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Reporter’s Notebook: Failing to answer City Council Q&A is a disservice to voters

More than two weeks ago, the Missoula Current launched its candidate profiles with a series of question and answers heading into the primary election. We’ll be sending out a digital voter’s guide in the coming days, timing it as absentee ballots are mailed.

In the words of the first female judge to preside over federal court in Missoula County, “inform yourself” before you vote. Judge Kathleen DeSoto offered that advice to 28 new U.S. citizens this week as they took their oath of allegiance in a stirring naturalization ceremony.

“To me, voting is one of the most important exercises of our citizenship, and unfortunately, it’s often a right that’s overlooked or forgotten by many of our citizens,” said DeSoto. “Make sure you inform yourself to the best degree you can. Make those choices based on information and knowledge.”

Unfortunately, three of this year’s candidates for Missoula City Council denied voters a chance to do just that. While 12 candidates submitted detailed replies to this year’s voter’s guide, John Cantos running in Ward 5, Sandra Vasecka running in Ward 6, and Brent Sperry running in Ward 2 did not, despite multiple attempts to reach them.

This is a negative first step for an inspiring elected official, and it serves as a harbinger of how they would perform if elected to represent the constituents in their district. It speaks to their future accessibility, whether they respect their constituents, and whether they’d even take the job seriously.

This year’s elections will see one of the most philosophically diverse crop of City Council candidates in recent memory, and voters deserve to know where they stand on the issues facing our city. Those who did reply took the time to offer detailed answers to challenging questions, giving voters essential information as they head to the polls.

But one question was ignored by three candidates who participated in the questionnaire. This year’s Q&A asked candidates if they believed a series of tweets sent out by President Donald Trump last month targeting four minority members of Congress were racist.

Ward 3 candidate Drew Iverson said he “had no knowledge” of the president’s tweets, while Ward 4 candidates Greg Strandberg and Alan Ault didn’t answer the question. The latter candidate wrote, “I am at a loss to understand what this has to do with running the city of Missoula.”

While watching 28 people from 20 nations receive their citizenship this week, becoming new Americans living in the city of Missoula, I concluded the question posed to our candidates had everything to do with “running the city of Missoula.”

When the president told four members of Congress to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” it sparked a fierce national debate, one Missoula isn’t immune to.

A candidate’s personal views on such matters speaks to who they are as a person, and who they are as a person will undoubtedly trickle into their votes on unforeseen issues the city will face at some point in the future.

It is, as one reader suggested on social media, “a litmus test for many voters.” It’s exactly why we included it in this year’s questionnaire, and we’ll continue to pose similar questions to the candidates as the field narrows heading into November.

To suggest that such questions have nothing to do with local government is naive at best and a cop-out at worst. Missoula is home to a widely successful immigration program, one that has received international attention and acclaim, along with City Council support. Missoula also is increasingly diverse, and most Missoula residents are thankful for that.

But if our candidates believe four members of Congress should “go back” to where they came from, then one has to ask: Do they believe the minority residents of Missoula should do the same? Would they represent our minority residents with equality? Not answering the question leads us to speculate, and speculation is of little use when trying to cast an informed vote.

Putting it simply, failing to answer such basic questions is a disservice to voters, and it disguises potentially ugly views that would otherwise trouble most Missoula residents.

“City elections are incredibly important,” Judge DeSoto told the new U.S. citizens. “They often affect your daily life more than national elections do.”

She’s right, and the Missoula Current thanks those candidates who fully participated in our questionnaire. The voters deserve to know far more than we were able to ask, but the answers we got (and didn’t get) are a good start at revealing the field and where they stand on the issues.