Like a show-stopping diva, the role of the arts in city government took center stage Tuesday in a forum of Billings City Council candidates at the Alberta Bair Theater.
All 12 candidates for mayor and five council seats were invited to the forum at the Alberta Bair Theater. Two candidates failed to appear: Frank Ewalt, a candidate in Ward 2, and Nadja Brown, running in Ward 3.
The forum was sponsored by the Billings Chamber of Commerce and by the Billings Cultural Partners, a coalition of arts groups that aimed questions at candidates’ willingness to support arts institutions in Billings. The questions were posed before an audience of about 100 people by former Mayor Chuck Tooley, who served as moderator for the event.
Most candidates were willing to create an arts and culture commission to advise the City Council, although mayoral candidate Jeff Essmann noted that the city already has 28 advisory boards and commissions, and a new one should be considered only in the context of a broader look at all of the boards.
The most outspoken supporter of the arts was Ward 4 candidate Penny Ronning, a photographer who said she had been the director of the Gallatin Performing Arts Center in Bozeman. Ronning said an arts commission should have been created 10 years ago to bring creative ideas to the council, and she said the city should consider the arts to be just as solid a part of the business community as attorneys and doctors.
While other candidates also were generally supportive of the arts, some seemed unwilling to spend additional tax dollars to support them, other than for city-owned properties like the Alberta Bair Theater.
Shaun Brown, seeking re-election in Ward 5, pointed to such tax-free arts events as musicians who play at the downtown Farmers Market.
“Support is not necessarily we just throw money at things,” he said.
Bill Cole, running against Essmann for mayor, said he had lobbied for a mill levy to support the arts while serving on the Alberta Bair Theater board. That levy failed, and Cole said the city should direct its efforts toward placing public art works on city streets and cultivating an appreciation of esthetics throughout the city, particularly at entryways.
Cole said he was a “little skeptical” of adding another commission and said its role would have to be critically defined.
Even Essmann, who spoke against tax increases, said in what he called a “Willard Fraser moment” that the city should enhance the arts-oriented area between 23rd and 26th streets on Montana Avenue, perhaps even closing the street there. Essmann also said the city also should finish connecting the city’s trail system, perhaps using park funds to secure bonds for the project.
Fraser was a former Billings mayor noted for his imaginative and sometimes outlandish proposals for the city.
Denise Joy, running in Ward 3, said the city should make the arts a priority and look at regulations that may be delaying or preventing arts businesses in downtown buildings. Ward 1 candidate Charlie Smillie said his candidacy was motivated in part by the council’s dismissive attitude toward a request in March for $500,000 to leverage funding for an Artspace facility where artists could live and work. Smillie, field director for the Montana Wilderness Association, said the city needs new leadership that is open to considering fresh ideas that will attract young people to the city.
When candidates were asked to pick which of four pillars of the community – the government, education, business and culture – was most important, most opted for business.
Essmann said businesses were needed to provide jobs and pay taxes.
“The foundation is a healthy business sector,” he said.
Roger Gravgaard, running in Ward 2, agreed.
“Business drives the economic model,” he said.
Ward 4 candidate George Blackard said that “business makes the world go round.”
“We don’t need more government in our lives,” he said.
Some candidates picked education as the most important pillar, and some said all four were needed. Smillie said that if the four pillars were unequal, then we would not want to be under the building they support.
Ronning said that her mother worked for the government, her sister is a teacher, her father operated the Happy Diner restaurant here, and she works in the arts. Which member of her family, she asked other candidates, was most important?
Other issues emphasized by candidates included public safety. Joy called for expanded neighborhood watch programs, an idea endorsed by Ward 1 incumbent Mike Yakawich, who also said that rangers in city parks could help cut down on crime.
Gravgaard said the police force is “woefully understaffed,” and Blackard said that only nine officers are on patrol at any given time. Dennis Ulvestad, running against Brown in Ward 5, said the city charter needed to be amended to allow increased mill levies.
Cole said that new officers were needed, and he and Smillie said the city might consider asking voters for another public safety mill levy increase. Voters rejected such an increase in 2014, and Braun said the council needed to ask voters why they turned down the levy when they regularly cite public safety as a top priority.
“If we want to hire more officers,” he said, “we’ve got to make more money.”
Essmann suggested that the city use data analysts to determine more efficient staffing patterns, and Cole added that traffic cops might be able to recoup all or part of their salaries through increased fines.
Ronning noted that public safety doesn’t include just vehicles and thefts but also human trafficking and dysfunctional families. Billings has a record number of children in foster care, she said, and School District 2 reported 621 homeless children last year.
“If we are concerned about the safety of roads … I hope we will be equally concerned about children in the community,” she said.
Candidates also weighed in on the proposed One Big Sky Center, a multi-million dollar project proposed for downtown. Candidates were generally supportive of the concept, but some expressed concerns about possible costs to the city.
Cole called it the most exciting building project to come to the city since 1991. Essmann said his concern was whether the convention center proposed in the project would be self-sustaining. He said he had looked at convention centers in comparable cities and found that they required annual subsidies of $500,000 to $750,000.
Before the forum, candidates were given signs with “yes” on one side and “no” on the other to respond to “lightning round” questions. Asked whether they would support a local option sales tax, only Essmann and Blackard held up a “no” sign. Candidates were divided roughly evenly on whether they would support reconsideration of a nondiscrimination ordinance. All candidates indicated they would support using tax increment funds for an additional downtown parking garage.
Mostly, candidates continued to speak in positive terms both about their opponents and about Billings. Cole said that like some of the aging seats in the Alberta Bair Theater, “Billings also has some missing velour.”
“The problem is, we are not investing in our own community,” he said. But when Yakawich said he sees Billings as a glass half full, Cole said he saw the glass as three-quarters full. That prompted Yakawich to jokingly respond that the glass was 99 percent full.
While candidates generally agreed that the city needs to do more to attract creative young professionals, they nearly all said that Billings already has a lot to offer. Ulvestad said Billings has a great quality of life with good parks and trails and easy access to the outdoors.
Brown, who moved here from Idaho 37 years ago, said people here often look to Boise, Idaho, as a city to model Billings after.
“I would hope we don’t,” he said. But he added that Billings should do more to keep from running prospective businesses out of town.
Joy said the city should pay more attention to its established neighborhoods rather than focusing on West End growth.
“The taxpayers of Ward 3 have paid their taxes, and they deserve attention, too,” she said.
Ronning said one reason to vote for her is that she is female. Billings has never had a woman mayor in 135 years, she said, and if she and Joy were elected to the council, they would increase female representation 100 percent.