New budget watchdog

Lyn Hellegaard

Councilman John Hendrickson passes on the microphone to Roy Houseman. That’s official. His unofficial role as a budget watchdog also will be filled.

Councilwoman Lyn Hellegaard, who worked as a banker for 20 years, said Hendrickson passed her the torch. (This photo from her City of Missoula Web page.)

“I was a banker for many years, so that’s just one of my areas, and I have agreed with Hendrickson that we need to get a handle on this,” Hellegaard said.

“This” is the budget, of course. Last year, Mayor John Engen told departments to pinch down spending, and they did. Hellegaard is thinking there’s a lot more squeezing to be done ahead.

City finance director Brentt Ramharter gives the council periodic updates, and Hellegaard put in a referral asking for one. She’s hoping it comes sooner rather than later.

Her approach might be different than Hendrickson’s. He was loud at the microphone, and so far, Hellegaard has been more watchful and quiet, though firm at times.

“I remember my second-grade teacher lecturing the class once. She said you never learn anything when your mouth is moving,” Hellegaard said. “So I’ve kind of used this (first couple years) to sit back, educate myself, (and) size up the territory.”

Her approach in the future? “I’ll continue to put the referrals in and hope we can have open discussions and work this stuff out.”

Sounds reasonable enough. Council president Ed Childers is hoping for a constructive council, too. He said a dozen alderfolks get elected, and 12 get to have input. He also said he doesn’t like a minority that just votes “no” on things like the budget.

“This is what I think,” Childers said. “The minority that functions best is one that tries to contribute to the things that are going on and make … the final product something that works best for everybody.”

Committee assignments and leadership roles are on the docket for next week. The council convenes again Monday, this time with Houseman.

‘Til then, Happy New Year.

— Keila Szpaller

Everyone is swearing

I thought City Clerk Marty Rehbein was the one to swear in the elected officials. Nope

Noon on Monday, the municipal judge, mayor and councilors take their oaths of office. The swearing in part? It’s musical chairs. Here’s the rundown from Rehbein.

“The Mayor will swear in Judge Louden.  Judge Louden will swear in the Mayor.  The Mayor will swear in the council members.”

It’s a lot of swearing, but the good kind. The upholding-the-laws-of-the-land kind. It happens in Council Chambers, if you want to join. Some of the councilors even dress up, and it may be the only time you see them spiffed up all year.

— Keila Szpaller

Vrooming vans

Enough with the alliteration.

The vans at “Mister TMA,” or the Missoula Ravalli Transportation Management Association, are packed. Still. The waiting list is 217, and that doesn’t include requests from Helena.

“The only way we’re going to get more riders is to start strapping people onto the hood,” said MRTMA’s Lyn Hellegaard.

Riders generally like it because they appreciate knowing their fellow commuters.

I was talking with Hellegaard, a councilor, about the year ahead in council chambers. Thought I’d see if her van pool program was seeing the same drop as buses are seeing.

The answer was decidedly not, and it was one reason Hellegaard was in the office at all. There’s demand for the vans statewide.

“Vans have been basically operating at capacity for the last four years. As a matter of fact, that’s why I’m here today. I’m working on an FTA (Federal Transportation Administration) grant to see if we can’t get 10 more vans to expand the program.”

— Keila Szpaller

The roomy bus

Buses aren’t as full as they were last year, when ridership here and nationally hit record highs. First, the bird’s eye view:

“… Public transit ridership declined by 3.8 percent in the first nine months of 2009 compared to record levels in the same period last year,” reads a news release this month from the American Public Transportation Association. “Trips on all of the major modes of public transportation — bus, light rail, heavy rail, and commuter rail — were down;  paratransit (demand response) and trolleybus were the only two modes that saw increases in ridership.”

The association attributes the drop to high unemployment, declines in gas prices, and less money. Data here.

Here in Missoula, Mountain Line general manager Steve Earle said he’s seeing a small drop. (The national data is for the calendar year; local data is for the fiscal year with a July 1 start.)

“We’re seeing a slight decline,” Earle said.

He said buses had more riders in July, August, September and October of this year compared with a couple years ago. But the number of people riding isn’t as high when compared with last year, a record year.

“We’re probably 3 to 4 percent below that, until November,” Earle said. Then, “we actually are 1 to 2 percent ahead of that year.”

Ridership trends follow the price of gasoline, he said. Weather also plays a role, and the closure at Stone Container will have an affect.

Of course, not every year can be a record one.

“So far this year, we’re down 2 to 3 percent compared with the prior year, but we’re still ahead of 2008,” Earle said.

He also said three of Mountain Line’s new buses have arrived and should be in operation come February. The old ones, with some 500,000 miles, will retire from use in Missoula.

“They’ve lived their life as far as public transit goes for Mountain Line,” Earle said. “We’ll put them on the auction block and see what happens.”

— Keila Szpaller

Dirty politics, almost

This week and last week, it’s almost a boon to get a source on the phone. I called the mayor’s office this week about a new snow removal rule. I didn’t need to talk to these folks, but it turns out the mayor’s out, the CAO is out, and the communications officer is out. Party at City Hall, anyone?

Last week, it was Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth who was gone, but he called today. Unsworth issued a ruling this month on the  campaign complaint Councilman Ed Childers filed a couple years ago.

The complaint was against then-candidate Lewie Schneller, who said he believed the offense wasn’t critical given the length of time it took for a decision.

