Chamber assigns grades to city candidates

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Billings City Council meetings occasionally become contentious as they make decisions concerning many aspects of city life.

The Billings Chamber of Commerce handed out six A’s and only one F in its evaluation of the 21 candidates running for six seats on the Billings City Council.

The ratings also included five B’s, eight C’s and a lone D. Candidates were rated mostly on how they responded to a Chamber questionnaire, with some weight given to past experiences and “demonstrable community leadership.” The F went to Ward 2 candidate Frank Ewalt, who did not respond to the questionnaire.

Chamber President John Brewer said in a letter accompanying the grades that while the Chamber has taken public positions on certain issues in recent years, it has not dealt with specific candidates for more than a decade. The Chamber also will not endorse candidates this year, Brewer said, but the letter grades give some notion of how well the candidates’ positions conform to the Chamber’s priorities.

Those priorities include strengthening local businesses, developing a talented workforce and making Billings a better place to live.

“We cannot progress on substantive issues if the decision making body is not in alignment with a vision to advance our community,” Brewer wrote.

Candidates were each asked 10 questions and had just over two weeks to respond. Many of the questions were stated in ways that implied the Chamber’s preferred answer. For example, a question about the use of tax abatements to recruit and expand businesses here asked candidates if they would “continue to use this approach to using this important economic development tool.”

Another question asked if candidates would support the Chamber’s position in favor of a vote on a local option tax. A question about tax increment financing districts called them “one of local government’s effective tools to attract private investment.”

Other questions asked candidates:

♦ To give a brief autobiography.

♦ What they consider the most important issue for growing businesses here.

♦ If they support using public money to build a conference and convention center in Billings.

♦ Their position on using public-private partnerships to lure airlines to the Billings Logan International Airport.

♦ How they would deal with traffic congestion in Billings.

♦ Whether they support expanding and improving city parks and trails.

♦ How they would balance the need for expanded services without unduly burdening businesses and taxpayers with new taxes and regulations.

The Chamber did not release the candidates’ answers to specific questions. A frequently-asked-questions section on the Chamber’s website said, “This decision was made partly because we did not inform candidates that we would share their answers with the public, and largely because we want our membership to engage in a dialogue with the candidates about their answers.”

The questionnaires were graded by the 11 members of the Chamber’s Local Government Advisory Board, who tossed out the highest and lowest scores for each candidate. The Chamber Board of Directors unanimously approved the board’s recommended grades.

Mayoral candidate Bill Cole, immediate past chairman of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, was not involved in any discussions or decisions about the grades, the Chamber said.

Here is the complete list of grades:


Angela Cimmino B

Bill Cole A

Danielle Egnew B

Jeff Essmann C

Randy Hafer A

Danny Sandefur C


Ward 1 candidates

Charlie Smillie C

Mike Yakawich A


Ward 2 candidates

Frank Ewalt F

Roger M. Gravgaard A

Ta’jin J. Perez C


Ward 3 candidates

Nadja Brown D

Denise Joy B

Michael A. Larson B

Tyler Starkweather C


Ward 4 candidates

George Blackard B

Penny Ronning C


Ward 5 candidates

Shaun Brown A

Alexander Clark A

Dennis Ulvestad C

Rhonda Whiteman C

City Council members are paid $600 a month, and the mayor is paid $766. The primary election for all City Council races will be held Tuesday, Sept. 12, and the general election is Tuesday, Nov. 7. Ballots for the primary will be mailed to voters on Aug. 25.

Regular voter registration ends Monday, Aug. 14. Late registration (in-person only) begins the following day.

For a ward map, go here.

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