Mayoral candidate Danny Sandefur emphasized attacking crime and public intoxication in remarks at the Democratic breakfast meeting on Wednesday.
Sandefur is a real estate agent who also operates CDS the Edge Performing Arts Center on Montana Avenue with his wife, Samantha. He is one of six candidates for Billings mayor and one of two who failed to appear at an earlier Democratic dinner.
Sandefur, who grew up in Leavenworth, Kan., missed that dinner because of what he called on his Facebook page “email miscommunications.” The other candidate who missed that dinner, Angela Cimmino, was invited to Wednesday’s breakfast but failed to appear. Jim Hartung, who moderated Wednesday’s forum, said she had not responded to email messages.
Instead, Sandefur appeared at the forum with candidate Jeff Essmann, who said he has been involved in Montana politics since 1977. The other three candidates for mayor—Randy Hafer, Danielle Egnew and Bill Cole—were invited to an earlier Democratic breakfast meeting. A seventh candidate, Paul Bledsoe, has dropped out of the race.
Sandefur, whose campaign slogan is “Safer Billings,” said he would make it a priority to find additional resources for the police department. He said something needs to be done to cut public intoxication and homeless people on downtown streets, such as in front of his business.
“Billings is unfortunately the dumping ground for the state,” Sandefur said. One approach, he said, is to impose strict fines on merchants that sell alcohol to intoxicated customers.
Both candidates said that police officers on bicycles patrolling downtown streets appeared to help fight the problem. Sandefur expressed a desire to make the city “vibrant” again.
Sandefur also spoke against the “nightmare” of unplowed streets during the winter and about speeding near schools.
“It’s absurd how some people drive through these school zones,” he said.
Essmann, who has run a small business in Billings, has served in the Legislature and has been prominent in the Republican Party in Montana, emphasized some of the same themes he discussed at the Democratic dinner, including support, with some modifications, of tax increment districts, of the proposed 26-mile Marathon Loop Trail in Billings, and opposition to a nondiscrimination ordinance, which he considers “divisive.”
He also repeated his opposition to having the city endorse the Paris climate accord, arguing that the city should focus its resources on local issues, rather than on an international issue that even the entire state of Montana could barely influence. He did say he supported local conservation measures that make economic sense, such as vehicles powered by natural gas.
Sandefur said he would support a nondiscrimination ordinance and the Paris accord.
“It’s not a theory about climate change,” he said. “It’s a scientific fact.”
Both candidates expressed support for improved trails in Billings.
“Unfortunately, our trails system is kind of a bastard stepchild right now because it’s nobody’s responsibility,” Essmann said. A more deliberate strategy, perhaps using the city parks levy to fund bond issues, is needed, he said.
Sandefur praised the work of Billings TrailNet but noted there are some problems with path continuity and crossing intersections downtown.
Sandefur also expressed support for the One Big Sky Center, a major proposed downtown development. Essmann said he has heard talk that the project may be scaled down, and he expressed doubt about a general fund subsidy to build a downtown conference center that would not be open to the public in the way that a performance venue such as the Alberta Bair Theater is open.
“I don’t think homeowners and small business owners should have to pay higher taxes to support a conference center,” he said.
Asked about a possible major project in the Coulson Park area, both candidates agreed that it might be prohibitively expensive.
“We need to recognize what Billings is and was, and that’s a railroad town,” Essmann said. “What’s authentic in Billings is Montana Avenue,” particularly between 23rd and 26th streets.
Asked how to attract new business to Billings, Essmann said the city needs to focus on workforce development, using Montana State University Billings to help give workers the skills they need to offer employers.
Sandefur said Billings needs to entice “family-friendly” businesses to come here, and he said passing a nondiscrimination ordinance could help bring in new businesses.