I wanted to ask Unsworth about that assessment. It turns out he disagrees.

“The short version is, his assertion that it took so long because it wasn’t as important is wrong. That’s not the way I see it,” Unsworth said.

He also said there’s a class of complaints that are technical violations. Those may be where a brochure includes a mailing address but not a phone number, or leaves off a treasurer’s name.

“Those kinds of violations we consider technical in nature, and often we can resolve those fairly quickly — and we do,” Unsworth said.

In Schneller’s case, he said the brochure failed to show where the candidate pulled information used to criticize the opponent.

“Until the Legislature decides they want to change that, that is a violation of the law in our minds, and it’s a serious matter,” Unsworth said.

The longer time was necessary because a call to Schneller showed an investigation was merited.

The case of the Missoula County Democrats against Councilman John Hendrickson moved quickly. In that instance, Unsworth said the initial phone call gave him enough information to make a ruling.

“It falls very near the area of campaign dirty tricks, but at the same time, to prove a violation of the political civil libel statute takes a clear showing that there was an intent to deceive, an intent to do harm,” Unsworth said.

Hendrickson’s response was clear cut, so no investigation was necessary. That means the decision — in Hendrickson’s favor — came just a couple months after the complaint was filed.

— Keila Szpaller

Bushmills for Baucus

Here’s a couple reasons  Sen. Max Baucus could belly up to the bar. To celebrate? Commiserate? It all depends.

1. No one remembers Melodee. (Sure they do, honey.)

2. Coverage for abortion isn’t required in the Senate version of the Health Care bill. For plans that do offer the coverage, people pay for it separately.

3. An insurance lobbyist can foot the bill for the spirits.

4. Congressmen do it with so much more panache.

5. There’s still a federal transportation bill to tackle, but Missoula’s already got three new buses.

Surely there’s more reasons to pour the man a drink. But more than one shot? Please, said a Baucus spokesman: Calling the senator drunk is  “gutter politics.”

Maybe Baucus needs to head to the espresso bar instead.

— Keila Szpaller

Stand by your (alleged) dolt

It’s official. The lady married him anyway.

A curious and vigilant co-worker pointed out the man accused of sexual assault during his own bachelor party indeed is officially married.

It’s in today’s public records. Need a refresher on the story? It involves a bachelor party ran amok and even one terrified limo driver. Crime reporter Tristan Scott posted the latest story here, where Jordan Iddings pleads innocent to a couple clobberings.

The marriage became official Dec. 19. May the couple and any limo drivers in their midst live happily ever after.

— Keila Szpaller

Thievery

Keep printing the signs that say Mary Jane Boulevard — and sell them to citizens for a profit.

That’s one suggestion from a couple citizens who read this story about street signs getting stolen. Some, like Easy Street and Missoula Avenue, get stolen over and over and over again.

b7de6394-f0aa-11de-8691-001cc4c03286.preview-300To combat the costly problem, city traffic services coordinator Wayne Gravatt has started printing “MJ BLVD” signs instead of Mary Jane signs. Missoula Avenue is now “MSLA AVE.”

Here’s another suggestion from a man who lives in Ronan:

The fix — in my opinion — is two-fold. 1) Simply spot-weld the signs in place. It’s not likely that the mobile thieves would have the equipment on hand to cut or torch through a weld. It would take them too long and potentially increase the chances of being observed.
And 2) Hand out some stiff — no, STIFF — penalties for the thieves when caught — both jail time and $$$. Not just for penalty purposes — but as an eye-opening deterrent for future wanna-be thieves and vandals.
Maybe convicted thieves can help with the printing and the city can make T-shirts, too. “Mary Jane Boulevard” and “Easy Street” shirts, and in small type, “Bought from a sign thief in Missoula.” I predict they will sell like hotcakes.
— Keila Szpaller

Deck the halls

A while ago, I listed some of the reasons I dig my neighborhood.

Here’s another one: Last night, carolers showed up. They sang us “Deck the Halls” and “We Wish you a Merry Christmas.” Their dogs danced in our yard, and we got cookies and hugs from a little girl. Super awesome.

On another note, here’s one from my Twitter: “Volunteers needed to help Bobby Hauck pack up all his framed Kaimin editions. Call 1-800-Just-Kidding. http://tinyurl.com/y9xedpc”

Actually, it’s Christmas trees that are getting packed up. That story on its way, and then festivities and a Happy New Year.

— Keila Szpaller

Lewie laments

Lucky Lewie. He’s in sunny Tucson, Ariz. When reached for comment on the decision by the Commissioner of Political Practices, Lewie Schneller admitted he’d missed a step on the brochure, but also said doing so wasn’t the end of the world.

“I do accept the responsibility for my failure to make those footnotes in terms of referencing my sources,” Schneller said Wednesday.

He figured the offense wasn’t critical, though, especially given the length of time it took to be resolved.

“It just wasn’t that serious of a violation,” Schneller said. “It’s a technicality, an administrative failure on my part and my advisors.”

I think the length of time indicates the Commissioner is bogged down, but it does seem anticlimactic to get a decision two years after the election.

Although he’s basking in the sun, Schneller will return to Missoula and said he hasn’t ruled out taking another shot at Childers’s city council seat in the future.

“If nobody else stands up to the plate, somebody has to do it,” Schneller said.

Hot tamales and Happy Christmas.

— Keila Szpaller