Whack your weeds

In Councilman Bob Jaffe’s weekly committee report, he tells people to chop their weeds — and he gives them a good reason to do so. It’s $383 you’ll save.

“The way this works is someone complains about someone else’s weeds. Someone from Public works then goes out and checks it out and takes pictures. A letter is then sent to the property owner telling them to cut their weeds. After some time public works goes back out and checks. If they are not cut they get warned again and then finally they contract with someone to go out and cut the weeds. Then they send the person a bill. If the bill does not get paid it comes to us to approve assessing it on their taxes. There were about half a dozen this year. The average cost to cut the weeds is about $150. Then they tack on a $233 administrative fee.  This represents the approximately ten hours of staff time it takes to run it through the whole process.  So if you ever get one of these letters please just cut your weeds. It will save you a lot of money.”

It takes 10 hours? Hmm. Really?? With or without smoke breaks?  (Please feel free to pass this idea onto able-bodied panhandlers: Go around town, knock on the doors of weedy places, show the people Jaffe’s note, and offer to chop weeds for less than $383.)

Jaffe also reports that Councilwoman Renee Mitchell moved to the public’s microphone to try to get a word in ’cause she didn’t think he’d call on her. He was tired from another tiff and let her go ahead and speak — but read all about it yourself here.*

— Keila Szpaller

Breaking records

Mountain Line broke another record this year. It gave 4 percent more rides from July 2008 through June 2009 than the previous year, according to the transit folks. That’s 849,051 in FY09 compared with 811,216 in FY08.

General manager Steve Earle said the jump in gas prices last summer counted toward this fiscal year’s numbers. “So of course that was a big boost in breaking the record.” The trend continued until about April when gas prices dropped, though some new riders are sticking with the program.

Earle said Mountain Line still plans to buy 10 new buses before the end of 2009. They’re replacing old buses and adding capacity — but they aren’t adding routes for now. “We just again don’t have the money to sustain operational costs.”

So what are they doing with the old buses?

“You want to buy one?”

Well, do they work?

“They make great chicken coops.”

— Keila Szpaller

Wish List 2009

I’m going to talk with our tech folks soon about putting together a Web site that’s dedicated to city elections. I’m picturing something I saw once on the Chicago Tribune site. It was a map of the city, and you could float your mouse over different districts and the candidates’ pictures would pop up with brief bios. It was pretty sharp. It’d be cool to then be able to click on the bio/pic and get more info.

Anyway, here’s the beginnings of a wish list — possibilities for a 2009 elections page. Got ideas? Please post them here and I’ll ask my favorite geeks what’s possible. (And I ask because your feedback on granny suites was so fruitful.)

*Timeline (when ballots go out, etc.)

*Candidate info: Q&As; profiles; mugs; bio boxes with links to their campaign sites, other questionnaires they’ve filled out, etc. (The usual.)

*”Ask a Candidate.” A place where citizens can post questions for specific candidates and they respond.

*Video clips of interviews with candidates.

*A gizmo where you plug in your address and it spits out your ward. (I think a person might end up being the gizmo, though.)

*Voting records

*Info from the County Elections Office, like how to register to vote and how to get a ballot. I know they’ve got a lot of that stuff on their Web site, too.

Thanks for any ideas or links of cool elections pages — and feel free to post questions you think should be in Q&As too. If you’re a candidate, I’ll be emailing you next week about coverage and hopefully setting up interviews. (For later in August and not for next week.)

— Keila Szpaller

Oxford Saloon on Panhandling

Here’s a couple excerpts from a letter an Oxford manager sent (edited).

“Each … day that I walk to work, I am approached by these people, and even though they know that I will not give them money, I have been cursed at, had rocks thrown at me, and been spit upon. I know the feeling of every pedestrian that walks through the ‘supposed’ city of Missoula. I was born and raised here all my life, and can’t believe how they have gotten out of control.

Part of my job here at the Oxford is to kick these bums out, as drunk, or sober, they come in the establishment, and cause nothing but trouble, as they KNOW that they have nothing to lose. They not only steal drinks from my patrons, but also take food from customers’ plates. This is not acceptable, therefore I have to ask them to leave.

Sincerely, Mark ‘Marshal’ Allen”

Wondering what the difference is between a bum and a hobo? Here’s a note from a Missoulian copy editor reading his thesaurus: “a hobo is a migratory worker who likes to travel, a tramp travels without working, and a bum does not travel or work.”

— Keila Szpaller

Squash it

The city of Missoula is asking the court to deny or quash the lawsuit — a “writ of mandate” — filed on the zoning rewrite. Deputy city attorney Keithi Worthington forwarded the city’s response.*

In it, city attorney Jim Nugent writes that the “affidavits are permeated with speculative allegations as to what, in their personal opinion, might occur.”

