Why can’t the City of Missoula keep a secret?

Photo via Engen for Missoula

Remember when Mayor John Engen sent an open letter to Missoula telling us all he would run for re-election and had won his battle with alcoholism? The election part was not a surprise. We had not known he was an alcoholic, though. Nor had we known that for the past 28 days, an interim mayor had been running the city while he was at an inpatient alcohol treatment program. When he disappeared, communications Director Ginny Merriam told the Missoulian that he was away for unspecified medical reasons. Asked when he would come back, she said “we don’t know. You never know. But in this case you do know because, I repeat, 28-day inpatient alcohol treatment program. Anyway, the point is that the mayor is back and alcohol no longer interferes with the functioning of his life, as it apparently did for an unspecified time.

I mention this hoary tale from 2016 because this year, on December 20, the City of Missoula informed city councillors that it had corrected the $3 million accounting error it discovered six weeks ago and hadn’t told us about until now. They thought they had $4.2 million in their rainy-day fund, but it turns out to be only $600,000. Coincidentally, they discovered it one day before the 2017 mayoral election. Anyway, the point is that this accounting error has been corrected, so nobody needs to worry about it now.

As my dad used to say, once is a mistake and twice is a pattern. He also used to say terrible, biological things about city governments everywhere, and I’m starting to think he was right. The City of Missoula obviously has a problem: it can’t keep a secret for more than six weeks. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which I put forth the thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Town, where everyone is happy because we have no idea what’s happening.

Downtown bar to annex street, causing vibrancy

The Thomas Meagher Bar in downtown Missoula

The Thomas Meagher Bar in downtown Missoula

As an ersatz Irish person, I like an ersatz Irish bar. But there are some lines even the Hibernian must not cross, and the distinction between public and private property is one of them. You can’t just give public assets to private businesses—that’s fascism, bro. I quote the Missoulian:

The Thomas Meagher Bar unveiled plans last month to build an outdoor dining patio on West Pine Street, a move the city supports in concept as it works to build a vibrant downtown atmosphere.

Two things are misleading about that sentence. First, the TMB “unveiled” its plans by submitting them to the mayor and his policy advisory team, making an end run around city council and other channels of public approval. Second, the “city supports” TMB’s plan in the sense that the mayor likes it, but the parking commission and several members of the city council do not.

This is a big deal, because the bar’s plan to build an outdoor dining patio is to fence off the sidewalk and pave over the on-street parking spaces in front of its business, which happens to be next to city council chambers. Essentially, the Thomas Meagher Bar proposes to annex the sidewalk and a substantial portion of the street. Besides giving publicly owned land to a privately owned bar, this plan would cost the city lost revenue from the meters and fines on those parking spaces.

All of that might be okay, if the TMB were offering to buy that strip of land or compensate the city for lost parking revenue. But it’s not. It’s asking the mayor to give it free real estate at taxpayer expense, without public comment, under an ordinance designed to make it easier for businesses to make minor changes to right-of-way like awnings or sandwich boards on the sidewalk. Annexing the street is not a minor change.

The amazing element of this plan is that the mayor supports it. Mike Haynes, the city’s Director of Development Services and a member of the mayor’s advisory team, told the Missoulian, “We looked at the proposal and basically, generally, supported the request based on it creating a more active and vibrant downtown.”

What does that mean, exactly? I fail to understand how an outdoor patio increases vibrancy enough to justify giving public property to a bar. Like the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s recent plan to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to help private developers expand the already successful Southgate Mall, this looks less like responsible stewardship and more like the business community leveraging its influence on a friendly administration.

The fix is in on this one. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. You can also check out this single-source story about how everyone is going to love the Thomas Meagher Bar, which ran in the Missoulian two weeks after it opened. If you’re a small-time millionaire of the sort that can buy and remodel a bar, I urge you to do it in Missoula. Your resources can really go far here. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links, unless the mayor gives our house to Home Depot so it can vibrantly sell the lumber.

Missoula gun control ordinance is a good idea but bad policy

Seth Greene and the staff at Lock, Stock and Barrel Investments

Seth Greene and the staff at Lock, Stock and Barrel Investments

The Missoula City Council is considering an ordinance that would require background checks for purchases at gun shows, which is a fine idea likely to run into some problems in practice. Definitely, we should do something about gun violence. As of last month, the United States was averaging more than one mass shooting per day in 2015, which seems excessive. Maybe we could have a good, free society and still go 24 hours without using a firearm to shoot more than three people at a time. If Missoula’s proposed background check ordinance will help with that, I’m all for it.

But I am concerned the ordinance in question will not help. Currently, federal law requires background checks for gun purchases at licensed dealers—including the 50 within Missoula city limits—but not at gun shows. That’s a bad loophole, and Congress should close it. As you may have heard, though, Congress has a hard time passing gun control legislation, even though a Quinnipiac poll conducted last year found that 92% of gun owners support this particular measure.

But the NRA is against it, so it’s a dead letter. The plan to use municipal governments to pass a law Congress will not seems like a good solution, but cities lack the scope to make such ordinances meaningful. The next Ravalli County Gun Show is scheduled for December, a mere 50 miles from Missoula. A background check ordinance seems unlikely to guarantee that felons and the mentally ill won’t be able to buy guns; it will only guarantee that they buy them outside Missoula.

Meanwhile, it will generate as much ill will among pro-gun activists as any other measure that makes it harder to buy firearms. For the first time in my life, I am against a proposed gun control law. You can read about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, which is the kind of nuanced argument guaranteed to alienate everybody. That’s pretty much my niche. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links, unless somebody arbitrarily decides to kill me by pressing a button on a machine anyone with $400 can buy.



Opponents of nude bike ride address council for 90 min., revealing flaw in democracy

"Bare As You Dare" ride organizer Nita Maddux. Photo by Michael Gallacher of the Missoulian

“Bare As You Dare” ride organizer Nita Maddux. Photo by Michael Gallacher of the Missoulian

When I heard that Nita Maddux had organized a clothing-optional bike ride in Missoula “as a way for people to demonstrate acceptance of their bodies and express their inner child,” I did nothing. I have no opinion on this issue, partly because I have the internet and can see as many naked people as I want, and partly because I burn easily. Also I will be out of town. Apart from reading about it in the Missoulian, my experience is exactly as if the naked bike ride were not happening at all. I consider that relevant, since a bunch of people are having the same experience and freaking out.

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Missoula holds world’s most depressing city council meeting

The former Sweetheart Bakery outlet, now back to being an empty warehouse

The former Sweetheart Bakery outlet, now back to being an empty warehouse

The Missoula city council voted 10-1 last night to pass an ordinance prohibiting new homeless shelters and soup kitchens for the next six months, or until such time as the city can draft new conditional-use zoning. The ban will be retroactive, with an effective date of August 12. Council members worried that unusual aspect of the ordinance might provoke a lawsuit, but it was necessary to address the real purpose of the ban: preventing the Union Gospel Mission from moving to the former Sweetheart Bakery outlet, which the mission leased and permitted last month. Council heard from approximately three dozen westside residents who opposed the move, in testimony that would have made me think the people of this town were pretty heartless if I didn’t know them already.

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