Three candidates are vying to replace Rich McFadden of Ward 3, who is nearing the end of his second consecutive four-year term on the Billings City Council. 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.
One candidate, Nadja Brown, did not respond to the questionnaire. Here are the other Ward 3 candidates and their responses.
Occupation: Special needs assistant.
Political experience: I have been involved in politics since a teenager.
Name your three favorite books, or those that influenced you most deeply: “The Mature Mind” by Harry Overstreet, “The Rebel” by Albert Camus and “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir.
Mike Larson, 62
Occupation: Regional supervisor for Adult Protective Services for Regions 1 and 3.
Political experience: Eight years on the Billings City Council; several stints on the Billings Zoning Commission, current member of the Zoning Commission.
Name your three favorite books, or those that influenced you most deeply: Hard to answer, so I will go with three I have read recently: “Russka” by Edward Rutherford, “The Man Who Could Be King” by John Ripin Miller and “In the Garden of Beasts” by Eric Larson.
Questions and Answers
1. If elected, what scares you most about serving on the council?
Larson: Something unexpected will always come up that will challenge your assumptions.
Starkweather: What scares me the most is failing my constituents.
Joy: The city has many challenges and making decisions that would create problems down the road, is something I would be concerned about. Balancing long and short term goals is difficult. Immediate problems need solutions but short-sighted decisions push the problem down the road. Too long of a view leaves immediate problems standing, that is the balance necessary for decisions.
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?
Joy: The open retail and commercial space downtown must fall into two categories. Spaces the are renovated and ready for occupants and those that need to be brought up to code. Without knowing the specific details of the space, some of the buildings would need funds to renovate. Some spaces need creative solutions. One idea is a food market which are popular in many cities. A large space is divided and small food stalls are set up for evening pedestrian traffic. Small portions of many types of food are sold at lunch prices. A common area is setup with tables and chairs. Additionally, the city can do a better job of helping business and property owners navigate the requirements and procedure for bringing a building up to code.
Larson: Not all vacant space is the same. Some can be repurposed efficiently, some not so much. Building codes need to reflect some of those challenges in specific areas like the downtown and efforts to work with developers to that end should continue. City government has few tools to impact development and needs to be cautious in using those tools. That includes projects like the One Big Sky development which needs to be very seriously vetted as to its impact on space downtown and throughout the community. The limited funds available for the city to impact this issue could be tied up for years with a single project, that takes serious thought.
Starkweather: I will continue to support efforts and ideas brought to the council to revitalize the downtown. I represent Ward 3 and it has its own problems of vacant building and lots that need to be utilized to continue the entire economic growth of our city.
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?
Starkweather: When living in Denver the Zoo there needed improvements especially with the elephant enclosure so what they did is they partnered with Toyota. Toyota funded the improvements and it is called the Toyota Elephant Passage. We can use that same concept we can have different organizations and businesses sponsor trails and they can name the trails and care for them. This helps keep the cost down for the city and also gives them advertising.
Joy: There are several funding options to continue to building trails in Billings. It is more of a question of will we do it than how to fund it. We could take impact fees, gas taxes and federal dollars currently used on roadways and use some of these dollars for trails. It will require creativity and a desire to build a city with trails. This is more about political will and leadership. The trails are an asset to our city and community, we can find the necessary funding.
Larson: Continued support for community based efforts, inclusion of trails and alternatives in all transportation improvements and plans, ongoing efforts to find funding wherever possible.
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?
Larson: The Council acts as the legislative branch of city government. Council members should represent the city, not just a ward.
Starkweather: The City Council’s role is to be the governing body of the city. Also, to ensure that they are transparent and accessible to their constituents.
Joy: The City Council members provide leadership and direction for the city’s development . The administration implements the decision, but leadership and vision are the council responsibility. The council represents the ideas and concerns of the residents and voters. The council considers and channels these concerns, ideas and feelings into a vision and and goals. This provides direction for the staff to work towards a policy that accomplishes that goal.
The other races
Mayoral candidates’ responses to a similar survey were printed Sunday, responses from Ward 1 council candidates were published Monday and from Ward 2 on Tuesday. Other City Council candidates’ responses will be published in the coming days: Ward 4, Thursday; Ward 5, Friday.
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?
