Missoula County Republicans recruit candidates for all 6 City Council races

The Missoula City Council candidates endorsed by the Missoula County Republicans are, left to right: Amber Shaffer, Ward 1; Brent Sperry, Ward 2; Drew Iverson, Ward 3; Alan Ault, Ward 4; John Contos, Ward 5, and Sandra Vasecka, Ward 6. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

Missoula County Republicans held a forum Wednesday at the Lambros Building to introduce the six candidates they recruited, trained and endorse for the upcoming, nonpartisan primary and general elections for Missoula City Council.

One of the newcomers is Amber Shaffer of Ward 1, a Democrat.

In addition to Shaffer, the Republicans are endorsing: Brent Sperry, Ward 2; Drew Iverson, Ward 3; Alan Ault, Ward 4; John Contos, Ward 5; and Sandra Vasecka, Ward 6.  The candidates were recruited and trained as part of an effort led by City Councilman Jesse Ramos, of Ward 4, who wants to see more “fiscally conservative” people serving on the council.

“We did not recruit these candidates based on their loyalty to the Republican Party,” said County Republican Chair Vondene Kopetski, who ran the forum. “We recruited candidates who would pay attention to the voters, who would be honest and transparent, lower taxes, reduce spending and save money.”

Kopetski’s message came in stark contrast to a forum held Tuesday night where Missoula County Democrats vetted and voted to endorse City Council candidates “to ensure that they uphold our Democratic values,” according to County Democratic Chair Karen Wickersham.

At that forum, in addition to discussing issues such as affordable housing and population growth, candidates also expressed their support for requiring background checks for the purchase of guns; a woman’s right to make her own health-care decisions, including abortion; equality for the GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer) community; protecting public lands, and the need to address climate change.

“You’re not going to hear that tonight,” Kopetski said at the beginning of the Republican forum. “Pro-life, public lands, LGBT … What does that have to do with city council? It’s fine to have discussions about LGBT rights, but that’s not their job. We want people who will do their job.”

As to what she feels is the job of city council members, Kopetski referred to the six standing committees listed on the Missoula City Council website: Administration and Finance; Budget Committee of the Whole; Committee of the Whole; Parks and Conservation; Land Use and Planning; Public Safety and Health and Public Works. 

However, the city council website also states, “The council may occasionally form subcommittees to work through specific issue,” and that the Committee of the Whole can address “Any issues that require input of the full council that other committees would be less apt to handle.” 

Ramos talked briefly about the Tuesday night Democratic meeting, addressing comments made by Missoula Democratic Vice Chair Chase Porter Gay claiming that Ramos shares the values of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the conservative businessman brothers David and Charles Koch, and that Ramos is “trying to bring those values” to the Missoula City council. 

Shaffer, of Ward 1 — the lone Democrat participating in Wednesday night’s Republican forum – was also part of the Tuesday night Democratic forum, but the Missoula County Democrats did not endorse her, choosing instead incumbent Heidi West for Ward 1. 

One of the questions posed to the Democratic candidates Tuesday night was, “Would you accept an endorsement and support from Councilman Jesse Ramos.” Schaffer was the only candidate who said “Yes,” and mentioned that she already had accepted his endorsement. The other candidates responded “No,” and “Hell no.”

Shaffer said she believes the question was intended just for her, to make her look bad, and that it’s what kept her from being endorsed by the Missoula County Democrats.

“I don’t want to sling mud at the Democrats,” Ramos said. “But what they did last night was disgusting. They tried to paint her as a shill for me, when they are shills for the executive branch, for the mayor. We need independent thinkers on the city council.”

About 35 people attending the Wednesday night Republican forum, and were able to submit questions for the candidates. 

All of the candidates talked about the need to lower taxes and reduce spending. Sperry said there should be a “hiring freeze” on new city employees, and we need to “cut back” on the city administration and “prioritize the budget.” Ault said one of the ways the city could reduce taxes would be to “stop promoting bonds.”  Contos said lowering taxes and reducing spending was “really quite simple – you can’t spend more than you’re taking in.”

The candidates also agreed that there was a need to improve road maintenance. “We need to be a lot smarter about what we do, and how we do it,” Contos said. Iverson said the city needs “more help from the state and federal government.” Sperry emphasized the need to “prioritize the budget” and consider “privatizing” road maintenance instead of relying on city employees. 

“Our first responders, fire department and police should be our No. 1 priority,” said Ault. “We need more police on the street.” Others agreed. “We need to give them proper pay and benefits,” Sperry said. Vasecka talked about going on a “ride-along” with police, and being impressed with how busy they are. She said the police department is “understaffed, underfunded and overworked.”

Shaffer mentioned that a lot of police officers “can’t even afford to live in the community they protect.” Contos said, “These guys protect us. Without them we’re in trouble. They need more money and more officers.”  In regards to dealing with crime – particularly issues related to illegal drugs and Missoula’s transient population – Shaffer said the city needs to look more into “underlying problems, such as addiction and mental health issues, in order to solve those problems.”

Most of the candidates did not support the takeover by the city of Mountain Water. Vasecka called it a “hostile takeover of a private business” and said it should have been up to citizens, “put up for a vote, at least.” Sperry said he is “against the government taking over any private company.” Shaffer, on the other hand, said: “I believe in the idea of owning our own water. However, there’s so much the public doesn’t know, and there should have been more transparency.”

When asked if they believed it was the job of the city council and Missoula Redevelopment Agency to give money to private businesses, as incentives to come to Missoula, all but Shaffer said “No.” “Missoula has been discovered,” Contos said. “If anyone wants to come here, it should be on their dime, not the taxpayers.”

Iverson said, “We need to focus on working for the people, not big companies.” Shaffer said, “We don’t need to get rid of MRA, but the money can be used more responsible.” She used MRA’s support of a new YWCA facility to help homeless families and victims of domestic violence as something the community needs, but suggested that the amount might have been too much. “We should focus on citizens, not corporations.”   

None of the candidates would be supportive of any more open space bonds. “Look outside,” Ault said. “We have a lot of federal land out there, we don’t need more. We have enough open space for all.”  Iverson said Missoula needs to focus on “necessities, not luxuries,” and that the city doesn’t need open space. Shaffer and Sperry both said we need to ensure land is available for development if we want to have affordable housing. 

Candidates were also asked how they would make housing more affordable. “If we weren’t paying such high taxes, rents would be lower,” Contos said. Vasecka said impact fees for developers should be reduced. Ault agreed, saying, “Fees for building, water, sewage, gas, electric. … How can we put in affordable housing with fees like that?” Sperry again brought up open space bonds. “When you start eliminating places we can build, prices go up,” he said.

As the lone Democrat at the forum, Shaffer said it was important to tackle issues such as homelessness, human rights and equality. “I support diversity,” she said. “And we need a diversity of people on the city council. We don’t want people who all think the same. We all see a need for change in our community, and it doesn’t matter what party we are from – we all need to work together to solve our problems.”

For more information about the Missoula City Council, candidates and elections, go to:  http://www.ci.missoula.mt.us/314/City-Council