Commission candidates take questions, ballots out this week
Candidates for the two open City Commission seats and the mayor’s seat answered questions during a forum hosted by The Electric and the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce in the Cameron Auditorium at Benefis Health System on Monday.
The forum was broadcast live on KMON Radio and we’re working to post the audio in its entirety online this week. This post isn’t all-inclusive and more responses and posts will be added and expanded this week.
Some of the questions that didn’t get asked during the forum, including audience question, are being compiled into a questionnaire for candidates to provide written responses that will be posted on The Electric.
The candidates for mayor are incumbent Bob Kelly and Spencer Galloway. The candidates for commission are Mary Sheehy Moe, Owen Robinson and Rick Tryon.
Fred Burow dropped out of the race last month but will remain on the ballot because the law sets the deadline to formally withdraw and be removed from the ballot at 85 days before the election.
Questions tonight ranged from conflicts of interest to economic development to what city services should be provided by the government.
Conflicts of interest have been a major issue this year, particularly with the recent decision by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development declared Paris Gibson Square ineligible for community development block grant funds and is reviewing the last three years of CDBG funds to NeighborWorks Great Falls.
The process had a number of conflict of interest issues and candidates were asked if they had any family members working for the city or organizations that receive funding that could cause a conflict of interest and would they disclose them now and explain how they’d handle votes when they have real or perceived conflicts of interest.
Galloway said his mother is serving in the Montana Legislature and his father owns two Dairy Queen stores and a lumber yard in town, but doesn’t believe those will cause conflicts if he’s elected as mayor.
Kelly said his two children don’t work for the city or in areas that would cause conflicts of interest and his wife is involved with the River’s Edge Trail Foundation.
Tryon’s daughter works for the city planning and community development department. He said commissioners should disclose any potential conflicts of interest to include boards they serve on.
City staff has developed updates to Title 2 of the city code regarding disclosure of conflict of interest, ethics training and creating an ethics committee to review future conflict of interest issues. Most of the changes were approved during the Oct. 17 commission meeting and a resolution requiring all members of city boards and commissions to go through ethics training was passed recently.
Robinson said he didn’t have any conflicts of interest, but if they came up, he would disclose them publicly.
Moe said in the legal realm, a conflict of interest typically relates to a family member or financial interest and said she would consult with the city attorney on any potential real or perceived conflicts to ensure the appropriate action.
Candidates were also asked how they’d improve the CDBG process that was plagued by problems this year.
Kelly said staff was already working on improving the process including the changes already implemented. Staff is also scheduled to make a presentation to commissioners regarding changes to the process on Nov. 21.
Tryon said there’s a perception of a “good ol’ boys club” and that “this could have prevented” had those involved disclosed their conflicts.
Robinson said attendees and listeners should watch the video of the last commission meeting to hear City Manager Greg Doyon thoroughly review the series of events leading up to the HUD decision.
Moe said the issue was deeper than the conflict of interest problems and that the process needs to be improved.
Galloway said he doesn’t see how ethics is anything the city can teach.
“Ethics is something you should have,” he said.
Candidates were asked how they would better engage the public in city government.
Tryon said social media could be used and suggested that people could participate by Skype or other technological tools.
Robinson said he attended most city budget meetings over the summer and other meetings and that it struck him how information was made available and multiple opportunities were provided for public comment, but that few people testified on the budget during the process.
Moe said the city should use the existing structure to encourage people to participate. She said she’s made it to most neighborhood council meetings and was stuck by how few are well attended. She said those meetings are a great way for people to get involved on the ground level.
Galloway said that technology could help, but “it’s not the city commission’s job to convince you to get involved.”
Kelly said the city invites people to participate all the time and they’ve worked to make a more welcoming environment at commission meetings.
Candidates were asked how they would treat the recommendations of city staff, most of whom are highly trained in their areas of expertise.
Robinson said the staff are trained and commissioners are non-partisan and their role is to ask a lot of questions on the issues brought before them and of staff.
