It took about an hour into a 90-minute public forum, but candidates for Billings mayor finally found things to disagree about on Tuesday.
Four of six candidates for mayor appeared at the forum, which was sponsored by the Yellowstone Democratic Club. Angela Cimmino and Danny Sandefur were unable to attend, forum organizers said, and a seventh candidate, Paul Bledsoe, has dropped out of the race.
Bledsoe confirmed in an email late Tuesday that he had left the race “due to possible conflicting interests.”
For the first hour, candidates gave five-minute statements, then responded amicably to pre-submitted questions. All four expressed support for tax increment funding districts, improved roads and streets and Billings City Council cooperation.
“Everybody up here is saying a lot of the same things,” said candidate Bill Cole, a real estate attorney who has been active on the Billings Chamber of Commerce.
Then questions were raised about the Paris climate accord and a nondiscrimination ordinance, and candidates’ views began to diverge. The question about the climate agreement drew applause from the Democratic audience.
Danielle Egnew, who described herself as a fourth-generation Billings resident with a background in TV and film production, said she would join with other mayors across the nation to uphold the climate agreement, which the Trump administration has rejected.
“It’s not a partisan issue,” she said. “How many of you breathe?”
Randy Hafer, an architect who specializes in environmentally friendly design, agreed, with one stipulation: “We need to go way beyond that.” Billings, with lots of sunshine and plenty of water, is ideally suited to develop sustainable energy and “should be recycling everything,” he said.
In his opening remarks, Hafer said he had built his own house within the Billings city limits with no city water or sewer and no natural gas. Such projects show that Billings can become a paradigm for how to live on this planet, he said.
But the other two candidates were more skeptical. Jeff Essmann, who served seven sessions as a Republican in the Montana Legislature, said flatly that he would not seek to conform to the Paris agreement, arguing that it did not make economic sense and that Billings money should be spent to attain Billings goals.
Cole acknowledged that humans are contributing to climate change but said he probably would not agree to honor the Paris accord unless he was persuaded that a majority of Billings citizens favored it.
“To do it unilaterally would divide the city,” he said.
An even more divisive issue surfaced on the next question, which was posed by Tyler Starkweather, a gay man who is running for the City Council in Ward 3. He asked whether candidates would support a nondiscrimination ordinance similar to a proposed ordinance that the council voted down, 6-5, in 2014 with Mayor Tom Hanel casting the decisive vote.
All four candidates said they opposed discrimination, but Cole, who described himself as an evangelical Christian, expressed multiple reservations about an ordinance: The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case about the issue, and a state constitutional amendment is possible. He also said he was concerned about the costs of enforcing a nondiscrimination ordinance and about implications for religious liberty.
Essmann said that he never practiced discrimination in 25 years as a small-business owner and even “fired” four customers for mistreating his employees. But he said he would not support a nondiscrimination ordinance.
“I believe that it’s a divisive issue for the city of Billings,” he said.
Egnew, who described herself as a lesbian who is married to a woman, said it’s the mayor’s job to set a tone that prevents the issue from becoming divisive. She said some young people and high-tech companies will not consider moving to cities without a no-hate policy.
“I have been fired in Billings for being gay,” she said. “Long time ago, but that’s a true story.”
Hafer also expressed support for a nondiscrimination ordinance.
“We need to be a tolerant community,” he said. “We need to be a welcoming community.”
None of the candidates has served on the City Council before, but all pointed to relevant experience for the job. Hafer and Cole noted that they have attended many council meetings over the years, Hafer in support of architectural projects and Cole in support of Chamber of Commerce and other community interests. Hafer said he has developed eight vacant buildings downtown, including some that had been empty for as long as 25 years.
He said that his experience working with multiple city departments on building projects would help him with an upcoming review of the city’s zoning ordinance.
“How fun is that?” he said. “But zoning is everything.”
Essmann cited his experience in the Legislature and as chairman of the Montana Republican Party. Egnew said she has experience in fund raising and as an entrepreneur and would be excited about working with the council.
“My responsibility is not to get all cranky and jaded,” she said.
On other issues, Essmann said he would emphasize public safety, noting that Billings is 10th in the country in vehicle theft rate. He also expressed support for the 26-mile Marathon Loop trail around Billings and the Inner Belt Loop.
Cole said Billings has a relatively old population that is getting older. The city needs to exchange reading glasses for binoculars and look 30 years down the road, he said.
“We can’t afford to have a Blockbuster city in a Netflix world,” he said.
He said that Billings has twice as many residents age 25 to 40 as Bozeman and needs to get that message out to compete with Bozeman; Boise, Idaho; and Seattle.
“If we don’t, they’re going to eat our lunch,” he said. Billings tends to be a bit risk averse, he said, and used an elaborate euphemism to describe entryways to the city as “butt ugly.”
Egnew tossed out such ideas as using the kinetic energy of the Yellowstone River to generate power, adding direct flights from Billings to Los Angeles and creating a “Your 2 Cents” program to encourage residents to donate $1 to certain programs.
“Under the Dolly Parton wig, I’m a huge science nerd,” she said.
In response to a question, Hafer pointed out that the Montana Department of Transportation has responsibility for some Billings streets, such as Montana Avenue and North 27th Street, but tends to treat them like highways. The city needs a clear vision and needs to speak with one voice to engage successfully with the Department of Transportation, he said.
Before the forum, Tom Towe announced the Democrats’ breakfast study group will have sessions with mayoral and City Council candidates beginning July 26. Those meetings are scheduled to include the other mayoral candidates, City Council member Cimmino and real estate agent Sandefur. The group meets at 7 a.m. Wednesdays at the McCormick Café.
The municipal primary election will be held Sept. 12. The general election will be on Nov. 7. The mayor’s job pays $9,600 a year.