Missoula will pay for two City Council members to attend a sister city conference in Palmerston North, New Zealand, this March, the council decided Monday night.
Palmerston North is one of Missoula’s sister cities, and sent a delegation here last fall.
This spring’s exchange will give Missoula council members Heather Harp and Jordan Hess a chance to collect ideas from a city of like size half a world away, council president Bryan Von Lossberg said.
The money for their plane tickets will come from a budget account set aside for council members’ continuing education, and wouldn’t require approval were it not international travel, he said.
But Ward 4 Councilman Jesse Ramos objected to the expenditure, as he did to an earlier $5,000 request by Arts Missoula to send two representatives to the same conference. Arts Missoula coordinates the sister city program.
“This is just, again, my thoughts on the funding mechanism,” Ramos said Monday. “I can understand going to the Montana League of Cities and Towns to meet with other city’s representatives in Butte. That is a valuable conference. But this, I think it looks bad, going halfway around the world on tax dollars.”
Why send two council members when Arts Missoula is already sending two representatives? Ramos asked. Why can’t those two folks collect the ideas from Palmerston North and bring them back to the council?
Ramos cast the lone vote in opposition to the travel.
Von Lossberg said the council budget will pay for travel/airfare, while Palmerston North will cover the conference registration fees and provide no-cost home stays for Harp and Hess as well as meals and other costs.
The money was already set aside, Von Lossberg said, so will have no impact on other city funds.
“I fundamentally believe in the value of cultural exchanges,” he said. “I think they are important things to do for a variety of reasons, some that you can quantify, some that you can’t.”
Palmerston North is about the same size as Missoula, is home to a university and has an indigenous population that is “well-integrated into municipal government,” he said. There are lessons to be learned from New Zealand’s successes.
Councilwoman Gwen Jones suggested that her fellow council members provide the delegates with a list of issues they’d like to see researched in Palmerston North: how to tend to an aging population, services for homeless residents, cooperation with Native tribes, ties between the city and the university, transportation, property taxes.
Harp, too, defended the travel and said she and Hess intend to follow an ambitious schedule while in Palmerston North, collecting as much information as possible.
As City Council members, she and Hess will have a different mission in New Zealand, she said. “We are in a different role.”
“When it comes down to what we hope to gain, there are lots of issues that we have to try and address as a city of 72,000 people,” Harp said. “We know that we haven’t figured it all out. And we know that best practices mean we ought to try and reach out and find other possible solutions. Even in the Internet age, we can’t find all those answers by a Google search. It requires relationships that take time to build. And we had this golden opportunity where we had this delegation here last fall, and we learned some stuff about them, and now we have the opportunity to go there and learn more from them.”
There is work and learning “that can only happen in person,” Harp said.
New Zealand, she said, must have figured out some things, as the entire country’s population is only four times that of Montana – yet theirs is the world’s 33rdlargest economy.