Three challengers and the incumbent are in the running for the Ward 5 seat on the Billings City Council.
Shaun Brown, who is seeking a second term, is being challenged by Rhonda Whiteman, Dennis Ulvestad and Alexander Clark.
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.
Clark did not respond to the questionnaire. Here are the other candidates and their responses.
Rhonda Whiteman, early 40s.
Occupation: I’ve been doing nonprofit work. I’m taking time to work on my candidacy and health issues.
Political experience: My first job was as a page in the United States Senate in Washington, D.C. I’ve since volunteered for the Billings campaigns of local, statewide and national candidates. I sit on a board that oversees a political action committee that endorses candidates and promotes legislation supportive of issues important to indigenous peoples in the state of Montana.
Name your three favorite books, or those that influenced you most deeply: “Pretty-shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows” by Frank B. Linderman, “Through Indian Eyes: The Untold Story of Native American Peoples” by Editors of Readers Digest and ” Anne of Green Gables” by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Dennis Ulvestad, 67
Occupation: Retired Macerich Security field training officer.
Political experience: City of Billings, four years C\chair of West End Task Force, four years co-chair Animal Control Board and currently on Zoning Commission (three-plus years).
Name your three favorite books, or those that influenced you most deeply: Bible, “So You Think You Are a Leader” and “Killing Lincoln.”
Darin “Shaun” Brown, 54
Occupation: President, Morrison Maierle Systems.
Political experience: Billings City Council.
Name your three favorite books, or those that influenced you most deeply: “The Big Bam” by Leigh Montville, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker and “The Wheel of Time” series by James Oliver Rigney Jr., under his pen name of Robert Jordan.
Questions and Answers
1. If elected, what scares you most about serving on the council?
Brown: I don’t fear anything about serving on the City Council, but as I have expressed in the past I do have concerns as to the amount of time that I am able to commit on a weekly basis. Some weeks I have plenty of time to prepare and other weeks I have very little productive time to commit.
Ulvestad: I am NOT scared about being on City Council. I’m actually looking forward to being on the council; it’s the next logical step considering my previous city of Billings experience. I believe fresh leadership is needed. All council members should work together so we all can be part of the solution and not part of the problem to help move Billings forward for our future generations.
Whiteman: I am most afraid of committing the city’s limited resources to a project that fails to serve its citizens. I am particularly concerned about local decisions that harm rather than help our most vulnerable community members.
The other races
Mayoral candidates’ responses to a similar survey were printed Sunday. Responses from Ward 1 council candidates were published Monday, from Ward 2 on Tuesday, from Ward 3 on Wednesday and from Ward 4 on Thursday. This the last of the series.
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?
Ulvestad: My plans for solving the vacant retail and commercial problem is to work with the Downtown Billings Association and give incentives to new businesses downtown such as a tax break for the first five years to allow their businesses to be built up or possibly a one-year free leasing program. I truly feel this is crucial step to attract new businesses.
Whiteman: A common complaint in our community is the lack of affordable housing, especially close to our city center. I’d support zoning changes to make it easier to transform business and commercial space into residential space. I’d also want to enact modest financial incentives to property owners who successfully transition their properties from commercial and business spaces into affordable housing.
Brown: It will be important to continue to work with the Downtown Billings Alliance the Downtown Billings Association as well as the Billings Chamber. These groups among others are deeply vested not only in maintaining a healthy downtown but also expanding uses and opportunities for businesses.
City Council members must encourage new ideas and support solid incentive investments for current downtown property owners and potential property owners. Additionally, it is important to solicit venues that create activities that bring people to downtown. Where there are potential customers there will be interested business ready to sell services.
I would like to emphasize that there are other areas of Billings that require no less attention and conviction. Promoting and supporting healthy neighborhoods and successful business opportunities is not relegated to downtown alone.
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?
Whiteman: I support the city of Billings’ Complete Streets Policy, a resolution first passed by our city government in 2011 with a detailed checklist passed in May of 2016. I am encouraged by this local legislation because it includes, “safe, convenient routes for walking, bicycling, and public transportation.” This same document also recognizes that, “The City of Billings shall consider every street project an opportunity to incorporate the principles of Complete Streets.” I support continuing these ideals of providing for trails, sidewalks, and roadways simultaneously as we work to improve transportation networks, one street at a time.
