Missoula Needs a Change of Leadership

by William Skink

Mayor John Engen decided to write an open letter to the Missoula community to explain that his recent absence from office was due to receiving treatment for alcoholism. Here is a portion of that letter:

Not everyone believes addiction is a disease. Given what I know now, I do. And I don’t expect everyone to forgive me or understand me in the wake of telling my story. But the story is mine, it’s true, and it won’t change. What can change is that I can do everything I can every day to stay sober, to be my best self.

I want to be your mayor for another term and will run for re-election in 2017. Only a serious, sober me can do that. And you deserve the serious, sober me you’ve elected in the past.

If you have an addiction problem, there is hope. Please seek help. And know that you will find support.

I’m happy that the Mayor was able to receive treatment for his disease, but not everyone enjoys the same access to treatment that the Mayor has. If you don’t have good insurance, or tens of thousands of dollars to afford treatment, then there is a good chance you won’t find the support you need.

I was talking with someone from the recovery community recently about this very topic, and here is the harsh reality: Missoula’s in-patient treatment program only has 2 beds that will accept Medicaid, and according to this person, the wait list is between 4-6 months.

This community has been struggling for years to address the significant gaps that still exist when it comes to accessing treatment for addictions. It’s one of the main factors fueling the jail overcrowding crisis, not to mention a major stumbling bloc in providing the tools to address chronic homelessness.

Another Missoula Current piece profiles the Poverello’s new Director, reporting that one of the shelter’s main focus is going to be chronic homelessness. From the link:

While the Poverello’s Board of Directors explores the future, Allison Thompson comes to the job with her own goals. Foremost among them, she hopes to address chronic homelessness and the underlying factors that make it so difficult to resolve.

That includes so-call “wet housing,” a term that has fallen out of favor with the city, though the goal remains the same. While the Poverello serves a long list of clients, it cannot serve those who’ve been drinking. Yet with addiction standing as one of the leading factors in chronic homelessness, not addressing it it leaves a gap in the system — and in any cure.

“I think the city needs to start looking at how we serve people who aren’t allowed to stay at the Poverello Center.” Allison Thompson said. “That’s a real gap in our services, and it’s something I’m concerned about.”

The part of this quote that stands out to me is that the term “wet housing” has “fallen out of favor with the city”. Why the hell is that? It’s one of the main recommendations of Missoula’s 10 year plan to end homelessness, so if a wet housing program is no longer favored by the city, I sure would like to know why that’s the case. If the city doesn’t support wet housing, it should be Mayor Engen who explains why.

Unfortunately, I don’t see Engen’s letter as an honest announcement to inform his constituents of his struggle with alcohol abuse. I see a politician getting ahead of bad publicity to control the message so he can win another term as Mayor.

I think the Mayor needs a longer break than a month from the stress of gentrifying our Missoula metropolis. His administration has ignored gaps in services for years while schmoozing with developers to transform the skyline and fill the valley with out-of-state transplants who can actually afford the skyrocketing cost of housing amidst stagnating wages.

Someone with a different vision for Missoula needs to challenge the Mayor to give him the extended break I think he needs. Engen has had nearly a decade to lead this town. It’s time for different leadership.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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13 Responses to Missoula Needs a Change of Leadership

  1. Greg Strandberg says:

    A big problem for regular, working-class people is that it costs about $1,500 to file to run for mayor.

  2. JC says:

    My take on the “wet housing” part of the Current article is that as said, it isn’t the goal, it’s the terminology that’s the problem. Now, it seems that the city would like to find a better term for the serially inebriates who are houseless. Of course Engen had his own nice and comfy “wet housing” before he went off to treatment.

    Maybe he, the City Council, and the homeless task force can come up with a politically correct, liberal term that allows them to approach the issue in a positive fashion, instead of reeling from the idea of “wet housing” as nothing more than a drunk’s flop house where they can go to sleep it off.

    As to Engen, he’d be best served by spending his days in early recovery focusing more on himself and getting well than on getting back to work full speed, and jump into a campaign. While his letter was well thought out, it seems his motivation for quitting drinking is as much his job and campaign as well as anything else. Success in recovery comes when the alcoholic decides he needs to stay sober for himself, then everything else will shake out just fine. Focusing on his job and campaign first is a sign he has a whole lot to learn about being sober, and doesn’t bode well for long term recovery.

    Let’s hope that the days of having a drunk running the show in the mayor’s office are over. In many ways, Engen’s admission goes a long way to explaining the direction the city has been taking, and his part in it. It’s hard to address the plight of serial inebriates while you are in denial of your own alcoholism.

    • it would figure the terminology, i.e. the public relations part, would be the issue. I hope the goal is still to address gaps in services, and I hope a sober Mayor can reassess all kinds of things now, like the hundred million + development of the Fox site downtown.

      you also offer good advice about someone in the early stages of recovery not jumping back into the thick of a job with the kind of stresses that I imagine come from being Mayor of a city like Missoula.

      • JC says:

        Had a talk with some friends of mine who work with indigent clients in Missoula and they find Engen’s letter to be a revelation explaining his non-presence and lack of interest when it came to issues affecting homeless, addicted and mentally ill people. I found that they share my opinion about Engen’s letter and 28 day retreat, in that it may have served primarily to head off some serious criticism aimed at him and his reelection bid.

  3. Greg Strandberg says:

    Who might be a person with a different vision for Missoula?

    On the GOP side we already know that Harlan Wells has made it clear he’d like to run for mayor.

    I could also see David “Doc” Moore go for it, and possibly Champ Edmunds. Who else might run? Bill Murray seems to be one that runs a lot for local races.

    On the Democrat side you’re not going to see much opposition to Engen, if any. There will have to be a primary challenger for fundraising purposes, but this will be someone that doesn’t have a chance. Maybe it’ll be a handpicked person that’s being groomed for a later City Council or legislative run.

    Any thoughts?

  4. Big Swede says:

    By the way guys, Happy December.

  5. Greg Strandberg says:

    Not a single idea on a replacement, eh?

  6. nemo says:

    So baby Huey writes another high fructose corn syrup letter to tug at Missoula’s collective heart string (not unlike his over the top Engstrom editorial) while he completely avoids reassuring us that at no time during his tenure as mayor was he ever intoxicated, impaired or in a highly suggestive state while conducting the people’s business. Engen, like former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, has found his safe space in the public sector and he hopes to keep us teary eyed long enough to get reelected. Hopefully the voters have grown weary of our spending like a drunken sailor mayor.

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