An extremely close race in Missoula City Council's Ward 6 has the conservative candidate up by just 12 votes, or less than half of a percent. The lead held by Sandra Vasecka, a member of Councilman Jesse Ramos' "Team Liberty," is unlikely to change, but with a few ballots still being considered, a recount is possible.
Regardless of how that race turns out, the blue-hued City Council will look a little more purple after at least one conservative newcomer led his liberal competitor following a campaign focused on rising property taxes and increased scrutiny of tax-increment financing.
Wednesday morning, Vasecka had a 12-vote lead in Ward 6 against Nick Shontz, which may signal the first time a conservative candidate is headed to a seat in the ward in at least a decade. If it comes, the flip won't be completely unexpected, as the ward has trended steadily less liberal in the last three municipal elections. But with the race so tight, a recount is possible.
Missoula County Elections Administrator Dayna Causby said there are six ballots that were initially rejected in that ward, but no provisional ballots. The six voters whose ballots were rejected have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to resolve the issues that caused their ballot to be rejected.
Shontz won't be able to over take the 12-vote margin even if he were to get all six rejected ballots in his favor. However, the margin is teetering on the edge of triggering a recount.
The 12-vote gap leaves the race at a .49% margin, and a .5% margin allows candidates to request a recount. Depending on where the six votes go, it may or may not be within the recount threshold. A .25% gap would trigger an automatic recount.
Vasecka, a “Team Liberty” candidate, ran on a platform of cutting spending through a zero-based budgeting system, but said she would not make any cuts to first responders, public safety, or infrastructure. In the most recent update from the Missoula County Elections Office, Vasecka had 1,238 votes, or 50.08% to Shontz's 1,226 votes, or 49.60%.
In Ward 5, one of the most closely watched races of the election, John Contos, the church-founder-turned-carpet-cleaning-business-owner supported by “Team Liberty,” was 210 votes ahead of Alex Fregerio, with 3,335 votes cast total in the ward. Contos had 1,766 votes, or 53% to Fregerio's 1,556 votes, 47%.
"I've looked at this as the right thing to do," Contos said at the "Team Liberty" election party at Red's Bar Tuesday night. "I didn't really go looking for this. I was kind of recruited by Jesse (Ramos), and my wife keeps saying I needed to do something else. But when he first mentioned it to me, I think I said absolutely not."
Contos described how he went to Ramos, a local wealth manager and City Council member, for financial planning and ended up getting convinced to at least attend a City Council meeting. He said that after seeing the lack of political diversity on council, he began to consider running.
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"I guess I saw it as, if I lose, nothing changes in my life, but if I win, it's a big unknown, which is exciting but to be honest, not thinking too much about it yet," Contos said.
The both wards 5 and 6 were two of three targeted by a series of mailers funded through a political action committee called Missoulians for Missoula. The mailers were the only ones during the race to advocate explicitly against a candidate, a rare occurrence in Missoula municipal elections, and supported Vasecka and Contos.
On Election Day, Ramos said he felt the race had focused more conversation and momentum on his main ideals on council, such as limiting the TIF (tax increment financing) program. TIF collects a portion of property tax revenue in a specific district and reinvests it into that district.
In other wards, the three incumbents swept. In Ward 1, Councilwoman Heidi West bested Amber Shaffer with 69% of the vote, or 2,190 or 956; in Ward 2, Councilwoman Mirtha Becerra earned 56% of the vote, or 1,497, to Brent Sperry's 1,132, or 44%; and in Ward 3, Councilwoman Gwen Jones soared to victory with 2,061 votes and 82% of the vote compared to Drew Iverson's 427, or 17%.
In Ward 4, Amber Sherrill, bringing support and leadership experience from her time heading up one of Missoula’s most prominent conservation nonprofits, Five Valleys Land Trust, appeared to secure a victory in Ward 4 over Alan Ault, another nonprofit leader. She had 2,138 votes, or 64%, compared to Ault's 1,180, or 35%.
The $6 million DeSmet School Bond will pass, with a significant lead of supporters, 66%, or 219 yes votes to 113 no votes or 34%. The bond was up to the 500 eligible voters in the district to decide, and was a two-part poll on selling adjoining land to help fund the construction the bond will finance.
Additionally, the DeSmet School land sale passed with 75%, or 245 yes votes, to 25% or 82 no votes.
This story will be updated.