Missoula’s rapidly approaching municipal elections just drew a little closer for voters in four of the city’s six wards. Last week, the current members of the Missoula City Council voted, with two councilors absent and one councilor strongly opposed, to hold primary elections in wards with more than two candidates running for City Council.
That sets up voters in Wards 1, 3, 4 and 5 to weigh in on a city council representative twice this year: once in the primary on Sept. 10, and again in the general election on Nov. 5.
The action came after Mayor John Engen sent an email to council members offering his “two cents” on the matter, concluding: “Primaries help focus candidates and issues and give voters clear choices in general elections.”
Primaries definitely have an upside: they help narrow the field of candidates down to two clear choices, so the winner truly represents the choice of the majority of voters.
But they have their drawbacks as well, as pointed out by Ward 4’s Jesse Ramos. For one, they cost more money. Missoula taxpayers will shell out an additional $51,000 for this primary.
Ramos further noted that other important races, at both the state and federal level, have featured more than two candidates, with the winner not taking a majority a votes. Indeed, Missoula City Council races in the recent past have included multiple candidates vying for a single seat, and no primary was held. Ramos himself won a four-way race for the position he currently holds.
Missoula city residents are divided into six wards, each of which has two representatives on City Council serving four-year terms. Since the terms are staggered, voters elect one of their two ward representatives every two years.
This past Monday was the filing deadline for City Council candidates. A total of 16 individuals paid the $154.78 filing fee to place their name on the ballot. According to the latest Montana League of Cities and Towns survey, Missoula’s council members are expected to work between 11 and 20 hours per week, although many past and present councilors will tell you that they put in far more time than that, talking with constituents, researching policy and attending community meetings outside of official city business. According to the latest city budget, councilors are paid a salary of $1,289 a month, or $15,468 a year, plus health insurance.
The positions are technically non-partisan, although local political parties often offer their endorsements.
Ramos has good reason to question the timing of this call for a primary. He often votes against the majority of his fellow council members, and has been vocal in recruiting other candidates to run for City Council.
In explaining her support for a primary, Cares stated that the commitment to a representative democracy outweighs the added financial cost of a primary. Also, the cost is minimal compared to the numbers estimated for previous possible primaries. Two years ago, for instance, a primary for two wards and the citywide mayor’s race would have cost more than $76,000.
The relatively high number of municipal candidates this election cycle does not automatically trigger a primary under state law, but City Council is allowed to call for one if its members deem it necessary.
But so far, a strong case for a primary has not been made. If there were more than three candidates competing for any one seat, the benefit of a primary might be more apparent. For sake of comparison, consider that the city of Billings has 21 candidates running for five City Council seats. Clearly, Billings is right to whittle down the field with a primary.
In Missoula, four incumbents — Heidi West, Mirtha Becerra, Gwen Jones and Julie Armstrong — are running for re-election.
Challengers Elizabeth Weaver and Amber Shaffer are running against West in Ward 1, Brent Sperry is looking to unseat Becerra in Ward 2, and Dakota Hileman and Drew Iverson are challenging Jones in Ward 3. Three candidates — Alan Ault, Amber Sherrill and Greg Strandberg — are running to replace Ward 4 incumbent John DiBari, who has decided not to run again. John Contos and Alex Fregerio are taking on Armstrong for her Ward 5 seat, and Nick Shontz and Sandra Vasecka are hoping to win the seat being vacated by Michelle Cares in Ward 6.
Each and every one of these candidates, including incumbents, deserves our applause for stepping up to the plate to serve their community. It’s no easy job. While others are going on vacation or enjoying lazy summer holidays, these folks will be pounding the pavement, knocking on doors and explaining their positions, over and over again, and often under pointed questioning.
But it is only thanks to their willingness to do this important work for very little compensation that Missoula voters are provided a choice of representative that reflects their priorities, and thus allowed the opportunity to help shape local government.
Missoula voters, for their part, are tasked with getting to know the candidates running in their ward. We at the Missoulian consider it among our most essential duties to share information about local candidates; watch for candidate profiles and answers to urgent concerns in their neighborhoods, as well as for the city as a whole. Voters should pay close attention and be prepared to make an informed choice — whether it’s in a primary or general election.
Note on election letters:
Don’t wait until the last minute to send a letter to the editor concerning the City Council elections. The Missoulian strives to print as many of these letters as possible, and will post letters that don’t fit on the printed page on our website as time allows. But because we typically receive a flood of election-related letters in the final days, the odds of seeing a letter in print decrease the later that letter is received.
The Missoulian accepts letters of 200 words or less, and requires that writers provide their name and city of residence, as well as a phone number. Phone numbers are used for verification purposes only and are not published.
Email letters to email@example.com, or mail them to Missoulian Letters, P.O. Box 8029, Missoula MT, 59801. Call Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen at (406) 523-5215 with any questions or concerns.