Missoula County race: Rye looks to hold seat

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The Missoula Current submitted a series of questions to the two Democratic candidates running for a seat on the Missoula County Board of Commissioners. Incumbent Stacy Rye issued the following answers:

Why do you want to represent the people of Missoula County as a county commissioner?

I love local government; it’s why I ran for the vacancy created by Commissioner Bill Carey’s retirement last summer. I have had a chance to do the work for seven months and I have loved being able to make a difference every day to citizens. I have been an advocate for the Smurfit-Stone cleanup, for continued economic development, and for new partnerships like with the City of Missoula to solve homelessness. I have been involved in my community for over 20 years; I have started community initiatives like Imagination Library.

From sidewalks, parks, sewer, and emergency protection, to more long-term policies such as economic development and planning, local government touches our lives every day. I love being able to make a difference every day to citizens, whether it’s figuring out the Smurfit-Stone cleanup, the best ways to assist with economic development, to partnering with the city of Missoula to solve homelessness. I’ve been involved in my community for over 20 years, have started numerous community initiatives and love local government. We make 100-year decisions at the local level about what our community should look like, from the fairgrounds to the proposed new library. This is where I can make a difference, what I’m good at, and where I want to make a difference for Missoula County.

What are the top three issues you would address if elected to the position?

I believe first and foremost that Missoula County needs to be more open and transparent – I want citizens to be able to meaningfully participate in their government in an inclusive fashion. We’re moving in that direction, but there is a lot of work yet to be done.

Missoula County needs to work at developing good partnerships – whether it’s working with the city of Missoula on our common housing issues (the lack of affordable housing in particular, or wet housing) or the private sector; we need to be working with partners to advance the common good of the community.

Implementing initiatives for working families – we just recently passed paid parental leave for county staff. As a leader in employment practices for our community, these initiatives can create a ripple effect that lifts everyone. I think county government can be leading the way on things like early childhood education, and housing.

We have highly talented staff who are more than capable of implementing Commissioner’s priorities. I depend on them to help move us forward, just like I did with paid parental leave.

The county’s newly adopted agricultural policy is likely to evolve in the coming year. What areas do you feel deserve a closer look?

I have the benefit (and the responsibility) of actual experience when it came to the agriculture regulations, and it’s important to note that distinction.

The regulatory proposal that recently came before the commissioners was highly controversial. The conservation community was greatly divided, with respected groups opposing each other. The regulations passed the Planning Board on a slim 5-4 vote. By the time it came before us, there were dozens of large county landowners and ag producers who were against the proposal. These folks said that the proposal would make it difficult for them to continue to operate as ag producers. Ultimately, we unanimously turned down the Planning Board’s proposal and instead directed staff to work with all the groups who had come forward to craft voluntary conservation guidelines.

One of the things I’m most interested in is the direction to planning staff was to bring all the groups to the table to discuss tools to voluntarily preserve ag land. That group is meeting regularly, and I look forward to what comes out of that focus in particular.

I am open to considering proposals in the regulatory framework (like clustering housing) for the urban fringe, the area facing the most pressure from development. I have learned as a county commissioner that a one-size-fits-all proposal for a county as diverse and large as Missoula County is problematic. I’m hopeful that we could seek solutions that meet some of the concerns of different parties, in other words, find a compromise.

The master plan for the Missoula County Fairgrounds remains a work in progress. Once adopted, what would you do to implement the plan and begin the improvements?

I would seek a partnership to help build the vision for the fairgrounds, whether that’s through seeking Missoula Redevelopment Agency TIF funds or through private partnerships. My experience in the nonprofit community has been helpful in terms of being able to work with people in the business community to accomplish shared goals. New buildings like an exhibition hall or livestock building will most likely be built incrementally as we find the right partners to help with private fundraising and county funding .

How would you balance the need to preserve open space with the need to accommodate growth without impacting developers and driving up housing prices?

We have largely saved the cornerstones of the most critical pieces of urban open space. But, we need to have tools available for things like clustering housing and encouraging preservation of conservation land. Missoula highly values open space and at the same time, the forecasts say we need to accommodate about 20,000 people over the next 20 years. We need to have well-planned and compact development where there is the infrastructure already planned, like streets, sewer, parks and schools. We need to have predicable planning, which is why we are probably going to undertaking updating our zoning regulations this year. Finally, we are lucky to have conservation groups who can identify open space and work successfully with private landowners to negotiate preservation. I’m confident that Missoula can find the ways to do both.

What specific ideas would you implement to improve the local economy and bring jobs to the county.

My focus on economic development would be multi-faceted; first, government needs to maintain and continue to provide quality infrastructure. Transportation has to allow for the efficient movement of people, goods and services and I have excellent working knowledge of how transportation is funded. As a Missoula County commissioner, I am currently the chair of the multi-governed regional transportation board, along with Mayor Engen and state officials. I would work to encourage better access to workforce housing through growth policies to ensure that businesses are confident that their employees will have adequate housing throughout Missoula County.

Missoula cannot stay regionally or nationally competitive until it solves our airfare and broadband problems. Whether it’s creating the conditions necessary for Missoula Economic Partnership’s target industries to thrive or attracting established companies here, it’s a matter of staying in the running when it comes to being selected by an individual or business looking for a nice place to grow. Quality of life is part of the equation but not always enough. Boise and Bend and Fort Collins have great quality of life. Most places in the West do. We must stay competitive when it comes to being attractive to site selectors and working to solve our issues with airfare and broadband.

Finally, as part of that equation, our quality of life is important to attracting CEO’s and their families; parks, trails, quality recreation and a community that is highly engaged will be successful in having businesses relocate to Missoula. I will continue to advocate for great recreation in Missoula County.

Can the city and county work more closely on certain issues? Why or why not?

The city and the county have distinct identities and to some degree, functions. We need to respect those unique identities, but I think we have more in common than not. We could have a closer relationship and work together on shared goals, like for instance, the city and county jointly passed a 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness and we jointly fund a coordinator to help realize the goals in that plan. But it’s going to take more than a coordinator to realize the plan – it will take funding from both entities and working with partners like Providence and Homeword to help accomplish the goals of the Plan.

Another example might be that as the issuer of the Fort Missoula Regional Park bonds and shared Fort Missoula Park space, the county needs to ensure that the bonds are issued and spent successfully, but we will inevitably encounter an issue in a project of this magnitude ($38 million dollars) and we need to have great communication and trust with each other to work through those issues.

Finally, one area that I have particular interest in the county and city working together is on financial planning for our taxpayers. Missoula and Missoula County is a generous place, but I’ve heard residents talk with concern about our ability to fund projects and local government through bond issues. Both the city and the county have different needs that we want to be able to provide for our constituents. But I do believe we can work together on our long-term financial planning in a way that will be predictable for and lessen the burden to taxpayers over the long-term.

What would you say in closing?

I have served my community at the nonprofit level, at the city of Missoula, and now at the county. I’m happy to have the support of Mayor John Engen, Carol Williams, most of my former colleagues at the city of Missoula, most of the legislative delegation, and countless community leaders. I’m happy to enjoy that wonderful support. Nonetheless, I am running because my vision and goals for our community are genuinely a part of who I am. This office is not just a stepping stone for me, but rather the end goal. I want to preserve the success that Missoula County has enjoyed, like our quality of life, but also work on larger community issues like housing, early childhood education or collective impact. Those are lofty goals and I’m well-aware that any one person would need to focus realistically on one goal at a time. I believe we have the ability at the local level, especially in a place like Missoula, that is meaningful and long-lasting and it’s what I’m passionate about doing.