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Wells looks to challenge Engen for job as Missoula mayor

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Harlan Wells

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

A Missoula City Council member seeking a referendum on the city’s efforts to acquire Mountain Water Co. filed papers Wednesday to run against Mayor John Engen in next year’s election.

Harlan Wells, a representative of Ward 2, is three months into his first term on the City Council. He said he filed early notice to run for mayor so he could begin fundraising and campaigning for the job.

“In my heart, I truly believe Engen’s administration is spending us into the ground,” Wells said. “They’re taking unnecessarily risks with Mountain Water. They’ve backed bond issues that are raising property taxes faster than people’s incomes.”

Over the past two years, Missoula voters have passed a number of bond issues, including $42 million for Fort Missoula Regional Park and $158 million for Missoula County Public Schools.

The mayor’s office has little control over the outcome of any bond initiative, though it can voice support or opposition. Missoula County places the bonds on the ballot.

“It’s my personal opinion that the mayor believes that government creates jobs, and I believe the government should create an environment that creates jobs,” Wells said. “I believe the role of government is to make sure the streets are paved and the potholes are filled.”

Wells, who describes himself as a “center right” candidate, secured 1,221 votes in last November’s election, narrowly defeating Jack Rowan, who earned 1,073 votes.

Wells was endorsed by the Missoula County Republican Party in his race and campaigned on a fiscally conservative platform. He said he plans to do so again in his bid for mayor.

Engen won more than 66 percent of the vote in 2013 and is said to be the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history. Wells believes he hasn’t been challenged.

“I haven’t seen anyone run against Engen seriously,” Wells said. “This is going to be a legitimate challenge to the mayor. He’s not going to be able to float through. It’s going to be a legitimate debate on fiscal policy.”

Wells’ attendance record at City Council committee meetings has been questioned by some members of the council in recent weeks. Wells criticized the council on Wednesday for voting in step with Engen’s policies.

“I went to every council meeting for a year before I was elected, so I’m a year and three months into this,” Wells said. “I’ve learned that the other 11 council members care more about prairie chickens than other people’s jobs.”

On Wednesday, Wells said he would not support a local proposal to join other cities and counties in backing the Clean Power Plan. Supporters of the effort believe the plan emphasizes a sustainable and clean energy future.

Wells called it a “Bloomberg policy” and said it was an effort to legislate eastern Montana “into oblivion.”

“I cant help but notice it’s a Bloomberg initiative that’s floating around,” Well said. “I generally have issues with groups from the Northeast asking us to do things on their behalf, especially when it will have direct impact on our neighboring cities in Montana.”

Wells said he would end the city’s efforts to buy Mountain Water if elected as mayor.

“If we’re still fighting for Mountain Water, I’d end it,” he said. “I’d start vetoing some of these social issues. I’d end the gun ordinance that’s still floating around.”