Did the Merc Debacle Create a Lingering Rift Between City Council and the Mayor?

by William Skink

I wasn’t particularly invested in the efforts to save the Merc, but I can’t help feeling kinda sad seeing images of the walls being torn down. I do think the whole process of how this came to be is significant in ways that are just now starting to become visible.

When the plans to tear down the Merc emerged, lots of people were shocked and surprised. I suspect City Council members quickly realized they were now going to have to deal with the fallout over the Mayor’s secretive dealings that greased the wheels for this deal, a deal that was suddenly blowing up in their collective face.

Here is an article from Missoula Current that hints at this dynamic. From the link:

After the Missoula City Council threatened to cut funding to MEP over a perceived lack of communication earlier this month, the two sides have been working to improve both communication and collaboration.

Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg praised MEP as one of several entities in Missoula that work toward economic development. However, he also said that the City Council remains the policy setting body and needed more understanding from MEP in that regard.

“It’s not so much about making sure there’s a scheduled presentation to the council, it’s about us getting around the table and working collaboratively,” he said. “Economic development has lots of different facets. One is policy creation by the council.”

Grunke said MEP was also looking to build a stronger partnership with the council.

“We want more engagement and they’d like to be more involved in the process and know the companies we’re dealing with, and communication is certainly part of that,” Grunke said. “It’s also about being at the table.”

While Missoula Mayor John Engen sits on MEP’s Board of Directors, Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong said communication doesn’t always trickle down to the City Council. Adding a council member to MEP’s Board of Directors would help, she believes.

Unknown by the general public at the time, Mayor Engen was, by his own admission, extending drinks at lunch into a full-blown, alcohol-dependent addiction that ultimately resulted in an intervention and in-patient treatment. While the public wasn’t aware of the extent of Engen’s struggle with alcohol, many people close to him did.

After the Merc debacle, I think some Council members realized the Mayor couldn’t be trusted to include them in the scheming going on with the Missoula Economic Partnership. Despite the mea culpa/reelection announcement stunt the Mayor pulled, I don’t think that trust has been restored.

And that may be a good thing.

Without the Merc fallout, the gluttony of City Hall may have continued unchecked. Now, post-fallout, there are some glimmers that Missoula’s City Council won’t be the rubber stamp Engen once enjoyed.

Mayor Engen recently pulled funding for a workforce study (being done by the sycophants at MEP) from the council agenda. This may not seem like a big deal, but I think it’s evidence of a rift that has developed between Missoula’s City Council and the Mayor’s Office. From the link:

Intent on “not setting up anyone for failure,” Missoula Mayor John Engen pulled a $12,500 request to help finance a workforce study from Monday night’s City Council agenda.

Mayor John Engen pulled a request for $12,500 to help fund a workforce study from Monday night’s City Council agenda.

Whether it returns will depend on the answers to several questions he’ll ask city staff and the Missoula Economic Partnership, which is leading the investigation into local workforce shortfalls.

The study carries a $62,000 price tag, to be paid with a $25,000 state Department of Commerce grant, and equal $12,500 contributions from the city, Missoula County and MEP.

Last week, the City Council’s Administration and Finance Committee approved the city’s contribution and sent the request to the full council, but not without grumbling about the unexpected spending.

Ward 6 councilwoman Michelle Cares voted against the request, saying the $100,000 the city already pays MEP each year should be enough to conduct the study and pay the city’s contribution to administrative costs.

Thank you, Michelle Cares, for voting against this. There is little appetite left for funding these pointless studies that often carry bigger price tags than many people in this community make in an entire year of work.

I really hope City Council has permanently retired their rubber stamp. We need people who are actually capable of using some healthy skepticism when it comes to the Mayor’s vision of Missoula Metropolis.

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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3 Responses to Did the Merc Debacle Create a Lingering Rift Between City Council and the Mayor?

  1. Steve W says:

    What does MEP stand for?

  2. Where will the Mayor make his soft landing when he leaves office? WGM? Farran Partners? Cushy professorship at UM? (aka the Pat Williams track)

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