Political races tend to get nastier as campaigns wear on, but the race for Billings mayor only seems to get more amicable.
That led candidates at a forum Sunday evening in Pioneer Park to suggest ways to get past the political differences that are cleaving the country and help citizens to become better informed and public officials to work together more productively.
Five of the six candidates for mayor appeared before more than 75 people at the forum, which was sponsored by Forward Montana, the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, the League of Women Voters of Billings, Billings Kiwanis, Not in Our Town, Billings Rising, Standing Up for Racial Justice, Billings Trailnet and the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force.
Moderator Dustin Kleeman of KTVQ said that the sixth candidate, Danny Sandefur, was ill Sunday and could not attend.
Candidates still had their differences, especially on whether to reconsider a nondiscrimination ordinance and whether to act on climate change. But the campaign seemed to have narrowed their differences, and they often cited with approval ideas and expressions put forth by other candidates in the race.
The starkest difference was on the NDO. Jeff Essmann, a state legislator and former small business owner in Billings, and Bill Cole, a real estate attorney active in local affairs, both stood firm against reconsidering a nondiscrimination ordinance such as the one the council defeated by a single vote in 2014.
“We don’t need to revisit a divisive issue,” Essmann said. Cole, borrowing a phrase from the campaign of candidate Danielle Egnew, said the city must “lead with love,” but he expressed concerns that a new ordinance might run afoul of a pending U.S. Supreme Court case, that such issues are usually handled at the state or federal level and that sincerely held religious beliefs might be threatened.
Angela Cimmino, an eight-year veteran of the council, voted against the 2014 ordinance but said she would favor revisiting the issue. She ran out of time during the forum’s timed remarks to explain her position fully, but afterward she contrasted the proposed Billings ordinance with NDOs adopted in Missoula and in Pocatello, Idaho, both of which she said she could support.
Specifically, she said she was concerned about provisions in the Billings ordinance relating to restroom use, protection of religious liberty and civil penalties assessed for violations of the ordinance.
All five candidates agreed that there is no place in Montana for racism or hate groups.
“The city needs to speak with one voice, which is very simple: no hate here,” said Randy Hafer, a Billings architect. Egnew, a psychic and guest pastor at Unity Christian Church, said she would attempt to establish a dialogue with hate groups.
“We will lead with love and bring the love to the hatred,” she said.
Cole said he would emphasize what he called the four p’s: public perception of the threat, preparation, a public united against racism and violence and peace and respect.
Essmann was the lone holdout when candidates were asked to hold up a green or red sign indicating “yes” or “no” about whether humans are causing climate change. Essmann held up the red sign, but his subsequent remarks were more measured. He said he supported conservation measures that “make sense,” such as making use of methane generated at the landfill – an idea also endorsed by Egnew – using compressed natural gas to power buses, and installing good insulation and energy-saving windows and lighting.
Cole said measures that save money are easy calls; spending tax dollars to reduce the city’s energy use is tougher. He expressed support for employing a city arborist and for tracking Billings’ carbon footprint.
“This is essentially a bet-the-planet issue,” he said.
Hafer, whose house was recently awarded LEED Platinum certification for its energy-saving features, told the crowd, “This is my passion.” Hafer and his wife, Janna, founded High Plains Architects, which had a hand in building five of seven LEED Platinum buildings in downtown Billings.
Candidates were at their most creative when asked how to get citizens more engaged in local government. Hafer said he would schedule sessions prior to council workshops to provide lessons about how government addresses such issues as zoning and parking. He already had a “syllabus” for four years of such sessions, he said.
“I think it would make Channel 7 most-watched TV,” he said, drawing a few audience chuckles.
Egnew said she would use her background in TV and film production to produce short videos describing city services. She also would answer questions on social media and hold quarterly town halls to hear citizen concerns.
Cimmino said she would ask Egnew, who also has a background in music, to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before council meetings. She also drew a few more chuckles when she suggested bringing a plate of lasagna to council meetings.
Essmann acknowledged, “I cannot compete in the lasagna Olympics,” but he did suggest expanding the number of wards from five wards with two council members each to 10 single-member wards to make door-to-door campaigning more feasible. Wards now are 50 percent larger than state Senate districts, he said before the forum.
Cole said he would encourage public involvement by improving customer service, promoting service on city boards, adding frequently-asked-questions segments to the mayor’s website and by running more efficient council meetings.
All of the candidates also were asked to include comments in their closing statements about how to bring the city more closely together. Hafer said his experience as an architect has taught him how to discuss issues around the table with all parties.
“The architect is the band leader … but we don’t have all the ideas,” he said.
Egnew said that partisan politics have no place in government and that she would emphasize love, dignity, compassion and respect. Cimmino pointed to her eight years of experience on the City Council.
“The political arena is a place where we have to negotiate,” she said. “We have to compromise.”
Essmann said the three key elements of bringing opponents together are having a good process, conducting business with decorum and showing respect. Cole said that officials need to have the courage to state the obvious, such as needs for additional parks and more attractive entryways into the city.
All of the candidates acknowledged that they would have to deal with pressure from reduced revenues. Cimmino said the city has lost federal Community Transportation Enhancement Program funds and “didn’t get a dime” in federal grants this year. Essmann said transportation funds are at greatest risk and need to be aimed at people with the greatest need.
Cole said the city has added only five fulltime positions since 2004, and all of those positions went to the police and fire departments. He noted that city property taxes are capped at 74 mills, and the cap can be raised only “as a last resort” by going to voters. He also suggested the possibility of raising service fees and lobbying the Legislature to authorize a local option sales tax.
Hafer said the city could dramatically reduce some costs with energy-saving measures, such as lighting changes in a city parking garage that reduced the electricity bill 80 percent. The city also could make more use of special districts such as those that help fund the library and parks.
Egnew touted her proposal to put a voluntary $1 tax on water bills that could be dedicated to fire and police protection and public trails.
“I propose that we just get ingenious moving forward,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, all of the candidates were upbeat about Billings’ future. Cole said Billings is competing with cities such as Bozeman, Boise, Seattle and Portland and needs to think about where it wants to be in 30 years. Essmann emphasized focusing on working with the tools we have rather than those we don’t have.
Egnew said the city needs an out-of-the-box approach that will bring in more revenue and younger workers. Cimmino emphasized economic development and managed growth.
“We must protect and enhance the downtown core,” she said.
Hafer said Billings could become a “center of sustainability.”
“We’re on the edge of greatness,” he said.