Now that the smoke has cleared from last week’s municipal election in Missoula, it’s time to think about where we go from here.
First, congratulations to the winners! Serving in a local publicly elected role is often a thankless task, and running for office in the first place requires a thick skin and the patience of Job. We salute those who want to make Missoula a better place and have stepped up to do so.
The voters were very emphatic in saying that housing, the pandemic and homelessness are the top issues. City spending is also a major topic.
One clear indication of the will of the voters is that progressive candidates swept the slate. Mayor John Engen was reelected for a fifth term, all six city council winners were endorsed by the Missoula County Democratic Central Committee, and the three new municipal court judges are former public defenders who ran on a platform of a less-punitive approach.
That cements Missoula’s status as a progressive bastion in an increasingly red state, and gives some idea as to the philosophical approaches our elected leaders will likely take to solve problems.
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On homelessness, for example, we won’t let unhoused people freeze to death, we won’t create chain gangs for forced labor, and we won’t give them bus tickets to make the problem go away.
We have addressed homelessness with stopgap measures, but long-term solutions, as Engen points out, will not be achieved until we successfully confront the three challenges of housing, addiction and mental illness. Homelessness will only be solved by treating the underlying causes.
Regarding the pandemic, we’ve shown that we are a community that cares for the public welfare. Most of us are willing to take the tough measures to make the scourge go away. If our state’s elected leaders would get their heads out of the sand and get out of our way, we’d be in a much better place — instead of the state leading the nation in per-capita COVID-19 cases.
And on housing, we face an existential threat. The character of our community will drastically change if working-class people can’t afford to live here. Plans are in the works to build a lot more affordable housing, but it can’t go up quickly enough. The solutions (plural) will require creative thinking, community-wide buy-in and a no-obstacles-tolerated approach.
Going forward, here are some other areas not to overlook …
GROWTH: The housing crisis is reflective of a bigger challenge — Missoula’s growth. A major hurdle for our new elected officials is to get accurate projections for the coming years. Are the present plans in place adequate to handle the growth — from traffic, to services, to infrastructure, to recreational opportunities, to the environment — or do we need to update or revamp long-range plans?
INCLUSIVITY: Is Missoula a welcoming city for all? It was just the summer of 2020 when Black Lives Matters protesters gathered at the Missoula County Courthouse, some calling for the Missoula Police Department to be defunded. This last legislative session left many in Montana’s LGBTQ community feeling unwelcome. Now, the community and state are split on whether to allow Afghan refugees into our state and communities. How do we ensure that Missoula is a city where all residents feel welcome and are confident they receive equitable treatment?
HIGHER EDUCATION: The University of Montana, our signature institution and employer, has long had a productive relationship with the city of Missoula. It is a symbiotic relationship, for better and for worse — higher enrollments help our city’s economy, higher housing costs drive up the cost of attending college, and so on. We need more affordable housing for students and that needs to be addressed by the city, the Montana Legislature and Montana Board of Regents. Working with UM and Missoula College to help make this Montana’s city of choice to pursue degrees, whether that be in much-needed two-year trade degrees or advanced degrees, needs now more than ever to be a focal point.
THE BIGGER PICTURE: As we tackle community issues, we also need to weigh what is the city’s role in confronting global issues such as climate change. Missoula prides itself on being Montana’s most-progressive community, but our city needs to be a leader in actions, not just words.
This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian’s editorial board — Publisher Jim Strauss and Executive Editor Jim Van Nostrand.