Joy: City administrator needs to implement the council’s decision and manage city employees. Budgets are an economic expression of the City Council’s vision and priorities. The council’s goals are realized through funding the necessary staff and the means to accomplish those goals. The city administrator is the chief executive carrying out the council’s vision.
Larson: The administrator is a bridge between the council and the staff should make an impact as an idea person, implementer, and leader. Let the department heads manage staff, and provide them the direction and freedom needed to do so.
Starkweather: To me the city administrator is the liaison between the different city departments and the City Council. They also tend to the daily needs of the city and help oversee the different departments.
6. What ideas do you have for including and promoting diversity in the Billings community?
Starkweather: There are many ways we can promote diversity in Billings. One way is passing a nondiscrimination ordinance in Billings. Another way we can is capitalizing on our already established sister cities like Billings, Germany, and Kumamoto, Japan, with reopening the dialogue and reestablishing ties with them and seeing where that goes.
Joy: The city of Billings is quite diverse already. I think the answer is more inclusion. Residents should feel welcome and be encouraged to participate. Recently, the city council decided to look into the scope of the Human Relations Commission. The commission could fill an important role of inclusion and promoting social harmony. The budget for the commission is not provided by the city’s budget nor have they been able to always get grant money. If the commission was encouraged and funded to reach out to minority communities in Billings, we would see a greater inclusiveness of the diversity within our community, and as a result, encourage even more.
Larson: Providing a safe community with a strong economy leads to growth and growth tends to lead to diversity.
7. Have you read the City Charter?
Starkweather: Yes, I have read the City Charter.
8. Should the City Charter be changed? If so, how?
Joy: The charter should be not be amended for short-term problems or untested ideas. A document that is meant to last many years and uphold the legal authority of a city should not be amended for budgetary problems. The limited time frame for a cap on mill levies is an example of an inappropriate amendment to the City Charter. The charter has stood for many years without amendments and only the most important neglected or overlooked problems should be addressed in the charter.
Starkweather: I don’t believe the City Charter should change but I do believe that some redistricting is needed for our city.
Larson: No changes contemplated.
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?
Larson: I would love to see this project move forward and if it was only private money involved I would be all for it. Once you include significant public funds the whole game changes and the obligation to look at the impact throughout the city becomes essential. The developers involved need to help answer the question of why this is good for the majority of the businesses in our community.
Joy: Many of the hotel owners have used the same funding mechanism that One Big Sky is asking for. The owner of the Northern testified in the City Council in support of the One Big Sky project. The Northern used public money as part of its renovations. All hotels would benefit from the increased opportunities of a convention center. If one were to discuss all different types of services, tax exemptions and business depreciations, all businesses are subsidized by public money, the difference being, they do not require a resolution from the city council.
Starkweather: I do believe that the One Big Sky Center makes economic sense. This project really excites me and what opportunities it could bring to our city. There are already hotel owners and other downtown business owners who have publicly supported this project. One of the big draws is that it will have a convention center which is key to the continued economic growth of Billings. Having a convention center will draw in many different groups of people, organizations, and businesses.
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?
Starkweather: Our reputation could have greatly suffered in the U.S. and the international community. We saw the case of North Carolina of businesses and groups pulling out crippling the economy, Billings does not need that attention. We need to utilize the Not in our Town aspect of our history and we need to pass an NDO. Passing an NDO not only tells our LGBTQ+ residents that this city cares about them and will protect them it also tell the world that Billings is an amazing city to live in a city that is open and diverse. When people say that this shouldn’t be discussed on the local level and should be a state or federal jurisdiction that just boils my blood. This is our city and we should be able to decide what kind of community we want and what image that is portrayed from that.
Larson: It is hard to gauge potential consequences in the absence of identifiable impacts. In North Carolina during the bathroom debate pressure was brought by the NCAA and professional sports organizations that could demonstrate the ability to have significant economic impact. In addition, there were companies operating in the state that could threaten similar impacts. In Billings I think we will be hearing more anecdotal evidence.
Joy: The right thing for Billings to do is protect the rights of its residents from discrimination or intimidation. There is not a single bigger impact of the lack of an NDO than allowing residents to feel unprotected. Billings needs an NDO because we the residents, care about the rights of others, nothing is more important than that.