Moe said the role of the commission is to represent the public. They should listen to staff, she said, but not rubber stamp everything they recommend. Moe said commissioners should weigh staff advice against public opinion.
Galloway said it’s important to take the advice of staff, but to also do independent research and include public interest in making decisions.
Kelly said there are many technical aspects of items commissioners vote on and commissioners should trust their expertise but also ask questions.
The job, he said, ” requires a curious mind.”
Commissioners, Kelly said, represent the people of Great Falls and need to consider the practical application of proposals to the citizens. Kelly said their minds aren’t made up beforehand.
Tryon said the city has good staff and commissioners have to highly regard their recommendations. But he said if the recommendations don’t serve the taxpayers then it shouldn’t be followed.
Candidates were asked if commissioners should testify at the Montana Legislature on bills that could negatively affect city government.
Moe said it’s vitally important to testify and Robinson said yes, but only if they’re speaking for the city.
Tryon said no they shouldn’t and if they feel strongly about an issue, they should go on their own time and money. Tryon said he had concerns about whether a commissioner would be speaking on behalf of all of the citizens when testifying at the Legislature.
Several city commissioners and staffers testified during the last session on bills that would have removed Great Falls’ ability to impose cell phone bans while driving, and those that added additional burdens to law enforcement and municipal court.
Kelly said yes, “people in Helena should hear from the people it effects.”
Kelly said he also testified as mayor and on behalf of Montana League of Cities and Towns on infrastructure bills that resulted in an additional $1 million in revenue for city transportation projects.
Galloway agreed and said, “Helena needs to hear what Great Falls has to say.”
In recent years, some have suggested the use of impact fees from development to help fund public infrastructure. State law allows municipalities to use the fees, which are any charge imposed upon development by a governmental entity as part of the development approval process to fund the additional service capacity required by the development from which it is collected, according to state statute.
Galloway said he needed to do more research on the option, but “I think that sounds terrible.”
Moe agreed with Galloway and Robinson said it would need further study to make a decision.
Tryon said the fees are “probably a killer for development,” and that he’s opposed to them.
Kelly said there are other improvements the city asks developers to make in the development process, like installing sidewalks, utility extensions and park land or fees in lieu of park land. He said he doesn’t believe the city is in a place to institute impact fees currently.
On the proposed food processing plant southeast of the city, all of the candidates said that it was too early to tell how the development would impact the city and whether they’d support the proposal. To be clear, the project will go through the county development process and not the city’s.
Some projects have been delayed this year because of lack of quorum at city planning boards.
Candidates were asked how they would address that issue and appointments to city boards.
Galloway said that technology is readily available and there’s no reason people can’t Skype into meetings.
Kelly said boards are made up of volunteers and the City Commission sent a letter to the planning board regarding attendance. He pointed out that the open meeting laws would make for expensive technology requirements but that it could be explored.
Tryon said the city should look at technology solutions and look outside the normal way the city has recruited and appointed people to city boards.
Robinson said the appointment process is important and that things happen that will cause members to miss meetings, but there are multiple people on the boards.
Moe also said that open meeting laws complicate the use of technology since the public needs to be able to watch and participate in meetings.
But if businesses can’t get a decision because the board can’t get a quorum, “we have failed the public.”
The Design Review Board is also a step in the development process that focuses on landscaping, building and site design with the aim of ensuring and improving the aesthetic look of projects and the city as a whole. There are only some items the DRB can require, under city code, the rest of their recommendations are just that.
Candidates were asked whether they thought the DRB was an impediment to the development process.
Moe said she hadn’t watched that board closely enough yet to form and opinion and Robinson said it depends on who you ask but that the board does good work in helping make the city look nicer.
Tryon said he believes the DRB should be eliminated or changed. He said the attitude in city planning should be “how can we help you” and not “you can’t do that.”
Kelly said DRB is a necessary step to make sure developments are of quality and said that city staff work to promote growth and quality growth.
Galloway said it’s a necessary evil but has some kinds that need to be worked out.