John Engen, Missoula’s longest-serving mayor (and counting), says he still has the verve, support and “fire in my belly” to keep going for at least one more term. Or maybe one more term after that.
The 52-year-old (53 in October), three-term incumbent will have been in office for 12 years by the end of 2017.
He’s faces one challenger this election, Lisa Triepke, a Cost Care director. And he's coming off of a year that saw the city's long-fought eminent domain case against Mountain Water come to completion, as well as Engen's public admission to a stint in rehab last fall, following a six-month return to drinking — including during work — after years of being sober.
As long as he’s relevant, effective and active — coasting, he said, is “not my style” — Engen’s committed to continuing his work.
Before he ran for his first term in 2005, Engen said he asked then-mayor Mike Kadas and former mayor Dan Kemmis how they decided whether or not to run for another term.
“They both said, ‘If you’re doing this right, you’re going to want a second term,’” Engen said. “It’s a long game.”
And for three terms in a row at least, Missoulians affirmed his desire to continue serving. He’s won with over 60 percent of the vote in all of his elections, even ones with multiple opponents.
His current challenger, though, is making longevity a negative. Harping on an aside she said Engen made about being “mayor for life” at a City Club meeting earlier this year, Triepke casts Engen and his administration as a close inner circle who push through their agenda whether Missoula wants it or not.
Engen contends he didn’t say anything about wanting to be “mayor for life,” at least not seriously, though others do bring it up from time to time.
“I’m not interested in being mayor for life,” Engen said. He does oppose imposing term limits on the office, taking the tack that elections are a natural term limit, and that it’s cynical to force politicians out every term or two.
Term limits "suggest voters don’t have the intelligence to make choices about who will represent them,” Engen said. “I believe the voters are smart enough to vote the bums out.”
This election, he's not taking chances: Engen’s raised nearly $60,000 from hundreds of individual donors.
The best way to indicate a broad base of support, he said, is raising money.
“We have reached out far and wide to make sure folks who want to support my candidacy can do so,” Engen said. “I run to win.”
This election carries added uncertainty for Engen. He will see how much the community still supports him (with their votes at least) after he publicly shared his struggle with alcoholism and the time in rehab that kept him out of the office for several weeks last fall.
Engen said the treatment followed a six-month period where he started drinking again after six years of being sober. He admitted to being drunk at work during that time.
“I drank every day,” Engen said. “I was never incapacitated while making decisions, but I certainly wasn’t at the top of my game."
Engen said he’s stayed sober since going to treatment last October and promised to continue.
“Relapse is not uncommon, but I learned a lot in treatment,” he said. “I do the things every day that I need to ensure that I’m treating my disease. It is not always easy, but in about a month, a little over a month, I will have had a year of sobriety.”
He’ll also continue to talk publicly about alcoholism, saying he’s tired of elected officials who pretend they aren’t human. Everyone has “something,” he said, and his is alcohol addiction.
“In my case, it was only fair that everyone knew what my 'something' was and is.”
Just a couple of months removed from one of the longest, most time-consuming projects of his career in the Mountain Water condemnation, Engen’s figuring out how to spend his time when it’s not buried underneath stacks of court paperwork.
“Every day there was some emergent piece of water business that we needed to deal with. It just took time.”
So he’s working back to basics, right now focused on gathering data across city departments to rework their best practices.
He wants to benchmark performance, comparing police calls today vs. this day last year, for example, or how many potholes get filled year over year.
Using that data can help department heads use their resources more efficiently, knowing what seasons are the busiest and how work trends over several years.
The next major point of focus — albeit one Engen's harped on since his first election — is housing: housing for everybody, from homeless people to seniors to downsizing couples to students or newlyweds.
The city's office of Housing and Community Development was started this year, with a department head dedicated to enacting a focused housing plan, Engen said.
There’s a bit of reflection mixed into campaign season along with looking forward. Engen was asked for some of his proudest accomplishments off the beaten path (no Mountain Water, Riverfront Triangle, Urban Renewal District development).
He started with the city’s agreement with the Department of Justice on sexual assault and sexual violence response from the police department.
Missoula’s now a model for a victim-centered approach to sexual violence, Engen thought, saying that while other communities may have dug in their heels or ignored the problem, Missoula faced it head on.
“That could have gone very differently and it’s gone very differently in many communities,” he said.
The Downtown Master Plan followed, which Engen credited with attracting new development to the once-flagging commercial sector.
The city’s relationship with the Montana Department of Transportation has led to some fast-tracked projects, such as the Madison Street Bridge, Engen said, and continues with Russell Street Bridge construction next year and Higgins Avenue construction by 2020.
He cited the reworked city zoning code, which is more predictable and is updated more often to reflect changing needs in Missoula. The Development Services office, the Citizen Service program, which takes direct complaints from Missoulians and works to fix them, the city’s conservation work, the fare-free Mountain Line bus system … he could go on.
“We’re just doing a lot of stuff better,” he said.
And, most important: “I’m proud of the fact that when the Hell’s Angels came for the second time we didn’t have a riot," as happened during the motorcycle club's 2000 visit.
As mayor, Engen chairs the Monday-evening City Council meetings. He hears every kind of comment, from being cursed out and called "your highness," to a citizen wishing him well the week after returning from rehab.
There have been more than 500 of those meetings and Engen said he still listens at every one.
“My mind can still be changed and I respond to facts,” he said.
And what has he learned from the dozen years as mayor?
“Believe it or not, I listen more than I talk. I allow smart people to surround a problem and work toward solutions. I own my mistakes, and I make them. I apologize for them and I learn from them. And I’m sometimes courageous.”
Check back in The Missoulian and on missoulian.com the week of Oct. 2 to read a series of stories comparing John Engen's and Lisa Triepke's stances on five important city issues: affordable housing, homelessness, business/wages, infrastructure and the budget.