Missoula is expected to hold a City Council primary in order to ensure the candidate in each ward will be elected by the majority of its residents, at an estimated $51,000 cost to taxpayers.
Sixteen people are vying for six seats in the upcoming council election, with four of the six wards having three candidates and the other two with two candidates. Under state law, that doesn’t trigger a primary.
But on Wednesday, the Committee of the Whole, made up of City Council members, voted 9-1 to hold a primary Sept. 10 and add the $51,000 cost to the fiscal year 2020 budget. Councilors Julie Armstrong and Heather Harp were absent.
Councilor Michelle Cares said she was concerned about the cost, but that in the end having a primary election to pare down the fields to two candidates in each ward is a commitment to a representative democracy.
“It will probably raise the awareness about the candidates and give people more of a choice to elect people who will represent them the best,” Cares said.
The vote came on the heels of an email from Mayor John Engen, who urged the committee to vote for holding a primary. He wrote that there is a potential for a candidate to win a plurality of votes in situations where more than two candidates are vying for one seat.
“… [P]rimary elections are a mechanism that refines voter intention by eliminating the potential outcome of a candidate taking a seat without a majority,” Engen wrote.
That rationale rankles Councilor Jesse Ramos, who noted that two years ago, when one ward had four candidates, and both the mayor and another ward had three candidates, the committee decided against holding any primary races largely to save money. In that case, a citywide primary for the mayor’s race and two wards was expected to cost upward of $76,000.
The estimated cost of the primary was determined by Missoula County Elections Administrator Dayna Causby.
Ramos, who won his four-way race in 2017, said the committee’s vote in favor of the primary, as well as the mayor’s note, was done for “political purposes” and to “thin out the crowd,” including candidates he’s endorsed. He added that when the issue arose to put the purchase of the former Mountain Water Co. to voters, the idea for a ballot measure was rejected due to the cost.
“This has everything to do with politics,” Ramos said angrily after the meeting. “It’s all personal, all about my candidates. I guarantee it isn’t for any other reason.”
“Basically, the mayor is knocking on the doors of 15 houses who pay $3,000 in property tax and making them give him $50,000 to pay for his primary. … They’re playing political games with tax dollars.”
Later, in an email to Engen and other council members, Ramos noted that Sen. Jon Tester didn't win the majority vote for his first two terms in office, and that neither Bill Clinton in 1992 or Donald Trump in 2016 received more than 50% of the vote.
"With all due respect, I can't help but marvel at your lack of consistency on this issue," Ramos wrote. "Why did you not feel this way in 2017 when you yourself were faced with a three-way challenge and two other city council races faced two or more challengers?
"I am just trying to get a clear sense of the rules because many would argue that you seem to support or not support a primary based on political climates."
Engen was in meetings all afternoon and couldn't be reached by phone or email for comment.
Councilor Jordan Hess said that in 2015, where two wards had four candidates, the fields were narrowed in a primary.
“A two-way race rather than a four-way race is a service to voters,” Hess said.
Councilor Julie Merritt added that having a primary and a ballot issue are different. Allowing voters to weigh in on individual topics, like buying Mountain Water, doesn’t include just the cost of the election but also of educational efforts for the public.
“We don’t have that with typical elections,” Cares said, adding that in those cases people educate themselves on the candidates. “That’s a very different consideration than issues we may put on the ballot.”
Councilor Bryan von Lossberg added that comparing the Mountain Water vote to a primary based simply on cost is a “gross oversimplification.”
Councilor Gwen Jones said she was voting in favor of the primary this time, but didn’t in 2017 because in that race there was a presidential election and the House of Representatives race, and voters were feeling overwhelmed.
“That is a distinguishing factor,” Jones said.
Ramos said he's only seeking to avoid confusion in the future, adding that $51,000 is a lot of money to spend on an election that isn't mandated.
"I am simply looking for consistency and a firm commitment that from this point forward we will have a primary in every election with more than two candidates?" he wrote. "If that is indeed your view now perhaps we should start budgeting for it every year."
The city has six wards, with two representatives in each with staggered four-year terms. The job pays $15,478 annually, and includes city health insurance.
In Ward 1, which generally covers northeast Missoula, incumbent Heidi West is being challenged by Elizabeth Weaver and Amber Shaffer.
In Ward 2, which is in northwest Missoula, Brent Sperry will take on incumbent Mirtha Becerra.
In south-central Missoula’s Ward 3, both Dakota Hileman and Drew Iverson will try to unseat incumbent Gwen Jones.
The Ward 4 spot in southeast Missoula is open after John DiBari decided not to run for a second term. Greg Strandberg, Amber Sherrill and Alan Ault are vying for that position.
Southwest Missoula’s Ward 5 has incumbent Julie Armstrong facing challengers John Contos and Alex Fregerio.
In Ward 6 in west Missoula, Nick Shontz and Sandra Vasecka will seek the position being vacated by Michelle Cares.