Brown: As funding diminishes it is obvious that it will be important to once again look at the priorities and the willingness of Billings property owners and business owners to fund the continuation and perhaps the speed of the effort. There is after all only so much money to go around and without additional funding sources this cost would fall directly on property owners.
It only makes sense that there be a mechanism to collect at least a part of the cost for continuing these projects and to maintain the system down road from those that would be using it. Short of a local option tax I am not sure how that can be accomplished beyond bonding, submitting a vote for a levy, or reallocating some monies from current funding avenues but that may short other equally important projects. Again all of these options fall to local property owners for funding.
Ulvestad: From the research I’ve done, I believe there are programs the council has in place to help the trail network be maintained and grow. If ANY additional funding is needed for any other trails then possibly taxing the TrailNnet members if they want to add any additional trails. I have actually surveyed many of bike trails in Billings and the trails I’ve observed are in excellent condition.
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?
Ulvestad: My role as a council member is to ensure the city fulfills its duties under the law and lawfully exercises its power. It’s essential to gain a working knowledge of the laws that regulate city government and formulate common-sense policies. Council members should devote their official time to problems of basic policy and act as liaisons between the city and the general public. Council members should be concerned not only with the conduct of daily affairs, however, also with the future development of the city. The two most important responsibilities a council member should have is; open lines of communication with my Ward 5 constituents and being readily available for them and last but definite not least, is active participation and action at City Council meetings.
Whiteman: Ideally, any public servant will be open to hearing public comment and criticism. My most important role is to educate myself on issues so I can cast responsible votes that will help stimulate our economy without overburdening taxpayers. I am confident that this can be accomplished while being respectful of the environment and of cultural diversity.
Brown: Although I do agree that the day-to-day operations are managed by our city administrator, it is important to note that City Council does or should direct the overall vision and culture for the city’s growth and quality of life and offer direction in which that management is carried out. The position of city administrator answers directly to City Council and as such City Council has a responsibility to develop priorities that positively impact the residents of Billings.
City Council accomplishes their duties through performance reviews, budget review and approval, annexation, zoning and so forth. In short City Council’s responsibility is MUCH more involved than sitting back and watching the city administrator run the city.
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?
Whiteman: A city manager must balance all of these roles in their daily job. Because City Council members are forbidden from communicating with city employees, it is vital that the city manager acts as a liaison between the City Council members and the city employees.
Ulvestad: I believe the optimal role of city administrator is the budget watchdog! The city administrator is involved with revenues, budget reserves, cash flows, liabilities, costs and expenses. This role needs to ensure that the dollars go to where they have been intended!! No more using “ABC MONEY” to pay for “XYZ PROJECTS”!
Brown: All of the above. An ideal city administrator would manage staff and set priorities that support the vision of the City Council and the mayor. This requires certainly a clear vision with supporting goals provided by City Council to be implemented. The ability to help to impart that vision to department heads gain buy in from all parties to accomplish those goals is key.
Communicator is a primary role that must be added to this list. The ability to effectively communicate with City Council and the community is crucial. “Tough job”
6. What ideas do you have for including and promoting diversity in the Billings community?
Brown: Like always opportunities and quality of life are the truly the only factors that matter when not just promoting but sustaining a diverse community. We must support the growth of not only highly skilled jobs but entry level and mid-level opportunities as well. We must not just support entrepreneurs but support venues that are geared toward guiding prospective entrepreneurs through the process of starting and maintaining a new business. Discussions outlining the benefits of a diverse work force and a diverse community need to be loud, clear and public.
Ulvestad: My ideas for including and promoting diversity in Billings include but are not limited to; speak against hate groups, confront discriminating behavior, learn to know people are different from you! Take advantage of diversity that exists around you, learn about concerns of other people and LEARN to be open-minded. Try to understand the point of view of others, accept differences of other people and have respect for one another. Show younger children that diversity is a good thing; teach them it is OK to be around people who are different. I truly believe that exercising this behavior will eventually result in true acceptance of one another regardless of race, color, creed or sexual orientation.
