Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The passing of long-time Missoula Mayor John Engen on Monday will require the city to begin searching for a replacement, a role City Council members said will require courage, wisdom and knowledge of local government.

Engen, who died Monday at the age of 57 due to pancreatic cancer, was the city's longest serving mayor, a fact that provided comfort and certainty in Missoula's political sphere as to the city's progressive philosophy.

“As long as there's good communication, we'll find our way forward,” said City Council president and acting mayor Gwen Jones. “To me, it comes down good ideas that are based on a lot of wisdom and good information. I don't think this is a risk-averse City Council. We'll go forward and do it the right way.”

Under the city's rules of succession, Jones is now the city's acting mayor, though on Monday she said that she doesn't plan to vie for the post permanently. Rather, the city will open applications from interested candidates on Tuesday and hold the application period open for 10 days.

The city will review those applications and the City Council will conduct interviews, much like it does when a position on City Council opens mid-term. When it comes time to select an applicant, Council members will each nominate their preferred candidate and continue voting on the finalists until one of them receives a majority vote.

“We'll be focusing on succession, and there's a process for how we'll be appointing the next mayor,” said Jones. “I wish we could have held off for just a couple more days to give this some breathing room, but we're under some pretty strict sideboards from Montana state law. To meet that time period, we'll start tomorrow.”

Missoula City Council President and now acting mayor, Gwen Jones, left, joins Jordan Hess, vice president of the City Council, in discussing Missoula's rules for succession during a press conference on Monday, August 15, 2022. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Missoula City Council President and now acting mayor, Gwen Jones, left, joins Jordan Hess, vice president of the City Council, in discussing Missoula's rules for succession during a press conference on Monday, August 15, 2022. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
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Engen was known for his visionary thinking and persistence to see new policies and goals set in place. He advocated for a wide number of things, from housing and equity to economic growth and smart development.

It's uncertain what a new mid-term mayor will bring to the table and if the chosen candidate will set a new course of direction.

“I'll be looking for someone who can understand and appreciate local government at some level, and be able to lead this community,” said Jones. “I think it will be hard to follow John Engen. We'll need the entire community to step up and make this successful.”

Council members praised city staff for showing up to work on Monday given the day's heavy news. Jones said her focus as acting mayor will be to ensure the city keeps moving forward. She also wants to ensure the next mayor is set up for success and “keeps moving the community” in the right direction.

Jones said Engen positioned the city well in his 17 years on the job.

“We have good people in place, we have a good council, and we have good leadership in our different departments,” Jones said. “I've met with all of them, and the city is in good hands. John Engen was a visionary mayor, and we've got some big projects to keep up and we'll do our best to see those through.”

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