He notes the new code isn’t yet adopted and suggests the concerns of the three plaintiff councilors can be dealt with outside the courts — in council chambers. “Petitioners must first exhaust all other remedies, such as legislatively attempting to make revisions to the proposed City of Missoula Zoning Rewrite Project.”

— Keila Szpaller

Panhandling: What you don’t see

Patrol officer Jim Johnson sees more activity downtown than most of the rest of us. He said panhandlers leave a lot of “residual effects.” As examples, he noted feces on sidewalks and people having sex in the parking lots of businesses.

“Those are the things that a lot of people don’t see,” Johnson said.

And things a lot of people probably don’t want to see.

But what you DO want to see? It’s unrelated, but the Indy‘s got a new Web site and a blog. I’d link to the blog but I’m having technical difficulties — it’s a tab on the new main page.

— Keila Szpaller

It’s Friday afternoon

And City Attorney Jim Nugent is busy. He may finish writing a response to the zoning rewrite lawsuit today, but he said he may not, either, if people like me keep interrupting him. I told him what the mayor always tells me at the end of a phone conversation — “Take the rest of the day off.” (Yeah, Tim, because reporters are lazy. Here’s one variation of a Brazilian insult: Go take a bath with your mother-in-law.)

Nugent said the city hasn’t actually been served with the lawsuit yet, although the city may not have to be served because the procedures may be different for the “writ of mandate.” He said the rules aren’t written with clarity, but either way, the judge is going to get piles of information from the city. Last time I talked with Nugent, he said this about the lawsuit: “Some of what goes on with those folks is political — not legal.” (Aha.)

And another thing, downtown — and on the telephone — people are asking why Higgins Avenue is a construction zone again. I asked a guy wearing an orange vest the question this morning. “Stimulus?” he said. The question is on Public Works director Steve King’s voicemail, but reporter Rob Chaney said they’re probably just putting down a layer of chip-seal, which makes the whole thing last longer. (Thanks, Chaney.)

Insulting people isn’t helpful or kind, by the way. I was out of line. OK. Guidelines for comments in the works, but thanks to everyone who is providing helpful and insightful links, perspectives, opinions, and refraining from the jabs. Sorry, Tim, bathing alone — or hey, with Mr. Bubbles — is fine and dandy.

— Keila Szpaller

A brief tribute

Poverello Center director Ellie Hill also sent this note about Richard Roy Jones:

“The man who drowned in the Clark Fork this past weekend in Missoula was one of our clients languishing on the waiting list to get into the Valor House.  Richard Roy Jones was a Native American and an honorably discharged homeless veteran — enrolled in the Veteran Administration/Poverello Center’s Homeless Veteran Program.  He served in the USMC from 1980 to 1983.  Richard had finally made it to the eighth in line — after months trying to succeed under the constraints of our overcrowded shelter — when he succumbed to the elements and to his addictions. Mr. Jones was not a transient. He was a Missoulian and a really well-liked, fantastic guy.”

— Keila Szpaller

Drive slower — get there faster

And save gas. Those are some benefits to roundabouts, according to this Slate piece* on why drivers in this country haven’t quickly warmed up to the roundabout idea.  Can’t manage to slowly drive around one? The author suggests that maybe you shouldn’t have a license in the first place.

“Luckily, though, there are signs that our national roundabout aversion may not last forever. In places like Clearwater Beach, Fla., residents have actually petitioned for roundabouts to be installed, even holding a party on opening day. When’s the last time that happened for a traffic signal?”

Don’t wait for the opening bash to visit the Higgins-Hill Beckwith area — businesses are open. Super open. Open wide.

— Keila Szpaller

Criminalizing poverty

The Poverello Center is backing just one of the two ordinances that emerged from downtowners’ conversations about aggressive panhandling.

Pov director Ellie Hill said the nonprofit supports defining inappropriate behaviors and creating consequences for those actions. That’s as long as the rules in the ordinance* apply as equally to the aggressive Girl Scout cookie seller as they do to a bellligerent old dude.

But Hill said the Pov isn’t going to get behind the ordinance* that bans sleeping or snoozing on streets and sidewalks. She said one Pov supporter called her and wanted to remind her of the story of the Good Samaritan. That good guy was helping the person on the streets — not slapping him with a misdemeanor as the ordinance proposes.

“To me, that’s the very definition of criminalizing poverty,” Hill said. “It’s wrong. How can you provide criminal consequences for being poor? Or having nowhere else to sit? Or nowhere else to sleep at night?”

Making poverty a crime is a trend,* according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. And poverty is growing, too. Hill shared these local stats, * including a 135 percent increase from 2008 to 2009 in requests from the food pantry. (That’s a comparison of the first six months of both years.)

Both ordinances are up for a public hearing Monday at the regular Missoula City Council meeting.

— Keila Szpaller