Whiteman: As a Billings City Council member, I would help advance changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in our community. I would support increased engagement and support of the city of Billings Human Relations Commission. I sense that our Human Rights Commission is an underused resource that can help us increase diversity.
7. Have you read the City Charter?
Ulvestad: Yes, I have read the City Charter numerous times over many years.
8. Should the City Charter be changed? If so, how?
Ulvestad: I would definitely change Section 3.03. City Council: Election, Terms & Qualifications, sub-section B, the word consecutive should be omitted, ultimately limiting any council member to two four-year terms period!! Having the word “consecutive” has allowed many to misuse two four-year terms by taking two years off and then running again in their particular ward, leading to a long time on the council for a potential eight years and then two years off and then another potential eight years. Bottom line, term limits, only two four-year terms for any council members!
Brown: There are some changes within the City Charter that have been discussed from time to time that are worth looking at but the overriding intent in the past for changing the charter has been to remove the cap on public safety funding. I would not support revising the charter as the current process is in my opinion is the correct and democratic way to approve further funding that directly affects the budgets and the wellbeing of all residents.
Whiteman: As our city changes and grows, our City Charter should be altered to reflect those changes. I do not have any suggestions for changing the City Charter but am open to hearing from the public and other persons in city government about their thoughts on changing our charter.
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?
Ulvestad: This is NOT the right time for One Big Sky Center. The subsidized competition will take away revenue from local hotel and motel owners who have been established here for years! The One Big Sky Center is looking to the city for more than $35 million to help build this project, this would be an additional burden on our taxpayers that they DO NOT DESERVE! I do not see myself ever supporting the current investors involved in One Big Sky Center.
Whiteman: I am confident that if we do commit to making One Big Sky Center in a conscientious and responsible manner that there will be even more demand for businesses in Billings, including hotel accommodations. I believe that the creation of this large business, retail, hotel, convention and residential center will stimulate our economy and attract more people who will want to spend money on hotels, retail, and services locally.
Brown: It is way too early to a take a firm stance on the One Big Sky Center either way. The idea of it is exciting in that it could help to draw more visitors to Billings which in theory would boost the Billings economy. In theory… Currently there are far too many unanswered questions, such as how will this affect property owners already downtown, how will it affect motels that are currently offering small scale conferencing solutions, what is the actual scale of the project and what community services is our community willing to support financially.
All that said it is important that City Council and city representatives above all be willing to embrace the possibility and see the vetting process through. This vetting process must be approached with respect for all parties or there may be no other investors willing to approach regardless if the One Big Sky project moves beyond the vetting process or not.
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?
Whiteman: I fear that our City Council’s failure to enact a nondiscrimination ordinance may already be preventing our city from attracting businesses, particularly technology companies that tend to offer higher-paying jobs, looking to build in family-friendly communities like ours. As a City Council member, I would like to have an opportunity to address this ordinance that would protect persons that are often the focus of bigotry and mistreatment.
Ulvestad: In regards to an NDO policy in the city of Billings, I truly believe our reputation that we earned in the early 1990s has not been tarnished because of what happened in regards to the defeat of the 2014 NDO policy vote. I do believe that we need to have clear language in an NDO policy, if we have clear language that can clearly be enforced and both sides learn to compromise, I frankly have confidence that an NDO policy will pass in the city of Billings!!!
Brown: I am certainly not one that gets caught up in speculation and I have no crystal ball, but the absence of a city NDO in Billings does not automatically reflect a view of intolerance on the part of City Council or the community as a whole. In fact my position is very much the opposite but for a law to be affective for a matter of this magnitude it must be addressed at the federal level so as to avoid confusion as to what exactly the ordinance/law is for the city you happen to be in at that moment.
I would argue that the sense of community, city pride and the decency of those living and thriving in our community is as strong today as it ever has been and that is what will continue to attract new businesses and new residents to Billings. NOT Government!