By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
A member of the Missoula City Council who voted against the entire agenda at Monday night’s meeting said criticisms aimed at his spotty attendance record and voting habits were efforts to divert attention away from the “immoral” acts of city leaders, including the mayor’s pending divorce.
Ward 2 council member Harlan Wells, who was elected in November by a margin of 152 votes, carries the lightest workload of the council’s 12 members and has, since the first of the year, attended just 65 percent of all council and committee meetings.
On Monday night, Well’s voted against all 10 items on the consent agenda, included claims to cover the city’s operating expenses, a Midtown curb and sidewalk project, and five citizen reappointments to two city boards. The items also included restroom and playground equipment for Kiwanis Park.
“I’d never seen anyone vote against the entire consent agenda,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg. “One of them included four appointments to the parks board. These people are donating their time to do really important work for the community. I don’t know why someone would vote against four members who have distinguished themselves with their service to the board.”
Wells, who announced a potential run for mayor in March, described his vote against the items on the agenda as a protest vote. He expressed frustration with what he sees as the city’s overspending and the media’s habit of ignoring it.
“They’re spending a ton of money on everything and nobody cares,” Wells said. “There was a couple big-ticket items, like the sewer company, which doesn’t bode well for the city’s ability to run the water system. There’s been a bunch of playground stuff. It really seems we’re over-paying for that.”
Wells also criticized the reappointment of five members to the Parks and Recreation Board and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, calling them liberal appointments made by Mayor John Engen.
The appointments included Karl Englund to the MRA board and Sonja Verlanic, Dayna Swanson, John O’Connor and Dale Harris to the parks board.
“Everyone he appoints is far left and does whatever agenda he has,” said Wells. “We don’t have intelligent discourse on the City Council. You get 11 Bernie Sanders bobble heads and a mayor who would hip-check it and they all bobble yes. I’m a little annoyed that the one time I vote no on the consent items, it’s suddenly a front-page story.”
Wells has voted no in the past, but typically asks council leaders to separate the items he plans to protest. He didn’t do that on Monday, but rather, he voted against everything.
Sitting council members can’t recall a fellow member ever voting against the entire agenda. Several council members, including Ward 6 representative Marilyn Marler, have also expressed concerns over Wells’ attendance record and his lack of participation on the council’s various committees.
While eight council members serve on all six committees, Well’s serves on two, including the Public Safety and Health Committee. Of the five times the committee has met this year, he has attended one meeting, according to records on file with the city clerk.
“It’s frustrating for me and several of his colleagues on City Council,” Marler said. “I don’t understand how he can effectively represent his constituents by not participating at all. Different members of the council have brought it up to me.”
Since the first of the year, Wells has attended 13 of the City Council’s 18 meetings. The Committee of the Whole – the only other committee on which Wells is a member – has met 17 times. He has been present at 12 of those meetings, records state.
Wells’ overall attendance record is 65 percent.
“I have a regular 9 to 5 job, so I’m sorry I’m not a retiree or don’t work for the university,” he said. “I can’t make as many meetings as I’d like to, but when I’m there, I try to point out things that are fiscally questionable. I want a balanced budget from the city that doesn’t raise taxes just once.”
Wells accused members of the council and other city leaders of attacking his attendance and votes as an effort to divert attention away from their own “immoral issues.” He criticized the media for ignoring matters in Mayor Engen’s personal life, including his pending divorce and alleged affair.
He called Engen a “home wrecker” and said the local press has all but ignored the issue.
“(Engen) doesn’t even bat an eye with the press, even when he’s doing stuff that’s incredibly immoral,” Wells aid. “The mayor’s group is shifting attention away from their own immoral acts and it doesn’t seem to be any big deal. If I were to do it, it would be front-page news. I won’t play the game with them, so they’re trying to make me look bad. They’re diverting from their own issues.”
In response, Engen said Wells was “always welcome to bring his concerns forward to me.” The city’s communications director, Ginny Merriam, said Wells has not attempted to bring his concerns to they mayor.
“Because the councilman has never had a direct conversation with Mayor Engen, there’s no working relationship there, as there is with other council members, and the mayor has nothing to say,” Merriam said regarding Wells’ accusations.
Wells said he gets along with city leaders and members of the council on a social level, but feels they don’t listen to him. He said if the city doesn’t succeed in its efforts to acquire mountain water, he’ll ask for the resignation of those he believes spearheaded the effort, including von Lossberg, Marler and Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley.
“I think the other ones follow the lead,” said Wells. “But if the city loses the water acquisition, one has to ask, were they incompetent or stupid? I know the mayor isn’t stupid, so what does that say?”