City of Missoula grows, and what’s next for University of Montana open meetings

ParkMissoula is busy.

St. Pat’s is still in turmoil, according to this story from reporter David Erickson.

Planners talked growth Monday at Missoula City Club. That story here. Sounds like déjà vu all over again to me when it comes to the fight about growing in and up – or out and out and out. Back in 2008, or thereabouts, Missoula went through all kinds of planning, with the Urban Fringe Development Area Project and Envision Missoula, and at the time, the community notion was to grow mostly inwardly. The Growth Policy 2014 builds on the ideas, according to the city’s website.

Last week, I went to a budget meeting at the University of Montana, and it made me again curious about how the open meetings and access issue will play out for UM and the Montana University System.

The meeting was noticed, and I did get copies of the materials presented afterward. But it isn’t a given that UM will make materials available to the public, or do so in advance, as the city does.

Sooner or later, I need to follow up with Gov. Steve Bullock’s legal counsel, Andy Huff, on this topic. Huff redistributed a 2014 memo telling government agencies they need to have rules in place for public participation, as former Gov. Brian Schweitzer did.

But it’d be good to know if the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education received that directive. Huff said he wasn’t sure if OCHE got the original memo.

I’m not sure if the memo went to OCHE in 2014. The most recent distribution however occurred at an in-person meeting, and no one from OCHE was there. At chief legal counsel meetings, I typically invite only those agencies/departments under the Governor’s direct authority.

It doesn’t seem like an agency would need to wait for a directive to deal with public participation, but a spokesman for OCHE said he doesn’t believe the system is obligated to adopt such policies.

I can’t think of a time when UM has denied my request to get a copy of a document reviewed at a meeting, but I can definitely think of times people haven’t been sure whether they can provide documents that were clearly public (no names, all campus budget info), and I had to wait until well after the meeting (that wasn’t the case last week).

Also, water. The city of Missoula is taking over water projects slowly but surely, and reporter Peter Friesen has the story.

Picture is from the overlook at Milltown State Park.

  • Keila Szpaller

 

City wins condemnation case, Carlyle appeals

Here’s a link to the order itself. It’s short and easy to read.

Natasha Jones, a lawyer for the city, said everyone in Missoula should read it.

Here’s a look at some of the interesting things in the judge’s order if you don’t have time to read the whole thing right now.

Here’s a story about the appeal.

Here’s more about the role of Robert Dove of The Carlyle Group in the water case in Missoula.

Here’s reporter Dave Erickson’s story about the Mountain Water Co. employee group’s plan.

C’est tout. Except this bunny picture.

The bunny is a Happy Wednesday for Councilman Jon Wilkins, who recently inquired about Red Tape. If you care to adopt this rabbit, it’s at the Humane Society of Western Montana, and it has a friend, also a bunny, also black and white.

– Keila Szpaller

 

Some observations from Missoula condemnation court

We’re nearly halfway through the city of Missoula’s condemnation case against Mountain Water Co. and owner The Carlyle Group.

It’s as interesting as I thought it might be. The witnesses are providing fascinating details, and the lawyers are giving some engaging performances.

A couple themes have emerged in testimony so far. One thing I’m curious about is the relationship between Mayor John Engen and Robert Dove, managing director of infrastructure for Carlyle.

From all accounts to this point, it seems like Dove did intend to sell the water utility to the city of Missoula. Bruce Bender, chief administrative officer, remembered an evening with Dove, I think at Finn and Porter, where Dove put his arm around Engen and said, “Mayor, are you ready to buy a water company?”

So what happened? Did someone above Dove’s head shut it down? Did they figure they could get more from someone else? Then why not counter?

Last March, Dove answered written questions from the Missoulian, and I just took another look at them. They didn’t help me with my new questions, but I’m putting them here and follow ups here* anyway in case you want to take a look. (No answer to my question of whether the Carlyle crew had checked out Charlie B’s.)

More questions? Yes. Have ’em.

Would Carlyle actually benefit if it loses to the city? (And is this the reason they didn’t do well before trial? ‘Cause they didn’t need to?) Since Algonquin proposed to buy Western Water, the three companies, regardless of the outcome of the eminent domain proceeding, then wouldn’t Carlyle be better off getting paid from both the city and Algonquin? Or does Algonquin then take Carlyle to court? Messy.

Alright, other themes from trial. So far, only the city’s witnesses have testified. The picture they’re painting is that the utility is in dire straits and desperate for repairs, but instead of putting money into fixes, the private owners are pocketing it.

Of course, when Mountain’s own engineers take the stand, they may testify that the city cherry-picked photos of rotting pipes. They might say most of the pipes are actually alright, although I’m not sure how they will contest the high leakage rate.

Time is proving to be a focus in this trial, too. Judge Karen Townsend is keeping track of the minutes, and the lawyers are paying close attention. Here’s an order that explains the reason.

Shoot, I want to say more here about the lawyers and, ahem, #condemnationwear, but I’ll do that another time. Calling it a day, unlike all the attorneys and paralegals, who are probably working right now.

Good night.

– Keila Szpaller

P.S. The photo is of Joe Conner, taken by Missoulian photo editor Kurt Wilson.

*Updated with correct doc. Sorry!

Missoula taxes, parking, advocacy!

parkplace

Our new parking “garage” won an award. Congrats! Here’s the story about Park Place and the reason parking professionals think it’s cool. It’s waaaay more than a garage. Photo by Michael Gallacher.

Also, reporter Martin Kidston did an analysis of taxes the major cities in Montana levy. In Missoula, we’re getting a bargain, according to the figures in this story. Kidston said in order to do an apples to apples comparison, the review doesn’t include programs voters approve on the ballot, such as open space bonds. It’s a look at the ones levied by elected officials and out of our direct control.

