The race for Missoula mayor might be boiled down to one question: Do you like the direction Missoula is headed?
In this nonpartisan contest, Mayor John Engen’s campaign has built the broad argument that while Missoula has its problems, it’s a great place to live and only getting better. This is not a difficult case to make, given that the evidence is all around us. Missoula wins a lot of those national “greatest places” awards for good reason.
As the challenger, Lisa Triepke’s campaign has smartly focused on pointing out perceived failures in Missoula’s leadership. The onus is on her to describe Missoula’s problems, demonstrate a thorough understanding of them and convince voters that she is capable of producing effective solutions.
Looking back over Engen’s three terms as mayor, there are abundant examples of the many ways in which he has kept the city heading in the right direction.
Consider that when he was first elected, in 2005, the nation was heading toward a recession and Missoula was struggling to adjust to a rapidly changing economy. Within just a few years, for instance, Missoula lost both the Stimson Lumber Mill and the Smurfit-Stone Container Mill, and hundreds of local workers lost their jobs.
Engen launched a major effort to reinvent the city’s approach to economic development that eventually led to the creation of the Missoula Economic Partnership, a private, nonprofit public benefit corporation that claims credit for attracting six companies to Missoula, helping local companies access millions of dollars to expand, and supporting the creation of hundreds of good-paying jobs over the six years it’s been in existence.
Engen has also supported strategic zoning, master planning and new development. He worked with the county to split up the former Office of Planning and Grants and reorganize the city’s permitting and development services in such a way as to offer a “one-stop shopping” experience. Just recently, he created a new housing office to give special attention to the city’s housing needs.
Throughout his time as mayor, Engen has eagerly tackled the big issues, ranging from poverty to homelessness, climate change to mental illness. He demonstrates a keen understanding of the many ways in which these matters interrelate and trickle down to affect even the most seemingly simple of city tasks.
Engen may be steering Missoula down the right road, but he’s certainly hit his share of potholes. Among the most jarring was his shocking admission that he was sometimes drunk at work. He deserves credit for admitting to his alcoholism, for getting the help necessary to overcome it, and especially for talking about it so openly. But he must never be anything less than completely sober while doing the public’s business ever again.
Similarly, Engen deserves Missoula’s lasting appreciation for seizing the opportunity to purchase Mountain Water Co. from its private owners. The ultimately successful condemnation proceedings that allowed Missoulians to own their own local water utility may be his most important legacy. That legacy, however, is a bit tarnished by his failure to show a more realistic grasp of the costs from the beginning – and greater transparency throughout the proceedings.
Even now, as a half-dozen lawsuits related to the acquisition continue to wend their way through the courts, the city is refusing to provide records of its legal expenses. That is unacceptable, and Engen owes a more satisfying explanation for this lack of transparency.
Along these lines, Triepke and her supporters have raised some excellent points in their criticism of Engen’s job performance, including the danger of having the same person in the same office for too long. Unfortunately, some of her biggest complaints miss the mark.
City spending and tax increases, for instance, might be a valid point of contention if Missoula taxpayers weren’t getting their money’s worth. But in nearly every election, Missoula voters support the ballot measures to expand and upgrade our library, parks, trails, schools and other important enhancements to Missoula’s quality of life.
Beyond the catch phrases, Triepke’s campaign did not cite enough specific examples of poor decision-making to convince voters that Engen should leave the mayor’s office. It also did not provide any specific examples of things Triepke would do differently. Without such specifics, she does not yet demonstrate a mastery of city government and how it works.
Triepke deserves every voter’s respect for running a serious, issue-focused campaign that forced important discussions and raised important questions. It takes a lot of guts to run for local office, especially against a popular incumbent.
We hope Triepke will remain involved in local politics after this election. We would like to see her run for a seat on City Council to gain the expertise and deeper understanding she currently lacks, so the next time she runs for mayor she could fill those gaps.
In his next term, we’d like to see Mayor Engen pay closer attention to the details. While not losing sight of the bigger picture, he should remember that the day-to-day city services are those nearest to his constituents’ hearts. He should spend a little more time reaching out to different members of the community to ensure these services are working the way they should, instead of waiting for people to bring complaints to him.
Each of Engen’s previous terms as mayor has been marked by major initiatives designed to make Missoula an even better place than it already is, and we expect no different from him in the future.
“I was elected to make changes and there are still changes to be made,” he told the Missoulian Editorial Board last week.
Ballots for the municipal election were mailed this past Wednesday. If you like the direction Missoula is headed, you’ll want to mark your ballot for incumbent John Engen. If you don’t, you’ll be voting for challenger Lisa Triepke. In either case, make sure to return your ballot by Election Day, Nov. 7.
Editor's note: General Manager Matt Gibson did not participate in this endorsement decision.