raising impact fees for developers and reducing utility rates for residents.

Also running in Ward 3, Kevin Aurich currently serves on the Kalispell Planning Board and has lived in the municipality since 1989. He works in sales for Western Building Center.

Aurich sees the impacts of inflation on developers first-hand at his job, and he supports low impact fees to help reduce barriers for new construction. However, he also does not want to see utility fees increased for residents, especially for elderly and retired folks.

To address the homeless crisis, Aurich wants to see the entire valley come together to help unhoused individuals and he says the county commissioners need to step up.

“All the entities need to get together and have a roundtable about homelessness and be proactive and get on the same page,” Aurich said. “It’s valley-wide.”

Aurich also wants to see more emergency services staff to keep up with Kalispell’s population growth.

To register to vote, visit www.flathead.mt.gov/election. Municipal elections will be held Tuesday, Nov. 7. The Flathead County Election Department will mail absentee ballots on Oct. 23.

Correction: This story has been updated to more clearly set forth Kalispell City Councilor Ryan Hunter’s voting record on a trio of city ordinances that council passed last February to restrict homeless encampments on public property.

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