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New leadership is on the horizon for several of Montana’s large cities following municipal elections held across the state this week.
Voters in Missoula, Montana’s second-largest city, picked Andrea Davis as their first elected mayor since the death of longtime incumbent John Engen last year. Davis, executive director of the affordable housing nonprofit Homeword, won decisively over real estate broker and current Missoula City Council member Mike Nugent.
To the east in fast-growing Bozeman, the state’s fourth-largest municipality, voters made a rare decision not to hand incumbent mayor Cyndy Andrus another term, instead picking twenty-something progressive Joey Morrison over Andrus and environmental attorney John Meyer. (Bozeman’s commission system means Morrison will join the city commission for a two-year term as deputy mayor in January when current Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham, who was elected two years ago, assumes the mayorship. Morrison will start his term as full-fledged mayor at the beginning of 2026.)
Great Falls, the state’s third-largest city, also picked new leadership, with former police detective and Cascade County Undersheriff Cory Reeves beating out a field that included former Democratic House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner.
Elsewhere in the state, Billings and Kalispell held city council elections but had their mayoral seats out of cycle this year. Helena’s election was limited to a down-ballot race in one neighborhood after the three incumbent commissioners who were up for re-election drew no challengers.
That’s a lot to keep track of, even without getting into results from smaller communities. As the MTFP newsroom talked about how to cover those results this week, we figured Lowdown readers would appreciate a chance to hear briefly from the fresh blood coming into some of the state’s most important local leadership roles.
All three of the big-city mayors-elect spoke to reporters by phone this week, discussing their plans for tackling, among other issues, housing affordability, homelessness and public safety. The interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
(Bozeman mayoral candidate John Meyer is married to MTFP reporter Amanda Eggert, who didn’t participate in reporting or editing these items.)
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
Andrea Davis, Missoula
MTFP: How can Missoula add the housing it needs to accommodate a growing population without sacrificing the vibe that’s drawn people to the city to begin with?
Davis: When I first moved here, there was the 12th Street Grocery in my neighborhood. But because it was a nonconforming use, that little tiny corner grocery store went away. As we build our community out, how are we making it so we can access services, jobs, groceries, little restaurants on the corner without having to get in our car and drive across town and add to the congestion and add to the strife of the feeling of growth?
A lot of that will be how we make it so we’ve got mixed-use neighborhoods that are connected with well-functioning streets, that have sidewalks that allow people to move around. I really want to see us continue to advocate for and build out street trees. This I know sounds simplistic, but to me this is a very important part of quality of life for living in a city and also helps with the urban heat effect. And we’re going to need to be intentional about a mix of different home types.
MTFP: On the homelessness front, what’s your immediate game plan to make sure people without a place to live have the shelter they need this winter?
Davis: The city council has postponed the decision for an urban camping ordinance until Dec. 13. So my immediate game plan is to work with city staff, city council and the myriad of community partners as that ordinance gets considered against the other policies and practices that we have in our community. We have the Johnson Street facility that’s been opened and my understanding is there have been improvements to the operation of that facility. My immediate plan is to assess those operational procedures and make sure we’ve got a plan in place for a feedback loop with that neighborhood, because we heard loud and clear that that neighborhood felt they were not being heard.
Also, how are we assessing a place for people to be outside? Is there a location where we can have an approved campsite that is run differently than the one that we did in 2022? The one that we had done last time wasn’t a success. There were a whole host of challenges. But we have a lot of community partners at the table that are saying we could do this more successfully.
MTFP: You’re Missoula’s first new elected mayor since 2005, when John Engen first stepped into office. What do you think will be the most obvious difference between your approach to the job and his?
