Two people are challenging Billings City Councilman Mike Yakawich, the incumbent in Ward 1, in the primary election.
Ballots were mailed out Aug. 25 for the primary election. For this mail-in-only election, all ballots must be mailed back to or brought into the Yellowstone County Elections Department by 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 12. The two top vote-getters in each race will advance to the General Election on Nov. 7.
Last Best News asked all City Council and mayoral candidates to respond to a written questionnaire, which featured questions suggested by several former council members, mayors and community leaders. Council candidates were asked to answer as many of the questions as they wished to, but to limit their total response to 1,000 words.
In Ward 1, only Yakawich responded. His challengers, Charlie Smillie and Joshua Kostelecky, did not return the questionnaires.
Occupation: Small-business owner and director nonprofit.
Political experience: Four years Billings City Council Ward 1.
Name your three favorite books, or those that influenced you most deeply: The Bible, “The Click Moment,” “The Best Advice I Ever Got on Marriage.”
1. If elected, what scares you most about serving on the council?
Yakawich: It is always important for me to listen to my constituents, work hard and to do my very best. I would hope and pray we can continue to work well as council with staff and the community.
2. There are some 400,000-plus square feet of vacant commercial space becoming available in downtown Billings. What are your plans for solving the vacant retail and commercial space problem?
Yakawich: Our city is growing and businesses expanding. I am very confident Billings has the capacity that business enterprises will be drawn to renting/purchasing these vacant commercial spaces. I too am very confident of the Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky Economic Development, Downtown Business Association, our Billings Urban Renewal Districts, Commercial Realtors and the Billings Tourism Business Improvement District and others in seeking out ways to bring more people and businesses to our community. We have great leadership in this area in our community.
3. The trail network has become an integral part of the Billings landscape. With less federal funding available for alternative transportation, how would you help expand and maintain the network as a viable transportation option?
Yakawich: Our city has done well in building trails and paths working with the Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee, TrailNet, RiverStone Health, the Chamber and many other great organizations. We need to support and work on the Billings Area Bikeway and Trails Master Plan. We must continue to encourage public/private partnerships as the recent Sugar Beet Co. support of a trail extension. I enjoy riding my bike around the city. It is good to work with the TrailNet and others who are invested in this area to support them, network, plan, collaborate more and seek out new ideas. The Heritage Trail Tour Map is a great tool for the non-motorized produced for and by such collaboration. Other transportation as the Met System is also important to promote and encourage more use. Ideas as funding to new routes and other ways to provide better use of this system is being implemented.
The other races
Mayoral candidates’ responses to a similar survey were printed Sunday. Other City Council candidates’ responses will be published in the coming days: Ward 2, Tuesday; Ward 3, Wednesday; Ward 4, Thursday; Ward 5, Friday.
4. With an administration running the city and overseeing city departments, what do you see as your role as a member of the City Council?
Yakawich: City Council is there to listen, understand, and reply to their constituents as well as working well with the aity administrator, City Council and mayor. It is important to know, understand and support the charter. City Council is a key liaison between their ward/constituents and the city staff and administration. It has a very important role in seeking and assuring ways to make the city and the citizens safe and healthy, balance the budget and provide sound infrastructure by working with our citizens, city administrator, city staff and council/mayor.
5. What is the optimal role for a city administrator? Idea person, implementer of council policy, manager of city employees, budget watchdog or something else?
Yakawich: The city administrator is a key part of our city. This person must be able to work well with City Council/mayor and city staff. I would say important attributes are: previous work experience, good communicator, hardworking, dedicated to a balanced budget, responds promptly to requests, delegates when appropriate to staff and is accessible.
6. What ideas do you have for including and promoting diversity in the Billings community?
Yakawich: Diversity is a very important part of our community. We have a great array of color, culture, creed, and faith in our city. Diversity starts in my own family. My wife and I have an inter-racial, inter-cultural and international marriage. She is a U.S. citizen born in Japan. Our five children are Amer-Asian. In other ways, my involvement over the years includes working with such a diverse group of people and organizations as the Black Heritage Foundation, Asian-American Events, volunteering with the Mexican Fiesta, working with the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders and with members of the Crow Reservation in Pryor. Also, working and networking with Living Independently for Today and Tomorrow as well as a member of the Mental Health Advisory Board which allows another opportunity working with diverse groups of citizens in our community.
7. Have you read the City Charter?
Yakawich: Many times.
8. Should the City Charter be changed? If so, how?
Yakawich: As I wrote once in the Gazette letter to the editor, we should always bring it before the citizens of Billings to read, review and vote if we should make changes to the charter or not. When appropriate, we should promote and encourage citizen involvement and review. Citizens are given the opportunity to vote to review it and if supported it can go forward to a formal review panel and then brought back to our citizens. City Hall has copies in the hallway on a stand, I encourage all citizens to read it.
9. Does the proposed One Big Sky Center make economic sense? How do you respond to hotel owners who might be hurt by this subsidized competition?
Yakawich: We are still in the process of seeking out the business plan from the developers. We do have many checks and balances if we proceed. It is good to give the developers the opportunity to report back to City Council for their review and then determine whether to go forward with the development agreement. It appears among many hotel owners to businesses, the Big Sky Economic Development, and others a general support of this development as it will help promote and support their own business as well as fill beds for the hotels. Yet, we must continue to hear all sides, seek input and proceed wisely. As included in answer #2, we have great leadership and great organizations to foster this economic growth in Billings.
10. Considering that Billings has an international reputation as a community of tolerance dating back to the early 1990s, how do you think our reputation may have been affected if the national media had gotten hold of the story about Billings government rejecting a nondiscrimination ordinance? More specifically, how could such national publicity affect our competitive position about economic development, considering that other major cities in Montana have a nondiscrimination ordinance in place?
Yakawich: We have a great city. We have faced a variety of issues over the years. I have seen firsthand the best that our city can offer and at times the challenges. Our city has gained many awards and recognitions in the past years as #1 Best Town 2016 from Outside Magazine. We are growing and expanding with such future developments as the Inner Belt Loop to a new Science and Allied Health Building at MSU Billings, to development of trails and parks, to many new businesses coming into our community as Zoot Enterprise to a new link with American Airlines to Dallas. I believe we are a welcoming city. Yet, we must always continue to be more welcoming as well as respecting our own neighbors. We have racial, faith, cultural challenges. We need to be diligent, seek ways to collaborate, communicate and network. Regarding other factors, I am very much concerned with the growing drug abuse, gangs and transient/homeless issues that we are facing as a community. I believe these will be greater challenges into the coming years. I remain optimistic knowing we are a resilient community that pulls together and overcomes such perplexing problems.