No one can beat John Engen

Mayor John Engen and a guy who loves him—photo by Engen For Mayor Facebook

One fun thing about Missoula politics is that there are no polls. For all we know, Mayor John Engen won’t win a fourth term in next month’s election. Anyone who wants to bet that he won’t should contact me via email. In 2013, the last time he ran for re-election, he faced three opponents and got about 65% of the vote. This time it’s just Lisa Triepke, who was the subject of two Missoulian stories last week about the two houses, motorhome and used car she bought while she was also getting food stamps. Later in the week, the state found that she had committed at least 23 campaign finance reporting violations.

The Missoulian endorsed her opponent. One thing they did not mention is that he used to work there. Mayor Engen has enjoyed friendly coverage from Missoula’s only daily newspaper. For example, when he secretly enrolled in a 28-day inpatient treatment program for alcoholism last year, the Missoulian reported that he would be gone indefinitely for undisclosed medical reasons and left the story at that. He came back clean a month later and told us all what happened, simultaneously announcing that he would run for a fourth term.

All this is to say that the mayor’s position is comfortable. Sometimes it feels too comfortable, like when his estimate of how much we would pay in legal fees to buy the water company was off by a factor of twenty. The Mountain Water saga was a testament to the mayor’s power—both its efficacy and its potential to run unchecked. If buying the water works had proven to be a boondoggle, a goose chase, a white-whale scenario, who in Missoula’s existing political landscape would have stopped it?

It’s worth thinking about as we all get ready to vote him into office again. I know I’m planning to vote Engen, because Lisa Triepke does not seem like she would do a better job. Still, might the man himself do a better job if he were vying for our affection with someone else? That’s the subject of this week’s column in the Missoula Independent which, I admit, is strictly for the hardcore. But I recommend you follow Missoula politics from afar. They’re worth it for entertainment value alone.

Friday links! Unpopular policies edition

Nice to see Frank and Luanne back together

Nice to see Frank and Luanne back together

Well, that was fast: The Combat! blog team is pleased to announce the return of the comments section, after literally several of you wrote in to say you wanted it back. The people have spoken, and they will continue to speak in a designated protest zone under each post. You can all go back to threatening my brother and making in-jokes about SAT tutoring there, while posts themselves will remain the exclusive province of my ill-considered rantings. Today is Friday, and policy is for the people to respond to but not, you know, make. Won’t you gather torches and pitchforks with me?

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Friday links! Enrage god for candy edition

Old-timey children who are dead now

Old-timey children who are dead now

As any pamphlet will tell you, Halloween is an evil holiday. It’s probably the most evil holiday, with the possible exception of Secretary’s Day, and that’s why it’s so fun. For one day a year, American society permits you to gorge on sugar, trick people, and pretend to be someone you’re not. Then we return to our lives of circumspect eating and honesty. Today is Friday, and it’s almost time to pretend the monsters only come out on Halloween. Won’t you festoon yourself in gore with me?

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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.

Judge strikes down mayor’s ban on “reason station” in city hall

Warren, MI mayor Jim Fouts swallows a crab that was holding a Vicodin

This is seriously the best available picture of Warren, MI mayor Jim Fouts.

A federal judge ruled yesterday that Jim Fouts, the mayor of Warren, Michigan, was wrong to deny resident Douglas Marshall’s request to set up a “reason station” in the atrium of City Hall. Marshall submitted his application in response to a prayer station that Fouts authorized for the same atrium, presumably so that people could file property tax assessments without missing their hourly prayers of intercession. You know—basic city services. I mention this story partly because it’s fun to watch municipal governments fail to close the separation between church and state, but mostly because Fouts’s original letter denying Marshall’s application is a masterpiece of bad reasoning. Excerpt after the jump.

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