Friends and family members joined city staff on Tuesday to swear in Missoula’s new City Council members, bringing new voices to local government during a time of contentious national politics.
Two months removed from November’s election, four new council members will join eight incumbents starting Wednesday as city committees take up issues ranging from a townhome development to zoning clarifications.
“It’ll be a lot of listening for us new people for the first few months to learn the ropes,” said Stacie Anderson, newly elected to Ward 5. “I don’t have any personal agenda I’m bringing in. There’s a great opportunity to learn what’s been working and where the opportunities for improvement are.”
Tuesday’s ceremony, which also saw the swearing-in of Mayor John Engen and Missoula Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks – both incumbents reelected by comfortable margins – sets the stage for another year in local government.
Housing, taxation and jobs will likely emerge high on this year’s list of priorities as the city looks to address issues around affordability without stifling economic progress. Over the past year, that progress has expanded the city’s tax base and led to a wave of development and job growth.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the cost of housing, and there’s some initiatives already under way to address that,” said Julie Merritt, who was elected to Ward 6. “I think we need to look at the other side of affordability of living in Missoula, which is jobs.”
Merritt sees an early opportunity in a central Missoula property occupied by a Coca-Cola bottling plant. The plant is relocating to Missoula County’s airport development park, leaving the old property available for redevelopment.
“We have an opportunity right in our neighborhood with the Coke plant moving out to the airport,” Merritt said. “I’m hoping that redevelopment there will provide some jobs.”
Jesse Ramos, elected to Ward 4 in a four-way race, brings a more conservative voice to local government. Ramos, as did mayoral candidate Lisa Triepke, looks to focus on basic city services while holding down costs.
“I stand for some of the same things Lisa Triepke stood for, and (40.92) percent of the population voted for her, so I know I have my hands full being the voice for 41 or 42 percent of Missoula,” said Ramos. “My priorities will be better roads and lower taxes. I’m going to stick to those – they’re my top priorities.”
Ramos, who replaces Vietnam veteran and longtime councilman Jon Wilkins, also plans to start a veterans advisory council and address veteran-related issues at the local level. He expressed concern Tuesday over the recent discovery of an accounting error, which was addressed by the outgoing council last month.
“I’ll be looking into the $3 million error to see how we can prevent that in the future,” Ramos offered. “Whether it’s zero-based budgeting, which may or may not have worked, is hard to say. I’ll be looking at what can we do differently while being in compliance, doing what we need to do and still have the services we want without having to continually raise taxes.”
As the first order of business Wednesday, the new City Council will elect committee chairs and the new council president. The new council members will initially serve on all committees, and nearly all of them expressed interest in the Administration and Finance Committee.
That includes Heather Harp, who was elected to Ward 3.
“Part of my campaign platform was transparency in government,” said Harp. “We have to remind our constituents of what we actually do, celebrate our successes and work on things we can maybe do a little better. Through some transparency, we can make that happen.”