Davis: I’ve been doing quite a bit of work at the state level. I chair a Montana Housing Coalition, I’ve been active with establishing that coalition for a number of years and getting a statewide housing policy addressed and passing legislation. It was something that I encouraged Mayor Engen to do, and whether he wanted to or didn’t or whatever, it just was an area that he didn’t really lean into. I think that is one of the main differences you’ll see with me as mayor is I will be working hard to establish relationships and really a coalition of other major cities and towns across the state, because we share a lot of the same challenges right now … We’re going to need to be working on statewide property tax issues, we’re going to need to be working across the aisle, and homelessness [is] a significant issue that we cannot do alone. The stronger our neighboring cities are in their approach to solutions for homelessness, the better off we all are.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Joey Morrison, Bozeman
MTFP: Among the most pressing issues facing Bozeman is housing affordability. What specific actions can the city commission take within the next year to provide relief for residents who are struggling with that?
Morrison: It’s pretty limited at the moment. We could look at emergency measures like rental assistance and things like that to keep people in their homes, or looking at renter protections to keep folks from facing eviction. But as far as immediate relief, I don’t see that many tools in a one-year span. Longer term — being able to make it easier for folks to be able to internally subdivide existing structures [and] create private entrances [to] create private rentals that are part of an established existing structure, making it easier for folks to build [accessory dwelling units], maybe providing subsidies or rebates for folks that are willing to do that. Those are some of the things that I think are promising for short-term infill that doesn’t really modify the character of a neighborhood too much.
MTFP: Many of the things the city could do to address housing and related issues like homelessness would take quite a bit of money. Of course, property taxes are the major place city dollars come from and are also a major concern right now. How can the city do more without putting more burden on taxpayers?
Morrison: Some of it really needs to come from belt-tightening from the at-times-indulgent spending with out-of-state consultants that have enormous price tags to answer questions that we know the answers to. I really think that that will move the needle. I’ve sat on a few boards that were coming up hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to pay consultants.
We do have a lot of wealthy, affluent people that are philanthropic folks, that I do believe would be interested in making socially responsible investments or just contributions to some of these bigger projects, and I’d really like to see that start being a practice for us. If we’re going to try and get a $10 million bond before the voters, that we raise half of it as a city first.
MTFP: One of the dynamics you’ll face on the Bozeman commission is the possibility that the state’s conservative Legislature could override local action it sees as too progressive, as happened with inclusionary zoning in 2021. As you’re thinking about how to lead the city, how will you navigate that dynamic?
Morrison: I’ve really seen our local city commission shy away from sitting down and breaking bread with more rural neighbors and rural counties and cities that have real skin in the game to make sure they maintain local control. And I think we really need to start organizing alongside the Glendives and the Miles Cities and the Glasgows to make sure that they also recognize “Hey, when the state Legislature takes stuff away from Bozeman, they take stuff away from you too.”
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
Cory Reeves, Great Falls
MTFP: What’s at the top of your to-do list for when you take office?
Reeves: Top of our list is housing, just like every community, I think. To my understanding, in the state of Montana, everyone is having a housing crisis right now and Great Falls is not excluded. Our community development [department] is already making a lot of changes, but I want to do a top-to-bottom review of our zoning and permit processes to make sure that everything is streamlined. So when you show up to build a house in Great Falls or you show up to open a business in Great Falls, you don’t have to wait 6 to 9 to 12 months to get that business off the ground or that house built. I want to make sure everything is streamlined so it’s just kind of like a one-stop shop. And I do know that that is currently in the works. They’re working on that. But I’m going to really make sure when I take office Jan. 1 that people know that Great Falls is open for business. We want you to come here, we welcome you here.
MTFP: Voters shot down the public safety levy on the ballot in Great Falls — what will that mean for your incoming administration?
Reeves: The public safety levy and bond was a “heck no” from the community. It got slaughtered, if you will. So now we, as the commission, are going to have to come, sit back and go, ‘OK, with community input, where do we go from here?’ Because, unfortunately, this can has been kicked down the road for 50 years by previous commissions. The last public safety levy, as you’re probably aware, was in, I think, 1959. And so here in 2023, we tried to go after it and the community said, “No, we’re done being taxed.” And I think timing was bad also. You know, the state of Montana gave out the new tax appraisals, so everyone’s taxes went up. We recently had a public library levy that passed that was very controversial in our community. So I think people just said, “You know what, we’re done giving our tax dollars,” which I totally respect. It was a big ask for the community. But now we as a city commission and the community are going to have to sit down and have some hard conversations about “Where do we go from here?”
