City Council candidates address UM students on parks, housing and renting

The Missoula City Council meets in this file photo. A new crop of candidates could change the council come November. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current file)

University of Montana students posed a number of questions to this year’s crop of Missoula City Council candidates and revealed their political platforms in the process, from socialist leanings to fiscal conservatism.

The nine candidates who participated were each given one minute to respond to questions ranging from city budget concerns to universal housing applications. The event was hosted by the Montana Interest Research Group.

Students opened the session by asking candidates their opinions on the allocation of $16 million to the city’s parks department for park management in the 2022 city budget. Almost all candidates voiced support for the allocation to buy and maintain open space for Missoula residents.

Ward 2 candidate Jordan Hess, who is seeking his third term on City Council, described the benefits of city parks as an investment in community. The park asset management and separate master plan help guide decisions on parks.

“I’m a big fan of planning and making data-driven and policy-driven decisions. I do really think they are investments,” he said. “They are investments in our community, they are investments in our quality of life, they are investments in our health and our families, our children, and our seniors. They are also investments in equity.”

Mike Nugent, one of the candidates in Ward 4, said increases in the parks department budget is related to the growth of Missoula’s population. He said state law requires a park to be created, or money set aside for open space management whenever a subdivision is approved.

“I think it’s important that we talk about pocket parks, and that we are investing in taking care of what we already have,” he said. “We can all probably go around town and see where there is a city park that maybe has not got the attention it needs, or maybe that portion of the community needs equipment in their park but it has not been made a priority.”

Students also asked about housing in Missoula and pushed candidates to state their opinions on a universal housing application. Some see it as a solution to the high amount of fees renters must pay to landlords when looking for housing, without guarantee they will receive a place.

Ward 6 candidate Kristen Jordan, who has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists, was in full support of a universal housing application. But she explained the difficulties posed as a result of state legislation that tied local Missoula government’s hands in the matter on a regulatory basis.

“The housing market here in Missoula is untenable. We have to start doing things differently,” she said. “We have to ask our government to step in and take capitalism out of every last corner of our economic system and start advocating for the needs and will of the people.”

Rebecca Dawson running for Ward 2 expressed her trepidation in supporting the application, due to unfairness that may occur to landlords as a result of its passing.

“I think my answer is maybe. I know that doesn’t sound like an answer, but I understand that the application fees, the long lines, and not knowing where you are in line, and the lack of inventory are very very frustrating, and that is something we need to work on,” she said.

“However, we need to work on how we can streamline the process for new construction and how we can work on not increasing property taxes, which will then enable landlords to not increase the rent.”

The final question posed by the university students asked how candidates would interact and engage with college-aged students during their term.

Ward 4 candidate Alan Ault explained that he would like to see more engagement with the university and the city overall, through both meeting with students as well as research opportunities.

“I would like to see more involvement with the students in city politics and if elected I would like to take every opportunity to come out [to the university] and visit with you, meet with you, and have a two-way street. What I would like to promote is instead of going to these outside agencies to do all of these studies, I want to see them done through the university.”

The youngest candidate, Daniel Carlino in Ward 3, has an advantage in meeting with young constituents due to his closeness in age, he said.

“Ward 3 actually represents the UM dorms so I think that it would be nice to have someone our age, or close to our age represent us,” he said. “I always try to be at all the different protests in town for all the different social justice causes, environmental causes. Not only will I actually be at all of those protests and take the demands and requests of the people in our town but put them into political action.”

Dori Gilels, also a Ward 3 candidate, has extensive experience working within the university, including sitting on the Journalism Department board and the Blackstone LaunchPad offered for student entrepreneurs.

Gilels also pointed out the importance of students getting involved in local politics to advocate for themselves.

“There are boards and commissions at the city level that I think it would be fantastic for some of you to serve on. I have been co-chairing my neighborhood council for the last couple of years and we have worked very closely with Associated Students of the University of Montana and it has been a great relationship and has been a very unifying factor for us in terms of building neighborhood unity.”

Candidates were also asked how they’d use funds accumulated through the tax on medicinal and recreational marijuana, as well as their stance on current environmental concerns that directly impact the community, such as the convenience of recycling and use of LED street lights.

Incumbent Stacie Anderson representing Ward 5 expressed her approval of the marijuana tax and advocated using funds for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

“I would love to see part of that money go to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund that we passed and set up a year ago this last summer. It is a really innovative tool that we have created here in Missoula to be able to address affordability,” she said.

“There are lots of components that overall go into affordable housing, most of which are outside the city’s control. But having the Affordable Housing Trust Fund has given us opportunities to take advantage of buying some land and working with private and public developers to make permanent affordable housing.”

Candidate Jennifer Savage of Ward 1 said she’d address environmental concerns by finding infrastructure that both saves the community money as well as limits the environmental footprint.

“Particularly with everything from deconstruction to lighting, and from what I have heard is that there is a capacity piece that is missing and I think that is something that can be addressed as we move forward.