Three candidates are vying to replace Angela Cimmino of Ward 2, who is nearing the end of her second consecutive four-year term on the Billings City Council and is running for mayor. The City Charter limits council members to two consecutive terms.
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. First, a look at the candidates:
Frank Ewalt, retired/self-employed
Political experience: None
Three favorite books: Left blank
Roger Gravgaard, 58
Political experience: No public office.
Three favorite books: “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren, “The Inheritance” by Niki Kapsambelis and “The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson.”
Ta’jin Perez, 27
Occupation: Program coordinator
Political experience: First time running for elected office
Name your three favorite books, or those that influenced you most deeply: “Braiding Sweetgrass,” “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” and “The New Jim Crow.”
Questions and Answers
1. If elected, what scares you most about serving on the council?
Gravgaard: I don’t believe that I’m scared of being elected. I do see serving as a very serious responsibility. I would be serving with a group of citizens who are responsible for setting a course for our city into the future.
Ewalt: Not meeting the expectations of the people in Ward 2, who I represent.
Perez: I’m not scared about serving on the council. I see it is a welcomed challenge and opportunity to serve the Billings Heights 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?
Perez: My approach would include visiting with the Downtown Billings Alliance, and other organizations to identify the specific obstacles and setbacks that keep local businesses from thriving downtown.
Ewalt: This is private business and should be solved by private entities. If the reason for the vacancy is city government caused, then the City Council should look into it.
Gravgaard: Regarding the 400,000-plus square feet of vacant commercial property in our downtown area: I’m not sure how that is an issue for the City Council to address. It is private property and I would leave it up to the owners of that property. The exception to that is if any tax increment finance dollars are requested to be made available for renovations and repairs.
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?
Gravgaard: Expanding the trail network is essential to continuing to attract new people to hopefully make our town their home. Completion of the “Marathon Loop” would be at the core of that expansion. The real question is: How do we pay for it? Perhaps the answer is a public/private collaborative effort.
Perez: Working with the rest of the council, as well as a dynamic mayor, I would look to find better ways of using available funds, as well as forge outside-the-box fundraising strategies. Initially, the priority, rather than focusing on aesthetics would be to complete the infrastructure for the trail system, and then work for additional funding for marketing and research to make it attractive.
Ewalt: The state of Oregon recently pass a tax on bicycles, seems like they’re on the right path to funding.
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?
Ewalt: The City Council has final judgment on all matters. It is important that council members work hard to become familiar with the issues from both sides, the city management and the citizens they represent.
Gravgaard: If elected, my role as a member of the city council would be to set policy for the city under the guidelines of the City Charter.
Perez: I see my role as a member of the city’s legislative body to help craft policies that benefit the Heights, specifically, and the city, in general. This task will be done with the aid of the best information and analysis possible from department heads, city administrator, private sector leaders, and individual community members.
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?
Perez: First and foremost, a good city administrator will swiftly implement and enforce policies and forge strong relationships with the various departments for a streamlined city governance.
Gravgaard: The primary role of the city administrator is to run the day-to-day operations of the city. That person also would be responsible for implementing council policy. The city administrator is the only city employee hired by the council. Ideally, that person would communicate any ideas for things that might be improved to the council.
Ewalt: All of the above plus being a real PEOPLE person and someone who can fall in love with Billings and the rural atmosphere we all enjoy.
The other races
Mayoral candidates’ responses to a similar survey were printed Sunday, and responses from Ward 1 council candidates were published Monday. Other City Council candidates’ responses will be published in the coming days: Ward 3, Wednesday; Ward 4, Thursday; Ward 5, Friday.
6. What ideas do you have for including and promoting diversity in the Billings community?
Ewalt: I don’t think we really have a problem with diversity. We do have a problem with an arm of our diversification, that being gangs and drug users/dealers we can live just fine without their presence. I’ll help in any way toward a path of drug and gang freedom.
Perez: Working with the Billings Human Relations Commission, I would promote public forums that begin conversations that address racism and how they intersect with public institutions and social conventions. Additionally, it is in the city’s best interest to have a nondiscrimination ordinance in place, and I would vote for an iteration of one while on the council.
Gravgaard: I’m not sure what this question is asking: including and promoting diversity of what? Are we talking about diversity of ideas? The current slate of candidates citywide shows a great deal of diversity of ideas. Are we talking about ethnic diversity? We live in Montana; a homogenous state and Billings reflects our state. I would say even more ethnically diverse than Montana in general. I see Billings as a welcoming place. When my wife, daughter and I moved here in 2000, we were received warmly by everyone we had the pleasure of meeting.
7. Have you read the City Charter?
Gravgaard: I have read the City Charter and refer to it often in my discussion with members of not only my ward, but the city.
Ewalt: Yes, a couple of times.
8. Should the City Charter be changed? If so, how?
Ewalt: Right now I don’t have any changes in mind
Perez: At this time, I do not see a change that needs to be made. If the people of Billings find a compelling reason to modify the City Charter I would be open for discussions.
Gravgaard: I don’t think that the City Charter needs to be changed.
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?
Gravgaard: Does the proposed One Big Sky Center make economic sense? I don’t have enough hard facts about the proposed project to make an informed decision and thus, am unable to give a definite answer. If in fact it does come to fruition and it gets built, I would hope that the other hotels in the downtown area would also benefit from “overflow” occupancy during large gathering or conventions.
Ewalt: This needs further study, but if it is such a great deal why doesn’t private enterprise just submit plans and get the project going. I have a problem using public funds to the extent of 22-28 percent of the project cost.
Perez: The One Big Sky Center project is concerning to me. The first issue is not knowing the whole picture as far as municipal financial risk. I do not believe that taxpayer money should be used in a lopsided deal. Secondly, many small businesses in the area are at risk of being undermined. Residents are also at risk of being displaced by the very possible gentrification of downtown.
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?
Perez: As stated above, it is in the best interest of the city, both in the short-term and in the long run, to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance. The fact of the matter is that the business world is beginning to strongly stand by their employees from all backgrounds and lifestyles. Billings must diversify economically. In order to do that, our City must embrace the diverse workforce that will drive our diverse economy. Otherwise, we will squander this unique opportunity to set Billings on the path towards a world-class city.
Ewalt: Just look at how select and special interest groups are decimating the history of the United States of America today, and to what end. The USA Constitution, the Billings City Charter, and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag all guarantee equal rights for all. What is wrong with just being AMERICANS?
Gravgaard: The nondiscrimination ordinance is not an issue that should be dealt with at the local level. It should be addressed by the state Legislature. Having ordinances in place in various cities is counter-productive in my opinion. There needs to be uniformity, thus enacting something at the state level is the way to go about dealing with this issue.