And speaking of taxes, if you’re protesting the proposed safety and justice district, your deadline is 5 p.m. Friday, June 20 in one week, June 22. (Thank you city clerk Marty Rehbein for the correction.) More on that in an upcoming story. And here it is!

Do you remember the nondiscrimination ordinance Missoula adopted back in 2010? Long meetings, many comments, lots of debate? Jamee Greer of the Montana Human Rights Network led the organizing, and after launching his social justice career in his home state of the Big Sky, he leaves Montana for Oregon. Here’s a conversation with Greer about his work and the way it’s changed.

— Keila Szpaller

 

The more things change

Ever wonder what folks were talking about in City Hall in 1987?

Councilman Jason Wiener passed on the news from that spring from some young reporters for the Sussex Times about “City Hall (the place where you pay your parking tickets).” Take a peek here.

“(Mayor Bob Lovegrove) mostly talked about how there was not enough money and how bad our city budget was,” reads part of a story by Ada Brant. “He also discussed the drainage problem in the South Hills, problems funding city parks, zoning, getting along with the city council, traffic tickets and jailhouse conditions.”

Other topics? Drugs and alcohol. Hiking. Cracking jokes.

Don’t you just love that description, though: “The place where you pay your parking tickets.”

— Keila Szpaller

Poverello Center: Thanks, but no thanks

I just got off the phone with Poverello Center acting director Eran Fowler.

I asked her about other locations that have come up for the Pov, and she said her phone has been ringing quite a bit from people in town who are trying to sell their homes.

“My home has been on the market for three years,” someone will tell her. “It’s seven bedrooms. Do you think it’s big enough?”

Maybe, maybe not. But there are other considerations. Fowler mentions zoning, and after listening a while, people tell her the deal just might not work. And they are probably correct.

It’s a little funny to think of trying to sell a neighborhood house to the Poverello, but it also sounds like another sign the real estate market is far from booming.

And this reminds me … there is some appealing property for sale as far as the city of Missoula is concerned. It’s flood plain land the city wants to buy for $1.5 million.

— Keila Szpaller

Moody’s predicts doubledip recession for Missoula; mayor bullish

Missoula Mayor John Engen voiced doubts Wednesday on CNBC that Missoula will suffer from a double-dip recession.

The number of cities in recovery has plateaued, and more cities are in danger of backsliding, according to a Moody’s analysis quoted in this story.

The list notes Missoula as troubled, but Engen said in the national broadcast the finding is based on an old picture of Missoula’s economy.

“We’re pretty lucky here,” Engen said during the live broadcast, explaining both Missoula and Montana don’t experience the economic high-highs or low-lows that other parts of the country do.

“The Moody’s piece points to trends in the timber industry, a decline that’s been going on the past 30 years, and so we are pretty accustomed to dealing with that and we’ve diversified.”

The show, “Street Signs with Erin Burnett” also brought Utica, N.Y., Mayor David Roefaro to speak. Roefaro confirmed Utica is raising taxes 7.25 percent, but he also said it isn’t much compared with a couple neighbors, upping taxes 46 percent and 48 percent.

Um, ouch.

In a phone call, city finance director Brentt Ramharter shared the rates of city property tax increases in recent years:

2011, proposed: 3.5 percent (special districts of 2 percent plus health costs)

2010: 0 percent

2009: 4.8 percent

2008: 3.66 percent

2007: 4.25 percent

Engen mentioned the special districts in the interview, and that’s one thing that’s caught attention here at home. Some folks fear that without a cap, those fees will just go up and up and up. So far, no one has talked about ideas to restrict them.

But there’s another budget discussion this afternoon. See you there.

— Keila Szpaller

Money, money money … must be funny

Today, Mayor John Engen releases his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year. Sounds like it’s smaller than last year’s budget, continuing the trend lately of shrinking city coffers.

The tax increase? Union contracts? Possible wage freezes? Fuel costs? Um … status of a new cop shop? Still on hold? Maybe that one would be better after The Best Place Project pays off and we’re all living in a rich man’s world.

— Keila Szpaller

A grab for Google

Mayor John Engen said Missoula will indeed respond to Google with a proposal that this city be a test site for super-duper fast broadband networks.

“We need to keep swinging at the pitches,” Engen said.

He said this coming Tuesday he’ll visit with his staff about scheduling a community meeting in short order to get interested folks around the table — and hear as many ideas as possible to get a strong application out the door.

Engen said when the idea first arose, IT director Carl Horton told him it’d be great for Missoula to toss its name in the hat. He’s heard from a handful of other folks, but he said no campaign is necessary.

“We’re on it. It’s great.”

— Keila Szpaller

The Green Destiny

That was the powerful sword in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Sometimes it feels like you need one of those to get information you want. I’d still like to see firsthand the source of MSN.CareerBuilder.com’s “worst cities” list, for instance.

This week at City Hall, though, the river of information seems to be flowing strong. Someone from the City Finance Department dropped off a hard copy of the city budget and audit report here at the Missoulian. I hadn’t even asked.

I did ask for a bunch of data on DUI tickets, and the city communications director and a crew in Municipal Court are dredging it up. That’s super news. I wasn’t sure it was all collectible.

Already, we know this from communications director Ginny Merriam: In 2008, the number of DUI citations issued was 794. In 2009, it was 679. (Source per Merriam: Assistant Chief Mike Brady).

What happens to the tickets after that? I believe that’s coming soon, too.

Just because people are answering questions doesn’t mean they’re happy to hear from reporters, though. Something like this on my voicemail yesterday: “If the pope needs a belt, I guess I need a reporter.”

I’m glad the caller dialed in despite the pain. Maybe I should send a belt as a thank you, but I don’t think it sends the right message or sets a good precedent.

— Keila Szpaller