New members, incumbents take seat on Missoula City Council as politics begin

From left to right, incumbents Mirtha Becerra, Gwen Jones and Heidi West take their oath for a second term on the Missoula City Council. Newcomers John Contos, Amber Sherrill and Sandra Vasecka did the same on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

With the raising of their right hand, three new members of the Missoula City Council took their oath of office on Monday, joining three incumbents who are returning to their seats as the new legislative season begins.

Housing and taxation will remain among the top issues, though the solutions offered by new members of the council vary depending on their political ideology.

“I do believe a big piece of (affordable housing) is economic growth, and the disparity between wages and our home prices,” said incoming council member Amber Sherrill. “It’s a complex issue with lots of different factors we have to weigh. All that goes into affordable housing and having the available jobs.”

Sherrill, who recently lobbied for tax reform before a state legislative committee, joins a growing number of incumbent council members who are pushing the state for greater tax diversity.

Tapping into new revenue streams, such as a basic tax on tourism, they believe, could reduce taxes on property owners while helping the city maintain basic services, which continue to increase in cost.

“That’s definitely something I’d like to keep pecking away at – a tourism tax,” said Sherrill.

Gwen Jones, who was sworn into her second term Monday, is working for a similar goal. And like Sherrill, she also has an eye on planning and growth.

The city’s current pace of development suggests a strong economy, and Missoula has attracted its share of new businesses in recent years. Developers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the city as well, indicating their confidence in Missoula’s future.

But as the city’s population grows, its housing stock hasn’t kept pace with demand, pushing home prices up. Proving housing across a variety of income levels will remain one of the top issues facing the City Council over the coming year.

“We have some great base policies in place,” said Jones. “It’s a question of how we implement those policies, our growth policy and our housing policy, and continue to make Missoula a livable place on so many different levels – income, quality of life and issues like that.”

Many issues before the City Council last year ended on an 11-1 vote, with council member Jesse Ramos standing alone in the minority. But conservatives picked up two additional seats in November on a pledge to cut taxes, along with the services they fund.

During their swearing in, incoming council members John Cantos and Sandra Vasecka maintained that pledge.

“I did run my campaign on tax increment financing, and I want to find ways to take a deeper look at that, and see how we can relieve some of the burden on our tax payers,” said Vasecka. “I want to fulfill my promise to them.”

Contos also zeroed in on taxes.

“Definitely the taxes,” he said. “Just trying to find a way for people to stay here. I’m in that boat as well.”

Three incumbents and three newcomers took their oath on Monday before joining the full City Council and Mayor John Engen for a photo. The new council has a full day of committee hearings on Wednesday, kicking off the 2020 season. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

All three freshman council members praised the support they’ve received from incumbents during the training process. Monday’s work included a crash course on growth and planning and the many parallel issues that make it so challenging.

“There’s so much education that needs to go into it,” said Sherrill, who has observed City Council and committee meetings over the past few months. “The biggest complexity is trying to fully understand the downstream effects and the domino effects of one decision you make and what that looks like, and what the impacts are to the community in the long range.”

The new council members will be tested on Wednesday when the first full day of committee hearings begin. Their grasp of the issues will be quickly revealed, along with their ability to articulate the reasons behind their vote.

“It’s a process and frankly, we gel just by getting into the work and doing it,” said council president Bryan von Lossberg. “The new council members are going through their on-boarding process. It’s helpful, but there’s no substitute for jumping into committees and just doing the work.”

With complex issues at stake, how the council “gets along” will also be revealed in the coming weeks.

“Gelling is not synonymous with unanimity or agreement,” said von Lossberg. “To the extent that we can model that locally, that’s one of the most important things any local government can do.”