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The people of Missoula are involved in public life and local government to a degree that's unprecedented in America, a Phoenix researcher said Tuesday.

But the city also suffers from a serious disconnect between residents and government that could be the "stuff of revolution," Earl de Berge of Behavior Research Center told the group elected to study Missoula's city government.

De Berge, who is chairman of the board and director of research for his firm, has charted American public opinion and behavior for 38 years. Among the most surprising findings in the November Citizen Survey of Missoula was people's attendance at one or more city-connected meetings in the past 12 months, either in person or by watching on Missoula Community Access Television.

A whopping 55 percent had participated in one way or another, with an average attendance among adults at City Council and board or commission meetings of about five meetings a year.

Those participation numbers are at least three times the norm, de Berge said, and in some cases six or seven times.

"Thirty-eight percent are watching it (City Council) on TV," he said. "I've never seen numbers like that anywhere in America."

In his own city of Phoenix, or in San Diego, the numbers are more like 1 percent or 2 percent, he said.

"If I were in your shoes, I'd either be excited or afraid," he joked to the Missoula City Local Government Study Commission. "I'm not sure which."

Residents are not overwhelmed by the performance of the mayor and City Council. The numbers show the public is not confident that city government is addressing their top concerns - especially planning for growth and alleviating traffic congestion - and people don't see an overarching vision they can hold on to with confidence, de Berge said.

"The public does not feel that there's a vision for the growth of the city," he said.

Forty-nine percent rated the mayor and council favorably, but 34 percent answered "only fair," and 14 percent rated their performance "poor" or "very poor." Newcomers who've lived in Missoula four years or fewer are most happy with City Hall (75 percent positive), but favorable ratings drop to 30 percent to 40 percent among longtime residents.

Those numbers should be higher, de Berge said.

"I should tell you it compares to a rating of 65 percent in other communities," he said.

Missoula's serious problems are in communication between people and local government, de Berge said. Almost as many people believe the mayor and council do a poor job of listening to input from residents - 24 percent - as the number who believe they do a good job, at 30 percent.

Thirty-nine percent said the mayor and the council do a good or excellent job at seeking input from residents, and 19 percent said they do a poor or very poor job. Forty-nine percent gave a positive rating on their skills at communicating decisions to the public, and 14 percent gave a negative rating.

"Clearly, there's a communication issue," de Berge said. "The notion that the city council's ears are open is not broadly held.

"They really do have a problem in seeing how the decisions fit into the long-term vision," he said.

Local government should not be happy with the readings, he said.

In rating 23 city services, those polled in the mid-November phone study gave the city good grades on fire protection, police protection, crime prevention and, to a lesser degree, enforcing traffic laws. They generally approved also of the city's delivery of sidewalks and trail, mass transit and snow removal. Scores dropped dramatically for street lighting, street repair and maintenance and reducing traffic congestion; 42 percent rated the city as doing a poor job in reducing traffic congestion.

The city's most negative scores came in reducing traffic congestion, planning for growth, keeping taxes low, fostering affordable housing for average families and attracting quality jobs.

People's biggest concerns were overwhelmingly growth management and traffic congestion, followed by economic development.

De Berge also was impressed with the community's enthusiasm for the place. Ninety-three percent said yes to the statement, "Overall, Missoula is a good place to live." Only 5 percent disagreed.

And Missoula residents are strikingly embedded in the natural world around them, he said. At the top of the list of important characteristics to preserve about their town was open space, put there by 51 percent of those polled. Parks, trails, fishing and hunting also were important. People also favored growth management and no urban sprawl and preservation of the small-town atmosphere.

De Berge told the study commission he did not view the study as a negative one.

"The overall picture is of a community that is very in love with itself and its environment and wants to be involved," he said.

The seven-member government study commission, which hired the survey to help shape its recommendations, engaged de Berge for more than two hours.

"It was very interesting and consistent with what it feels like to live in Missoula," said Sarah Van de Wetering of the commission.

Commission member Bob Oaks, who works as executive director of the North-Missoula Community Development Corp., was not surprised at the finding that people want to be involved from the grassroots level, listened to and allowed to contribute to a larger, long-term vision for the city.

"I can't tell you how closely that reflects an intuition I've had for a long time," he said.

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or at gmerriam@missoulian.com

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