The Missoula Democratic Central Committee endorsed six City Council candidates out of nine during a forum Tuesday night.
The endorsements came after a fiery debate over whether to include Dakota Hileman, the president of the University of Montana College Democrats, in the endorsement. Hileman had turned in his paperwork late to the committee, and was disqualified.
All of the incumbents were supported, including Heidi West in Ward 1, Mirtha Becerra in Ward 2, and Gwen Jones in Ward 3. Also receiving the committees’ endorsements were Amber Sherrill in Ward 4, Alex Fregario in Ward 5, and Nick Shontz in Ward 6. Those failing to obtain endorsements were Amber Shaffer and Elizabeth Weaver in Ward 1, and Greg Strandberg in Ward 5, who was a no-show.
Although nine candidates filled out the questionnaires from the committee, making them eligible for endorsements, only seven showed up at the forum in the Sophie Moiese room at the Missoula County Courthouse. They answered questions posed by the audience first, offering mainly similar responses, and agreed on most of the dozen offered in the lightning round.
However, their responses differed when asked about the greatest threat to the citizens of Missoula. West focused on the community’s apathy; while Weaver, who is challenging West, said the lack of mental health services concerns her. West’s other challenger, Shaffer, pointed toward addiction.
Becerra said the cost of living posed the greatest threat; Jones and Shontz in Ward 6 focused on climate change; while Sherrill said population growth topped her concerns.
None of the candidates support the elimination of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA), but said the organization and its policies should be revisited, as well as their use of Tax Increment Financing dollars. The candidates also spoke to the need of better educating the public when it comes to TIF funding.
“I think it is a critical long-term tool that we have here,” Jones said. “The community should always have discussions on whether the MRA policies should be tweaked or changed, but eliminating it takes away a tool to grow our community and invest in our town, with sidewalks, infrastructure and affordable housing.”
West, Weaver and Shaffer also differed on their opinions about the most important part of the city’s recently adopted housing policy.
Shaffer likes the focus on incentives for housing developers.
“We really need to ensure any incentives we make are enticing to them,” Shaffer said. “We need to remember that a lot of long-term developers in Missoula started with one or two guys that grew their business into crews of maybe 10 or 20.”
Weaver called it a loaded question, but wants to see the city work on housing policies related to homelessness.
“Affordable housing, transitional housing, wet housing … applying for funding wherever we can get it to that issue is important,” Weaver said.
West said establishing local funding sources are important in order to allow some control over the money that’s often used as matching grants for federal funds.
”We have to be able to match that funding with a local funding source that isn’t under jeopardy when the government threatens to take away really important funding,” West said.
The candidates also had slightly different responses to the questions on gun control. While all said they support the city’s 2016 ordinance involving background checks, Becerra said what they’re doing is the “very minimum.”
“Strong background checks are needed,” Becerra said. “In our community we have a process in place and need to work harder to make it more enforceable.”
Shontz choked back tears as he recalled the fear his 13-year-old voiced regarding guns.
“It’s hard to know that’s the thing our kids are thinking about,” Shontz said, adding that he’s a gun owner and hunter.
Although the City Council is a nonpartisan body, the Missoula County Republican Central Committee will hold its candidate forum Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Lambros Building at 3011 American Way to endorse their candidates.