Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Raising his right hand to take the oath of office, Jordan Hess became Missoula's new mayor and pledged to continue working to make the city a successful and equitable place to live, work and thrive.

Hess, the longest serving member of City Council, was elected by a majority of his peers on Monday. He became Missoula's 51st mayor on Wednesday.

“You have all heard me say over and over again that local government can be a transformative force for good in the lives of the residents we serve,” Hess told the audience. “I truly believe that at my core.”

Hess has been a City Council leader for years and worked closely with the late Mayor John Engen in crafting policies and pushing them forward, including the city's new Affordable Housing Trust Fund, its new housing office, its public transportation plans and, most recently, its goals around Justice, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Hess grins after being sworn in as Missoula's new mayor. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Jordan Hess grins after being sworn in as Missoula's new mayor. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

He was also at the table when the city pledged to achieve 100% clean electricity by 2030, to achieve zero waste, and other goals to cut the city's carbon footprint and prepare it for the growing impacts of climate change.

“We have these huge strategic goals and there's so much good work going on in those,” Hess told the Missoula Current after the ceremony. “I really look forward to continuing that work and moving all the good work the city is doing forward.”

Missoula District Court Judge Jason Marks spoke of Hess before delivering the oath of office, saying he'd always respected him for his “intelligence and enthusiasm to serve this city.”

“I've been struck by your thoughtfulness and compassion in addressing the difficult challenges this community faces,” Marks said. “As you go forward in this new position, don't try to be John Engen. Be Jordan Hess and the community will be blessed.”

Engen held the position of mayor for 17 years and helped guide its transition from a town into a city. He had a wide view of the playing field, ranging from those in need of social services and care to the economy, growth and development.

While the council at times fixates on single issues, Hess said he'd take the wide view, just as Engen had. He also vowed to work with those who may disagree with him.

“I can't be John Engen, and I think it would be disservice to our community if I tried,” Hess said. “What I can commit to is that I will try to the best of my ability to be the leader we need right now. Together, we can continue building a great city, and together we can make Missoula a wonderful place to live.”

Members of the Missoula City Council applaud Mayor Jordan Hess. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Curretn)
Members of the Missoula City Council applaud Mayor Jordan Hess. From left to right are council members Amber Sherrill, Stacie Anderson, Jennifer Savage, Mirtha Becerra and John Contos. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Members of the City Council attended the ceremony and applauded Hess' new role. But less than 48 hours earlier, they were mired in a stalemate over who to appoint to the job.

Tensions ran high as that meeting faded toward the midnight hour, and only after a close contender for the job conceded and changed his vote to support Hess did the council have the votes it needed to end the night.

That council member and contender was Mike Nugent, who had the support of nearly half the council. Nugent gave a impassioned speech after conceding to Hess and, despite the outcome, he wished Hess well and said the process played out as intended.

“There's processes in place, rules in place and we followed them, and Missoula can be proud of that,” Nugent said, saying there were no bad feelings. “I think we're all going to be good and we're excited to help Mayor Hess be successful. That's how democracy is supposed to work. We're all aware of that and it's time to move on.”

Engen announced his cancer diagnosis back in March and his illness weighed heavily on most members of the City Council. After his death on August 15, the lobbying for a replacement picked up and pitted some against another in their preferred choice of a successor.

Nugent said any disagreements were now in the past and he was ready to represent Ward 4 and the rest of Missoula.

“We all bring different skill sets,” Nugent said. “There were things in this process I feel Missoula is under-representing. There's a lot of different areas that people bring expertise to a conversation, and I worry that council dismisses some of them. I think that's something we have to repair.”

Council members John Contos and Kristen Jordan chat with fellow council member Sandra Vasecka and her son. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Council members John Contos and Kristen Jordan chat with fellow council member Sandra Vasecka and her son before Wednesday's ceremony. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Monday night's selection process, while frustrating, marked the culmination of months of sadness over Engen's diagnosis and weeks of grieving after his death. It created a sense of uncertainty, with the city's new direction adrift while the requirements of state law accelerated the timeline.

But with his experience, most believe Hess can pick up the pieces and move the city forward.

“We have a lot going on and we're excited to start this new chapter,” said Dale Bickell, the city's CAO and a close friend of Engen. “We have so much in the hopper. Having experience in knowing the direction of the city and knowing where we want to go is going to be really helpful and make it an easier transition.”

Hess' first task as mayor was to sign waiting documents, and even that must be done with the city's standing goals in mind, he said.

“I really hope to be accessible to everyone, and I really hope to work closely with those who didn't vote for me,” he said. “It was important for me on council, too. If someone called with an issue and we didn't see eye to eye, I always wanted to talk through it and take time to work with them.”

Among the mayor's more joyful duties comes the signing of proclamations. When asked what his first proclamation would be, Hess said it would honor a sick child.

“It's a child with a rare medical condition,” he said. “If there's something that I'm unaware of on the schedule, that will be the first one.”