City candidates took questions at Neighborhood Council forum

Candidates for Great Falls City Commission took questions during a forum hosted by Neighborhood Council 5 on Sept. 16.

Candidates who attended were Mayor Bob Kelly, who is running unopposed; and commission candidates Bruce Pollington, Kim Rodriguez, Jasmine Taylor, Terry Thompson and Rick Tryon.

Incumbent Tracy Houck did not attend. She told the forum organizers that she had  another engagement.

Questions ranged from how candidates would inform the public about what’s happening in the city; how the city should involve itself in discussions about the proposed Madison Food Park; what the city will do to maintain park and recreation facilities to ensure no major repairs are needed in the near future; what to do about a visitor center; plowing 10th Avenue South; fireworks; how they’d work together and whether they’d support a nondiscrimination ordinance.

On the question of communicating with the public, Thompson said she’d use more social media tools such as Facebook live and invest in upgrading technology.

The city recently spent more than $120,000 to upgrade their system to live stream and broadcast commission and planning board meetings.

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Tryon said technology is great but there are a number of older residents who don’t use technology.

Pollington said the city has done a good of broadcasting meetings. He said a lot of people don’t use social media, but it’s the future. The problem, he said, is that there’s no real standard of verification or facts on social media.

Rodriguez said it’s not easy to find city information and that until she filed to run for commission, she didn’t know the commission met twice monthly and that the public was allowed to attend and speak during those meetings.

Taylor said that print media will be gone within 20 years and that the public had no control over that. She said advertising and marketing will be online.

“Unless we embrace technology, we’re going to be left behind,” Taylor said.

She said city’s need social media managers.

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In the last budget, the city created a communications specialist position who is overseeing social media, press releases, communications and the neighborhood councils.

Kelly said that there are people and websites in the community that provide information about the city, events and more.

“In order to get information these days, you have to seek it,” Kelly said. “Folks, it’s out there, you just have to find it.”

On the question of how the city should involve itself in discussions about the proposed Madison Food Park, Tryon said it’s a county project so there’s not much the city can do in terms of the decision making process. He said more information is needed but, “I have no doubt the city commission will have to deal with the impacts.”

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Pollington said it’s not a city decision and it could be an opportunity for growth, but there are genuine concerns that will have to be addressed.

Rodriguez said it’s not the commission’s job to decide on it, but if it happens, it will have an impact and they’ll have to get involved.

Taylor said she personally doesn’t believe it’s the the kind of growth the community wants, but as commissioners they wouldn’t get a say.

Thompson said she tends to support private property rights, but in her job with the Realtors Association, there are concerns over housing. It’s a concern they also have for the influx of people that will come with the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent project that will replace the existing intercontinental ballistic missiles in the region.

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On the park district and how the city should do maintenance to ensure no major repairs are needed in the near future, Pollington said he was proud of the community for approving the park district’s creation and with it, the city can prioritize the biggest needs and complete projects.

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Taylor said parks and outdoor recreation are the bread and butter of tourism and appeal of the city.

She said they need to evaluate the park and rec budget to see if it’s sufficient and she thinks too much funding is tied up in administration. Taylor said the city should explore relationships with nonprofits, which could also increase civic engagement.

Thompson said the city could look at unloading or repurposing underutilized parks, maybe make some super parks or more dog parks.

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Tryon said he didn’t believe the park district ballot issue was handled in an honest way since the fiscal impact wasn’t included on the ballot.

He said the city should possibly consolidate some of its 57 parks.

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Several questions were asked about the visitor center, which was previously in a city owned building in Overlook Park.

The city has leased the facility to the Convention and Visitors Bureau with the Tourism Business Improvement District and the Great Falls Development Authority since July 2014 for $1 annually until the CVB decided to move the visitor center to the Chamber building downtown in 2017.

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Taylor said a visitor center isn’t a good use of resources and that visitors already knew why they were coming to Great Falls.

Thompson said that she uses websites when visiting places, but that the visitor center was in a poor location.

The Visitor Center was built by the city in 1993 and was originally operated in partnership with the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. For 11 years, the city and Chamber shared the costs of the center, but the Chamber’s operating contract ended on Sept. 1, 20014.  The next year, the Park and Recreation Department continued operating the center due to a lack of interest by the Chamber to continue to fund operations.

The city still owns the building and is currently working on a request for proposals to lease the building. Park and Rec staff said they’re hoping to release the request this fall. Before the city can consider final action on the sale, trade or lease of the property, the commission must hold a public hearing and allow at least 15 days notice to the public.

Aaron Weissman, owner of Teriyaki Madness, asked candidates if they would plow 10th Avenue South if elected.

The road is maintained by the state, which also handles plowing.

Pollington said it was worth looking into the interplay between the city and state.

Tryon said he’d shovel the walkways for a teriyaki chicken bowl.

One attendee asked candidates about Fourth of July fireworks and how to help those who don’t like them.

Rodriguez said she goes camping to avoid the fireworks.

Tryon suggested making designated areas for fireworks and/or shortening the time they’re allowed in the city.

Taylor said people wouldn’t follow the rules and it would be additional strain on law enforcement. She said the city should consider whether the sale of fireworks should be allowed in the city.

Pollington said the rules are hard to enforce but liked the idea of limiting the sale of fireworks to the day before and the Fourth.

Kelly said the community is split on whether to allow fireworks and that the city already reduced the number of days fireworks were allowed from five to three days.