—Mara Silvers, Reporter
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — the nation’s first Native American cabinet secretary — arrived in Bozeman Sunday, Nov. 5, for the twelfth and final stop on her nationwide “Road to Healing” tour. Haaland, who in 2021 announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, “an effort to recognize the troubled legacy of federal Indian boarding school policies with the goal of addressing their intergenerational impact and to shed light on the traumas of the past,” listened to the stories and experiences of survivors and descendants of Indian boarding schools, at least 16 of which operated in Montana between 1819 and 1969.
“Federal Indian boarding school policies have impacted every Indigenous person I know,” Haaland told the crowd of more than 100 attendees in a ballroom at Montana State University. “Some are survivors, some are descendants. But we all carry this painful legacy in our hearts. This is the first time in history that a United States cabinet secretary comes to the table with that shared trauma. That is not lost on me, and I am determined to use my position for the good of the people.”
Read more in this week’s report from MTFP contributor Johnathan Hettinger.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Approximate number of Montana National Guardsmen deployed overseas as of Veterans Day this Saturday, Nov. 11.
Maj. Ryan Finnegan, the Montana National Guard’s public affairs officer, said in an email that the state’s active deployments include two units:
- About 80 soldiers in the Butte-based 1889th Regional Support Group, deployed to southwest Asia to provide administrative support at several bases in the region. That work includes human resources, physical security, IT services and mail handling.
- About 60 soldiers in the Billings-based 190th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, stationed in southwest Asia, where they’re providing logistics support for operations against the Islamic State. That work includes handling food, ammunition, repair parts and other supplies.
Finnegan said the Montana Army National Guard and Montana Air National Guard also have about 10 more soldiers and airmen on individual deployments in Europe, Africa and Asia. He told MTFP he couldn’t provide more specific details, such as the precise number of guardsmen deployed, due to security concerns.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
Dept. of Corrections 😬
In last week’s newsletter, we incorrectly wrote that 16% of NorthWestern Energy’s customers’ bills can be traced to local and national taxes rather than local and state taxes. A NorthWestern Energy spokesperson also pushed back on the percentage increase we cited for the overall increase the company’s customers can expect to see on their electric bills this month relative to August of last year, saying the appropriate figure is 24% rather than 28%. The lower figure is more current, taking into account that the utility has spent less than expected buying electricity generated by other companies.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — Evidently the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has identified at least seven sites in Montana that have geothermal energy potential. This Center for Western Priorities primer also discussed permitting, technical and environmental considerations that come into play with this energy source that’s garnering more attention in western states such as Nevada and Colorado.
Alex — Kalispell experienced a significant wrinkle in its municipal election this week. As the Flathead Beacon reported, a clerical error related to new ward boundaries approved in 2021 resulted in an undetermined number of voters receiving the wrong ballots by mail. It’s unclear yet what impact the situation will have on the city’s three contested council races.
Mara — The toy company Mattel is again expanding its Barbie collection — this time, with the inclusion of a doll modeled after Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller, who died in 2010. The news outlet ICT reported this week that Mankiller, winner of the 1998 Presidential Medal of Freedom and a dedicated advocate for Indigenous peoples, will be “the first real-life Native woman to be featured in the Barbie ‘Inspiring Women’ series.”
Eric — As the federal government ponders paying more than a half-billion dollars to encourage California irrigators to conserve water in the parched Colorado River basin, The Desert Sun and ProPublica report that a handful of farming families in California’s Imperial Valley are consuming more water than entire cities — much of it to grow exported animal feed.
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