Through readings of the Soviet Art of Brainwashing, a pandemic and a shift in how the city addresses key issues, members of the Missoula City Council this week said their fond farewells and praised their outgoing colleagues for their service, even amid their differences.
In their last City Council meeting of the year, Missoula’s 12 ward representatives said goodbye to four of their peers who opted not to seek another term. They’ll be replaced by four newcomers next month, giving the council a new political bend.
But for those who are stepping aside, Mayor John Engen took the opportunity to say goodbye and praise them for their unique skills and varying beliefs. He was, he said, grateful to them all.
“The level of courage and compassion that you brought to your service at the City of Missoula is potent,” Engen told outgoing council member Bryan von Lossberg. “The degree to which you stood on principle and the right side of that long arch of justice is an example to all of us. You’ve given us your all, and that’s not in the job description.”
Von Lossberg, who served as council president, ended several terms to tend to family matters. During his tenure, he never cowered in the face of opposition and he tackled many controversial issues, from banning wild and exotic animal acts in the traveling circus, to playing a leading role in the city’s push to acquire its drinking water system.
He also sponsored a city ordinance requiring background checks for most gun sales and transfers between private parties. The measure passed locally but was challenged by Republican leaders in Helena and was eventually overturned in new state legislation.
“It’s been an incredible honor to serve Ward 1 and I’m grateful,” von Lossberg said. “No matter where I’ve worked – NASA, the private sector or nonprofits – there are few more gratifying experiences that when you can work alongside smart, passionate people trying to make their community a better place.”
Ward 6 representative Julie Merritt also is stepping aside after earning the praise and respect of her colleagues. As a water-right’s expert, she played a key role in Missoula’s purchase of the Flynn Lowney Ditch, which Engen said will have far-reaching benefits.
He also praised her for her “tenacity and compassion” in a representing a neighborhood that has seen significant change in recent years.
“That is a balancing act and it requires a long view and sometimes in the face of very challenging testimony,” Engen told her. “You take thoughtful, principled positions and do so with grace and dignity.”
Merritt was never short on words but was thoughtful when she commented on issues before the city. She supported measures bringing change while also working to make those changes more agreeable to those she represented.
Serving on the City Council was “a great honor,” she said.
“I have learned so much from getting to know you and work with you,” Merritt said. “I am very grateful for the opportunity to represent Ward 6. We have a lot of great neighbors and our future council member will do a great job in representing this community.”
Shortly after former President Donald Trump took office, Missoula voters in Ward 4 followed the national wave and elected Jesse Ramos to the council. Ramos brought a conservative voice to the body with a Libertarian view. He was consistent with his vote but was often in the minority.
Still, Engen thanked Ramos for his service and, despite their differences, for the friendship they developed.
“You have been a combination of an enormous pain in my derriere as well as someone who has challenged me to think about how we do business,” Engen told him. “You’ve had statesmen-like moments, you have surprised me, and I thoroughly enjoyed our lunches and interesting arguments, and your sense of humor.”
Ramos’ election gave the council its first conservative voice in years. Two years after he was voted in, he organized what he dubbed “Team Liberty,” which saw the election of two more conservative council members.
Efforts to repeat that success this last election didn’t succeed, though Ramos said he has enjoyed the experience of serving the city and the lessons he learned along the way.
“The opportunity to do this so young forced me to grow up quicker, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for those that knew me,” he said. “Although we might differ on solutions, we all agree on the problems. I believe every one of my colleagues and certainly the mayor believes what they’re doing is the right thing for the City of Missoula.”
Ward 3 council member Heather Harp also is stepping aside to focus on one of the city’s top issues – housing. She heads the Missoula chapter of Habitat for Humanity and plans to focus her efforts in guiding the organization in partnership with the city.
Engen said Harp’s ability to share her “vulnerability” and her “capacity for wearing her heart on her sleeve” proved to be benefit for the council.
“In doing so, you gave me and I suspect your colleagues pause to think about the challenges in our community,” Engen told her. “Your ability to engage in trying to help people know how important this work is, and making your passion for public service palpable to others, is tremendously important to the city.”
Harp often chose her words carefully in addressing issues and was known to meet those who disagreed with her position – or that of the city – personally to hear their grievances. She helped found the Missoula citizen’s academy in a push to drum up participation in local issues.
“One of the incredible benefits of serving is seeing people come before us and express what is really important to them,” said Harp. “Many times I found that I disagreed or agreed, but I’d have to internalize that and take it into account in a future vote.”
Harp encouraged her colleagues to continue working on the city’s housing challenge.