Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories on the four retiring members of the Missoula City Council.
If you think the Missoula City Council seems more civil in its discourse in recent years, Marilyn Marler achieved one of her goals as council president.
It was a behind-the-scenes effort that required diplomatic skills and, at times, considerable fortitude and persistence.
The result, she believes and others agree, is a culture of cordiality and respect among council members who represent vastly different neighborhoods and backgrounds.
“When I got on City Council 12 years ago, there wasn’t always the highest level of decorum,” Marler said as her last week on Missoula’s governing body unfolded.
“As council president, I worked hard to get people to work with each other. I made people sit next to people they didn’t know or maybe didn’t like during meetings, and to be respectful – to listen. I enforced that behind the scenes.”
“One of the joys of this job is seeing people evolve and learn and change,” Mayor John Engen said in bidding Marler farewell during the Dec. 18 council meeting. “Marilyn started out evolved and has evolved even more over time.”
As president of the council, her leadership was “remarkable,” in the mayor’s estimation. “Leadership isn’t easy, and among your peers, it can be even more challenging.
“She has addressed issues not only on council but in the community with considerable fortitude. This business ain’t for the weak of heart, and she is not weak of heart.”
In an interview, Marler reflected on the marquee accomplishments of City Council during her dozen-year tenure, but also the smaller, “kind of nerdy” successes that were personally fulfilling.
The biggest check on the to-do list was the city’s condemnation and purchase of Mountain Water Co., Marler said, echoing her fellow retiring council members’ assessments.
But she’s also seen significant improvements in how the city of Missoula tends its open space – the growing acreage of public land purchased following a series of voter-approved bond issues over the past three decades.
She hopes the City Council will stay attuned to the needs of its open lands, and in fact, will expand that involvement to include the urban forest.
“I think we need a big reinvestment in the urban forest, and I’m worried that people won’t notice the declining health of our trees until it’s too late,” she said.
Will that eventually require an urban forest bond issue?
“We need to have a big policy discussion, for sure,” Marler said. “And we’re going to need an influx of money just like we’ve had for open space stewardship.”
But greater public awareness of the age and needs of Missoula’s urban forest also could make a big difference, she said. “There are things homeowners could do, for example, that would be very helpful and that don’t cost much.”
And the accomplishments she describes as sounding “nerdy?”
“Redoing how we pay for and prioritize sidewalks was a big one for me,” Marler said. “We’ve overcome the obstacle for increasing our sidewalk network.”
Previously, Missoula’s sidewalks were 100 percent financed by adjacent property owners – a burden that grew over time as the cost of labor and concrete increased. Poorer neighborhoods where homeowners could no longer afford the cost of sidewalks fell far behind wealthier neighborhoods.
“The cost started to become an insurmountable obstacle,” Marler said.
Now the city pays for part of the cost of sidewalks and adjacent property owners pay for the remainder – a shared-cost model championed by Marler and other City Council members.
Also at their behest, the city’s planning department places a larger priority on the extension of sidewalks in neighborhoods that have none or few.
The system still isn’t perfect and the effort will require vigilance by council members, Marler said. “And if they don’t keep it going, I’ll go down there.”
Along those same lines, she’s proud of the lengthy and oftentimes tedious process City Council members waded through to reorganize Missoula’s planning office and revise its zoning codes.
“That was important work,” she said, “and the feedback I’ve heard has been pretty positive.”
As building begins to pick up again following the recession, Marler sees a number of longer-term issues that will occupy her successors – beginning with the community’s need for affordable housing.
As with sidewalks or zoning codes, the work will require considerable persistence, thoughtfulness, intelligence and creativity.
“It’s not an easy question,” she said. “In part, we have to determine how to provide affordable housing for our low-income neighbors vs. affordable housing for people who work full time. We need both, but they will require different approaches.”
“It’s going to be a process,” she said. “As a community, we need to be open to a wide variety of housing – not just rentals and not just big homes with big yards. I’m glad we are having the conversation.”
Marler is leaving the council not only because she believes “it’s time to give someone else a chance” to represent Ward 6, but because she’s interested in the challenge of learning about a new area of government.”
She’s announced her candidacy for Missoula’s House District 90 seat in the Montana Legislature, where incumbent Rep. Ellie Hill is barred from running again by term limits.
Marler is excited about digging into state revenues and the challenges of a balanced budget. She’s interested in public lands and wildlife issues. And she knows that, after the past 12 years, she has insights on the impact of the Montana Legislature on municipal government that are sometimes missing in Helena.
“Mostly, I think I have a lot to learn at the Legislature, so I’m not completely sure what bills I will carry,” she said. “That depends on what happens between now and then, and once I get there and start learning about how things work.”
If she learned anything as a member of the Missoula City Council it was how much there is to learn.
“I’m just really grateful for the experience,” Marler said. “I know a lot more about subdivisions and sewers – things I didn’t know were interesting and that now I really appreciate.”
“To be elected three times and have an opportunity to serve that long, it’s been a really positive experience for me,” she said.
Her fellow council members felt the same way about Marler’s presence in the room.
“Even before I got on council, Marilyn’s face always calmed me a little bit,” said Mirtha Becerra, the newest City Council member and a city planner.
“Thank you for your leadership and steady hand and calmness and guidance,” said Ward 4 Councilman John DiBari. “I appreciated the great advice you offered about ways to move forward and ways to approach things.”
Councilwoman Julie Armstrong noted Marler’s compassion, as did the mayor.
“Marilyn has been compassionate to the point of it being painful,” Armstrong said.
“She is among the most compassionate souls I know,” said Engen. “If there is a person on this body who can make an argument for her case, support her vote and her position while showing nothing but respect for folks with whom she may not agree, it is Marilyn Marler.”
Time and again, Engen said, he “has watched her articulate why she is doing what she is doing while acknowledging the pain or disappointment or hurt of folks in this audience and those who may be watching on television or who must live with the consequences of our actions.”
“Marilyn Marler is the epitome of a public servant and I regret that she is stepping away from this body,” he said.
As a friend, the mayor said, he could not have asked for more than what Marler gave when he took a leave of absence two years ago to address his alcohol addiction.
“I can tell you that Marilyn, during a very difficult time in my life, showed up here, did the work that needed to be done, left me feeling nothing but confident that I could concentrate on taking care of my personal issues,” Engen said, his voice faltering. “And in doing so, I also believe she helped to save my life, and I will be eternally grateful for that and for her.”