Voters in Flathead County’s municipal elections on Tuesday delivered victories to incumbent city council candidates in Kalispell and Whitefish, according to unofficial results released shortly after midnight. They also elected a new council member in Columbia Falls and approved a ballot measure that will reallocate a portion of Whitefish’s resort tax to fund community housing initiatives.
With each city grappling with varying degrees of growth, development and affordability in the wake of the Flathead Valley’s pandemic boom, elected representatives in all three municipalities have faced difficult choices as they consider a raft of proposals for large-scale developments alongside measures to mitigate homelessness, as well as initiatives to improve housing affordability, increase utility rates and capture tourism spending.
In that context, the incumbent candidates largely touted their voting records to gain voters’ support while also pledging to continue seeking solutions to a range of complex issues.
In Kalispell, where six candidates were vying for three council seats, Kari Gabriel retained her seat in Ward 1 with 482 votes, while Sam Nunnally kept his in Ward 2 with 529 votes and Ryan Hunter was re-elected in Ward 3 with 605 votes. Sid Daoud ran unopposed in Ward 4 and voters retained Municipal Judge Alison Howard.
In Whitefish, seven candidates were on the hunt for three seats on the city council, with incumbents Frank Sweeney (1,275 votes), Steve Qunell (1,168 votes) and Rebecca Norton (1,063 votes) fending off challenges to retain their posts while Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld ran unopposed for what will be his fourth term. Sweeney will also enter a fourth term while Qunell and Norton were both re-elected to second terms.
In Columbia Falls, Darin Fisher was unseated by Kathryn Price, who edged out the incumbent with 569 votes to his 423. Incumbents John Piper (668 votes) and Kelly Hamilton-King (678 votes) kept their positions.
Voters in Whitefish also approved a measure to reallocate 10% of the city’s resort tax to support funding community housing, which could generate $27 million in funding for housing over a 20-year period. The initiative garnered 1,773 “for” votes and 353 “against.” The resort tax is a 3% fee collected in Whitefish on transactions related to lodging, retail, bars, and restaurants.
In Kalispell, an unprecedented clerical error caused a ballot mishap as Flathead County Elections Department announced it had issued ballots according to an outdated map of ward and precinct boundaries, which did not reflect the new boundaries approved by city council in December 2021. Officials said the mistake means that an as-yet undetermined number of voters in the Nov. 7 municipal elections would have received the wrong ballot.
According to Flathead County Election Manager Adrienne Chmelik, election administrators will follow statutory instructions as they puzzle out the error and determine how to proceed. None of the election results are official until the Flathead County Board of Commissioners certifies them as canvassed.
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