Two candidates are competing to replace Al Swanson of Ward 4, who is not seeking re-election this year to the Billings City Council. The name of a third candidate, Rick McIntyre, will appear on the ballot, but McIntyre told Last Best News he has decided to withdraw from the race.
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.
In Ward 4, Penny Ronning and George Blackard, the two candidates still in the running, should advance automatically to the primary. But with McIntyre’s name still on the ballot, who knows? Stranger things have happened.
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. Here are the Ward 4 candidates and their responses.
Penny Ronning, 54
Occupation: Consultant and photographer.
Political experience: Active and passionate voter.
Name your three favorite books, or those that influenced you most deeply: Holy Bible, “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Alas, Babylon.”
George Blackard, 48
Occupation: Customer advocate at The Connect Group.
Political experience: American Legion Department of Montana Liaison to Sen. Steve Daines, American Legion National Legislative Committee member, Yellowstone County Veteran’s Cemetery board member.
Name your three favorite books, or those that influenced you most deeply: The Bible, “Lone Survivor” by Marcus Luttrel and “1984” by George Orwell.
Questions and Answers
1. If elected, what scares you most about serving on the council?
Blackard: Of all of the things in this world to be scared of, for me, serving on the City Council is not one of them. I’m afraid that Americanism and Patriotism are not promoted in all schools across this nation. I’m afraid that to some, it is not in vogue to love our country and be an American anymore. I’m afraid that for many people, morals and hard work, and helping your neighbor has taken a back seat to an, its all about me mentality. There is nothing scary about serving your community. Serving in the military during a time of war can be scary at times, serving on the City Council is an honor bestowed upon individuals by the voters.
Ronning: The fear of indirectly hurting individuals in Billings or the surrounding areas through human error or by group complacency is very real within me. Billings is a growing city with many moving parts. It’s easy to become absorbed in one’s own life to the point that you don’t see that others have needs different from your own. If elected as a member of the City Council, the needs of others must always be front and center in my mind.
Human error is something to which no one is immune, but when the well-being of others is dependent upon me getting things right every time, the odds that I won’t can feel daunting. It’s in these moments I remember my years of working as a flight attendant. For many people, the perception of flight attendants may be that of someone who serves beverages on an airplane. While that is part of the job, the reality is that flight attendants are trained as first responders.
Along with pilots, flight attendants are first and foremost the greatest source of safety for airline passengers. We are heavily trained in emergency preparedness and tested annually through recurrent training. During my years of flying, I experienced bomb threats, engine and cabin fires, mechanical failures, unruly and violent passengers, medical emergencies, passengers experiencing drug induced hallucinations, threats with a weapon, and much more. All of these experiences were thousands of feet in the air in a cylinder tube with hundreds of scared people looking to me and my fellow flight attendants for calm, direction and safety. In each experience, the extraordinary training provided me kicked in no matter how frightened I also was at the time.
With this in mind, I think about the training each employee of the city receives and the experience of the city administrator as guiding forces to move me forward in a leadership role rather than hold me back because of fear. Leaders don’t lack fear; they look for ways to move through it successfully.
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 and from Ward 3 on Wednesday. Responses from the only other race, in Ward 5, will be published on Friday.
Group complacency is destructive. Group complacency can happen when people want to ignore issues like discrimination, hate, denial of scientific facts or the economic relationship between the rises in crime, homelessness, human trafficking, and drug use with the reduction in funds being available for social services, or want to deem these as issues being forced upon a community. Communities thrive when members care about the well-being of each other and the common ground we all share.
I am not a complacent person. I am an active leader that engages in movement that advances progress in society. In answer to the question of if elected, what scares me most about serving on the council, the thought of how group complacency on the council could negatively impact Billings or my own personal life is something I am watching closely even now during the campaign. I firmly believe that diverse groups make the best decisions, but within that diversity the leaders must be willing to act with courage and not shy away from controversy.
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?
Ronning: Left blank.
Blackard: While I am sure that the members of the City Council would be happy that all of the retail and commercial space in the city of Billings was full, it is not the job of the City Council to ensure that happens. If the question you are really asking is, What if anything can the City Council do to help local property owners fill vacant commercial space in Billings? Then the answer is the City Council could consider tax deferments or waivers for startup businesses or businesses relocating to Billings and filling the empty space. Tax waivers should only be used when the value of the waived taxes is outweighed by the benefits brought to bear by the new business in the form of increased employment, new residents, new property taxes, and monies spent locally etc. Any decision to waive taxes should be scrutinized thoroughly and make clear economic sense.
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?
Blackard: Left blank.
Ronning: Left blank.
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?
Ronning: Left blank.
