Over the past two weeks, the Missoula City Council has logged many hours discussing the nuances of the 2016 fiscal year budget.
The talks have covered their share of mundane issues to be sure, such as spending $26,900 to paint the city’s streets, or a $3,500 membership with the Alliance for Innovation.
But such snoozer topics are simply peppered among more pressing issues that should prompt the public to weigh in, whether in favor or against.
Given the city’s recent success in addressing how reports of sexual violence are handled, spending $49,988 to hire a new crime victim advocate at Relationship Violence Services might be one area of public interest.
Spending a larger portion of the general fund on street maintenance might be another, given complaints about potholes. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for full-time city employees might be another still.
Cue the chirping crickets.
Over the course of the budget talks, the debates have been lively, but the public has remained absent from the process. Lobbying for extra staffing or funding for a particular office has fallen on the shoulders of advocates working in this or that field, or managers running this or that office.
The public’s absence hasn’t gone unnoticed by members of the City Council, particularly on topics related to budgeting. Watching the process over the past few weeks, it’s clear the concerns of our elected officials are correct.
At best, the public input has been minimal.
“Are there any public comments on this issue?” Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler has repeated many times in recent weeks. “Seeing none, we’ll move on.”
Over the years, I’ve learned that most people don’t pay much attention to local government until something impacts them directly, typically a new fee or a new casino.
That’s usually the case during City Council meetings on Monday nights when Kandi Matthew-Jenkins and Greg Strandberg show up to voice their conservative opinions during public comment.
Matthew-Jenkins spends her time reading from “Brainwashing: A Synthesis of the Russian Textbook on Psychopolitics.” Strandberg typically addresses what he sees as too many taxes, even when those taxes are self-imposed by the citizenry, such as Fort Missoula Regional Park.
Sometimes the comments go south and turn insulting.
“A lot of you guys aren’t even running for office again,” Strandberg told the council during its June 8 meeting. “You’re quitting because it’s so bad and the public is so sick of you.”
I don’t believe his assumption is accurate, nor do I believe that such negative comments prove productive. Strandberg generally stays on topics related to taxes, but this time he didn’t.
At any rate, the city has imposed a July 13 deadline to adopt its 2016 budget. In the coming weeks, council members are expected to revisit several items that haven’t made the budget, including a crime victim advocate, an assistant judge for Missoula Municipal Court and that $15 minimum wage, which caused a firestorm of opposition on the Missoulian’s website.
Strangely, none of those who posted comments to the wage story showed up at the budgeting session to voice their opinion in an arena that actually counted for something more than a sounding board.
The newspaper's website is good for posting comments, but it’s not part of the public record.
My father once told me that those who don’t vote have no right to complain about the outcome. Similarly, those who don’t offer public comment during meetings held by their local government forfeit their right to lament the outcome.
In that sense, at least Matthew-Jenkins and Strandberg have earned the right to gripe, so long as they feel the need to do so.