Wilkins retires from City Council: Working for the neighborhood, 1 phone call at a time

Outgoing City Council member Jon Wilkins chats with Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent at the Dec. 18 council meeting, his last as the Ward 4 representative. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories about retiring members of the Missoula City Council.

Jon Wilkins began his 12-year tenure on the City Council fighting for the integrity of Missoula’s neighborhoods.

He ended it the same way.

In between, he stopped the illegal boundary line readjustments that were putting two homes on single lots in the Lewis and Clark neighborhood, but lost the fight against smaller, so-called “accessory dwelling units.”

He railed against the diminishment of property values when “a big tall apartment house goes in next door to a little grandma and grandpa house.” He questioned the construction of fences that ignore setback requirements.

But he believes his greatest accomplishments were those that happened one-on-one behind the scenes, working with Missoula citizens who had a problem that could be fixed by local government.

And that, Wilkins said in an interview this week, is what he’ll miss the most as well.

“I will miss working with people,” he said. “I always answered my phone. I always made myself available to help people out.”

The longtime Ward 4 councilman lost his bid for a fourth term in November to conservative challenger Jesse Ramos, who was openly critical not only of Wilkins but of the entire City Council.

Wilkins will be missed, said Missoula Mayor John Engen and his fellow council members.

“I have watched Jon over the years be a man of principle without being necessarily stubborn,” Engen said during Wilkins’ last council meeting. “I’ve seen him be a man of compassion and kindness in ways that you might not expect from a gruff kid from the gritty streets of Great Falls who made Montana home.

“I’ve seen him engage in charitable work that not only served people on the ground but offered great symbolic messages for our community and showed great respect for people who have served our country and our community.”

Wilkins was always active in local service and civic groups, working with the Boy Scouts and veterans organizations over the years. Then he helped build the Lewis and Clark Neighborhood Council and politics started to call, leading to his election to City Council in November 2005.

He was mad, and so were his neighbors, about the movement of boundary lines on some lots in the neighborhood so a second house could be built in an existing home’s backyard.

Zoning regulations said you couldn’t build a house on a lot smaller than 5,400 square feet and most of the new backyard building lots were smaller than the minimum.

Wilkins led the charge and stopped the readjustments.

Eventually, the City Council approved regulations allowing the construction of smaller “granny houses” – or accessory dwelling units – on backyard lots as a conditional use.

Wilkins still believes the ADUs are illegal and consistently voted against each new proposal.

“If you’re going to build a second house on a lot in a single-family zone, you should have to change the zoning,” he said. “They call it a conditional use, but I think a conditional use is something like a home daycare – not a second house.”

“My biggest disappointment was not being able to stop these ADUs,” Wilkins said. “They are doing exactly what I said they’d do: There’s no place to park your car on the street, more traffic, more crowding.”

He believes the townhome exemption approved by the Montana Legislature created another, similar problem for Missoula’s established neighborhoods.

“I’m concerned when they go into established neighborhoods and start making them dense,” Wilkins said. “That’s not right. People didn’t buy into that.”

He pointed to recent protests over the proposed use of the townhome exemption to build 31 units on Grove Street, in the Orchard Home neighborhood.

“The neighbors are upset, and I don’t blame them,” Wilkins said. “They have single-family homes, ranch-style homes, and all the sudden things are going to tower up above them. And the traffic is going to increase. There are going to be problems.”

Still, that isn’t the work for which Wilkins feels the most pride as he leaves public office. And it’s not what his co-councilors remembered in thanking him for the 12 years he dedicated to the city.

Councilwoman Julie Armstrong said Wilkins was her “first best friend on council” when she joined the group as a Ward 5 representative.

“There were big issues in play when I came on the council,” she said. “The leadership was palpable. Having lunch with Mr. Wilkins was calming.”

Fellow Ward 4 Councilman John DiBari also received advice and counsel over lunch with Wilkins.

“You did a thoughtful and admirable job of representing the constituents of Ward 4, and that will be greatly missed by the people of our ward and our community,” he said.

Throughout his tenure, Wilkins’ advice to fellow council members – and now to his successor – was the same: “Get along with each other. Think about what you’re saying and doing.”

“I’m afraid the guy who is taking my place isn’t going to have a very good time,” he said. “He came in front of us on City Council calling the mayor names and calling the council names, and now he has to get along with them. You have to figure out how you’re going to get along with all these people.”

Wilkins’ inherent compassion and belief in the basic decency of his fellow citizens guided his work on council, as it guides his life.

“I enjoyed helping people who had a problem of one sort or another,” he said. “I spent so much time on the phone these last 12 years – with college kids, neighbors, veterans. That’s what I enjoyed.”

Some of those calls led to Wilkins’ involvement in the creation of a rental safety program aimed at University of Montana students.

He heard a lot from students who either couldn’t get their landlord’s attention or were afraid to bring problems to their landlord for fear of eviction.

“There were places with no egress windows, no handrails on stairs, loose wiring – safety issues that really needed to be addressed,” he said. “Now, instead of contacting the landlord they can contact the city inspection department.”

For $25, the city will inspect a rental for 12 significant safety features. If the student doesn’t have the $25, they can ask for a “scholarship” and the inspection will be free.

“It’s only a voluntary program and relies upon students to call if they have a problem, but it does put something out there between students and landlords,” Wilkins said. “It’s one of the most important things I did on council.”

That’s the kind of work that Wilkins wants to continue after he recovers from surgery he had on Thursday.

“I’d like to build back up my neighborhood council,” he said. “And I’ll probably be down at City Council every once in a while. Or maybe I’ll drive a school bus.”