Blackard: Billings has a council-manager form of government with the council being at the top of the management tree. The City Council oversees the manager or administration as your question refers to it and the manager answers to the council. The main role of anyone on the City Council is to be a good steward of the taxpayer’s money and ensure that the citizens of Billings have quality water, waste services, police and fire protections, and safe and maintained roads and sidewalks to travel upon as well as maintained parks in which to recreate.
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?
Blackard: The role of the city administrator is clearly defined within the City Charter and this can be found at ci.billings.mt.us/DocumentCent
Ronning: Left blank.
Ronning: City leadership should reflect the diversity of the community. In 135 years, Billings has never had a female mayor. We currently have only one female on an 11-member City Council and yet according to the current Billings Realtors Local Economic Area Report, females make up 51.7 percent of the population in Billings. For more than a century, our government has run from a predominantly male point of view. Because of this, laws, policies, ordinances and even community structures have been predominantly created from a male point of view.
In order for gender equality to truly be present in leadership, the female voice must be part of the conversation. This same holds true for people of color, people from differing religious belief systems, and LGBTQ. Diversity is something to be embraced. I’ve heard it said and believe it to be true that diverse groups make better decisions that homogenous ones. With diversity comes compassion and understanding, and it is with these important qualities that leaders make the best decisions.
My vision for Billings is us to be the community in Montana that leads the way in developing diverse leaders in our youth and programs in which youth are taking leadership roles in our community. I would like to see our city government actively seeking out, engaging, and creating opportunities for diverse youth to bring their creative minds to the table to both learn and help create the future they want for Billings. By doing this, Billings city leadership will be setting an example for which others can follow and teach future generations how to structure communities in which all may be heard, valued and prosper.
Blackard: Left blank.
7. Have you read the City Charter?
Ronning: Left blank.
8. Should the City Charter be changed? If so, how?
Ronning: Left blank.
Blackard: At this time, I am not aware of any need or circumstance that would necessitate changing the City 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?
Blackard: One Big Sky Center is a compilation of different private enterprises made up of residential, retail, hotel and convention center space. Should this project come to fruition and work as planned, it will benefit the owners of the property, the owners of the businesses within it and undoubtedly other businesses around it would benefit too. It could also generate jobs, tax revenue, and tourism dollars. It is understandable that those things appeal to some people and groups in Billings. The question is, should the taxpayers be on the hook for any of the project? If the project makes economic sense and is a good and profitable idea, the developers do not need help from the citizen taxpayers to build it. If the TIF district in the area it is to be built thinks it is worth investing in then that would be OK but I doubt that every business owner that pays taxes into that would agree. TIFs were designed to eliminate blight in cities. Should a business owner in a TIF district pay taxes so that someone else can use that money to open a business, in this case a hotel, brewery etc., that will compete directly with their business? That is for those who pay into the TIF district to decide. I am sure that some of the businesses in that TIF district have already benefited from those TIF dollars so they may be fine with it.
The city should not be investing general funds in this project as it is a private enterprise that will not benefit the vast majority of citizens and will be competing with established businesses in the downtown area. OBSC is nothing like the Metra which is a taxpayer-owned building. It is not the city’s job to run a business in competition with established businesses.
There are many unanswered questions about this project that I hope will come to light soon. One such question is, it is proven that convention centers lose money, who will be paying for the unprofitable convention center? One would think it would be the hotelier located on the property but if you ask different people involved with the negotiations, they will all give you a different answer. Depending on who you ask, the property will have a convention center but some say no it’s a conference center. There is a big difference so which is it? Can we really expect convention or conference organizers to pay three or four times the airfare to fly to Billings for meetings than they would pay to have the meetings somewhere else? I am not opposed to the project but there are many questions that need answers and answers that need clarification.
Ronning: I appreciate Randy Hafer’s sentiment that Billings is on the edge of greatness and agree. With projects like One Big Sky Center, Billings has the opportunity to be a destination for major conventions, conferences, and events that bring outside money into our community. This type of economic increase benefits businesses throughout 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?
Ronning: Companies that pay higher wages look for communities in which their employees will be happy to live and enjoy their quality of life. The growing and future workforce in our country embraces diversity. City leadership in Billings needs to do the same. In doing so, I believe economic opportunity for current and future generations in Billings will expand and grow so that young families that want to stay in Billings will be able to do so and those that want to move to our great community will also be able to live here and prosper.
Blackard: If the nondiscrimination ordinance being defeated in Billings were national news worthy, the national news would have already run with the story. There are over 19,300 incorporated places in the United States of which the number of those with nondiscrimination ordinances is infinitesimal. If any nondiscrimination laws of this type are to be passed, they need to be passed at the state level so that they are uniform from city to city across the state. The fact remains, these ordinances have no teeth, are unenforceable and are not needed. It is impossible to legislate kindness, caring, or love so those things must be taught and nurtured in the home, your city government cannot make that happen no matter how much they might want to and we should not be asking government to do what we as individual human beings should be doing ourselves.