by Travis Mateer
The image above is a screenshot from the Missoulian and it nicely frames the insanity of Multi-Modal Zealots (MMZs) as they lobby to protect bicyclists on Beartracks Bridge by reducing the lanes for vehicles from FOUR to THREE. This Monday, at City Club, the lane reduction plan was the topic of discussion and you better believe I paid my $10 bucks to get my seat at the table!
Over the weekend–and after some more of that goddamn white stuff fell from the sky–I provided a moment of chivalry when my multi-modal walking partner saw a portion of sidewalk that had become a small pond due to snowmelt. After my piggy-back solution to this common obstruction one confronts in a Montana mountain town this time of year, I wondered how municipal policy could ever truly thwart things like winter to insulate multi-modal movers from potential harm.
City Council seems better situated to deal with abstract things, like ward boundaries, but even that can cause some consternation for City Council members like Gwen Jones. Before we get to WHY I think Jones’ frustration is significant, let’s take a look at another look at an AI rendering of our City Council leader.
Now, here’s the part of the article linked above that I find interesting (emphasis mine):
Jones took issue with the 11th hour lamentations.
“We should be doing the bulk of our work in committee, earlier on rather than later,” Jones said. “When it’s quiet in a committee meeting and something sits there for four weeks and all of a sudden on Monday night there’s all sorts of issues raised, that’s not an efficient use of our time and it’s not good government.”
The reason I’m highlighting this perception is because it tracks with what I’ve come to realize, and that’s the reality that YES INDEED the bulk of municipal work is being done in committee, and those committees are not easy things for the public to attend, since they are in the middle of the week and the middle of the work day, usually.
With this in mind, it was interesting to be sitting next to the Director of MRA, Ellen Buchanan, at City Club yesterday as the contentious Higgins Avenue Lane Reduction Scheme was discussed. The table also featured Aaron Wilson, the Infrastructure & Mobility Planning Manager for the city, along with a bunch of WGM staff. How would this independent journalist do with such a potentially weary audience for “table chat” time? Well, I think I did pretty good.
When it came around to table chat time, I wasted NO TIME being the first one to open my mouth, and what came out of it may have been surprising to my table. Why? Because I acknowledged MY direct chats with businesses downtown revealed MORE people were aware and supportive of the lane reduction than I had given them credit for. I also said the timeline for this idea truly does go back to 2009–so why are there angry businesses downtown who feel blindsided by this plan?
I talked to my table about the general sense of safety people have for the idea of coming downtown, and how unsafe behavior can take many forms. I also explained my theory that the perception of this unsafe behavior–and the enforcement piece, with cops/deputies/jailers/government attorneys–is one of the unspoken factors fueling frustration among the downtown business community.
When I started talking about holes in FedEx windows and meth dealers, I was told my framing of safety concerns was beyond the scope of the current conversation. I actually agreed, and allowed the conversation to develop without my domineering input, which meant listening to Ellen Buchanan ask the table, then the entire room, what more they (the city) could do to provide effective outreach to the business community.
The member of the business community who agreed to speak for the opposition on the panel surprised me because I didn’t think the owner of Bell Tobacco, Otis McCullough, was a fan of being out front, in public. My impression of Otis is he’s more inclined to make behind-the-scenes moves as a stealthy private investigator working in the shadows of the criminal justice system while making some side money selling cigarettes to people like David Barsotti.
I wish some of Otis’ pals in the criminal justice system were there yesterday to address the question that came after Ellen Buchanan’s question, but Fred Van Valkenburg is retired, and no one else in a law enforcement/County Attorney position was in attendance, so no one could address the woman from another table when she asked about safety, specifically stating that her female employees do not feel safe inside the parking structures after dark.
After this question was posed, and a non-answer answer given, one of the women at my table leaned in my direction and whispered “…is that what you were talking about?” to which I said, “Yes.”
The problem city planners are having to deal with when it comes to a suspicious and increasingly angry business community downtown is partly a result of spillover from safety issues they have no control over, like that hole in the FedEx window I mentioned earlier. City planners aren’t cops, or Sheriff Deputies, or County Attorneys. So why can’t someone from the criminal justice system be at a public forum where safety seems to be of such central concern?
Here’s a picture of the plywood bandaid FedEx had to put up after the mentally unstable woman was seen on camera footage at 5:30 am throwing an object through the glass:
I got this account about what happened from an older woman behind the counter, who also just happened to be working on the day a guy with a machete tried attacking another man downtown. Apparently another FedEx staff got the door shut just in time, leaving machete guy to threaten another random motorist who thankfully was armed and held this guy at gunpoint until law enforcement arrived.
Here’s the account from the former Public Information Officer, Lydia Arnold:
“A preliminary investigation indicated that a 41-year-old male identified as Todd Deveny was involved in an argument with several persons when he produced a machete and began chasing one of the victims down the street,” Arnold said. “A legally armed citizen intervened, holding Deveny at gunpoint until the arrival of officers. Deveny is currently being held on several felony charges involving several victims and the investigation is ongoing. The citizen who intervened is cooperating fully with law enforcement and is not in custody.”
While city planners would like to keep the safety issue compartmentalized to what they think they can control, how their abstract plans play-out in the real world depends on things like the enforcers of laws being able to somewhat provide a semblance of order so that the almighty tourist (and anyone else who still has discretionary money to spend) feels safe enough to visit downtown, at least while we all pretend the banks are still solvent.
After finishing my $10 dollars worth of coffee and cookies, while everyone was getting up and preparing to leave, I asked Ellen if anyone from law enforcement was in attendance, and she said she didn’t think so. Then I told her about my theory why our former Sheriff, T.J. McDermott, hadn’t officially announced his candidacy for Mayor yet. Good times.
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Thanks for reading!
Law Enforcement was not in attendance because there is no relevant safety issue to address (as it regards traffic). “Safety” is the City/County catch-all used to advance agenda and frame narrative – FULL STOP. Any time the City/County has a project that is controversial/public opposed, expect “Safety” to be the first cited justification. Typically, these safety issues will be determined by spread sheet statistics rather than real world boots on the ground.
If traffic safety (resulting in actual/serious and frequent injury) were really a concern the emphasis would not be downtown where intersections are controlled, speeds are low and lighting is present.
This is a done deal decided by the multi-modals (that mostly drive btw) because they want Missoula to more resemble that pedestrian mecca Manhattan. “Safety” just provides cover
With this particular issue, yes, there wasn’t a serious safety component, and there’s even disagreement about the number of crashes cited by the city planners. All that said, there ARE safety issues downtown, and who is responsible for UNSAFE people when they break the law?
I completely agree that there are serious and significant safety issues downtown but traffic isnt one. LE is definitely the accountable party for those other issues but this was about traffic and as you saw there was no way these other issues would be allowed to muddle this “Safety” “concern”. Therefore, LE presence would have been nothing more than window dressing in this setting
Gwen the Hen wants things to happen in committee so she has time to quietly circle the wagons to fend off anyone trying to railroad her dystopian plans for Missoula: more road diets, higher taxes, wasteful TIF spending, etc. In this light, it’s better for her opponents to show up last minute with an army of doubters, to have it thrown back in committee where it can die a lonely death.
It’s unfortunate that you had to pay the Missoula Shitty Council Tithe, just to have a voice in our community. As a journalist, with our state’s open meeting laws, you (or anyone) shouldn’t have had to pay a dime. Don’t our already exorbitant taxes pay for that privilege already?
One of the most enjoyable episodes of your Gonzo reporting I’ve read this year.
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