Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

With the process of selecting a new Missoula mayor just two weeks away, members of the City Council on Wednesday began drafting questions to ask the candidates who are nominated for interviews.

But some council members suggested that several of the proposed questions are biased, loaded or slanted, and are intended to promote one individual's opinion on a certain issue rather than a candidate's own views.

“These questions should be as neutral and open as possible,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “When we structure a question with a bias, it doesn't foster conversation. I would encourage us not to have questions that lean toward bolstering one council member's agenda on a certain topic or specific department.”

The questions cover a range of topics, from collaboration with Missoula County Public Schools to one's intent to run for the office in the next election. It also asks candidates if they would advance several city initiatives, such as climate and equity.

But questions on the economy, taxation or growth are missing from the proposed list of questions. However, they do ask how a candidate would balance the city's need for housing with the desire of some to retain the city's character.

“A good approach would be to have 40 minutes for a candidate to answer questions,” said Acting Mayor and City Council President Gwen Jones. “If they don't get through all the questions, that's their choice. To me, if they don't answer a question, then that's an answer in and of itself.”

While council members supported the questions for their range of issues, at least two of the nine proposed questions were called out for being potentially biased or loaded.

One asked if a candidate would “replace Rogers International with another private security force” or create a “public, non-militarized” replacement.

“I think we can ask the question without naming a specific business or individual,” said Jones. “To name a specific company is like naming a specific individual. The questions need to be a little more abstract. Their response is going to tell you a lot about how they approach this.”

Council member Daniel Carlino, who proposed the question, agreed to a modification, saying it still hit the substance of what he wants a candidate to address.

Another question on the Missoula Redevelopment Agency was also set aside for needed revisions. It asks a candidate if they'd be “willing to change the governance of the MRA, specifically how they identify and distribute funds, to a model where they must seek council approval.”

The late Mayor John Engen, left, and former mayoral candidate Lisa Tripke debate in the 2017 mayoral race. The City Council will pick a new mayor in early September. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
The late Mayor John Engen, left, and former mayoral candidate Lisa Tripke debate in the 2017 mayoral race. The City Council will pick a new mayor in early September. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Several council members suggested the question was loaded and narrowly focused and failed to reflect the majority view of the City Council. Rather, it suggested that change was necessary and imminent, when that's not the case.

Council member Kristen Jordan proposed the question but was absent on Wednesday and will be out for the next two weeks, Jones said.

“It sends the message that there is widespread support on council to change the governance,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “I don't think there's majority support for changing the governance.”

Members of the council attempted to rephrase the question on Wednesday and will finalize the question next week.

Missoula Mayor John Engen died of pancreatic cancer earlier this month, and the city has a narrow window under state law to replace him. The application period closes at noon on Friday. Council members will then each have the opportunity to nominate one candidate from the applicant pool.

The League of Women Voters will run the interview with each candidate and the council then will select a new mayor. The chosen applicant must win at least seven City Council votes. If that's not possible – and if the voting stays exactly the same after two voting rounds – then members of the council can nominate an applicant outside the candidate pool.

But that's not the preferred outcome.

“Pulling in from the outside probably isn't the best fit. I would be hesitant to go outside the pool, to pull someone in and just make them mayor,” Jones said, adding, “If I was running for mayor, I'd sure as heck be watching this meeting.”

The final list of questions will be finished next week.