Saturday, May 27, 2023

Billings’ problems aren’t Kalispell’s

by Daily Inter Lake
| April 2, 2023 12:00 AM

Kalispell could bear the brunt of unintended consequences rolled into a Billings senator’s bill that aims to fix a problem exclusive to The Magic City.

Sponsored by Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, Senate Bill 381 would limit Montana’s designated first-class cities to one city council representative per ward. According to state law, a first-class city is any municipality with more than 10,000 residents. In Montana, that includes Billings, Missoula, Great Falls, Bozeman, Butte, Helena, Kalispell and Belgrade.

Billings’ 117,000 residents are divided into five wards with two councilors each. Friedel — a former Billings City Council member, it should be noted — contends that the city would be better served by individual councilors that represent wards with a smaller population.

That might be the case for Billings — far and away the state’s largest municipality — but why use the broad brush of state legislation to fix a wholly local issue?

Kalispell City Council’s makeup currently consists of four wards, each with two representatives. The four wards — which were redrawn just last year — are split geographically and nearly evenly by population based on the 2020 Census: Ward 1 (population 6,277) represents the city’s west and northwest areas, Ward 2 (population (6,170) is mostly North Kalispell, Ward 3 (population 6,208) is the city’s downtown core and Ward 4 (population 6,178) is South Kalispell.

Having two members from each ward offers an important diversity to the council that, if divided by half, would be an unfortunate disservice to city residents.

“The makeup of our City Council is good for the citizens of Kalispell, it allows more voices and political viewpoints in Kalispell to be represented,” Ward 4 Councilor Sid Daoud said of the council’s eight-member makeup.

Meanwhile, the bill’s alternative of redrawing smaller wards flies in the face of Kalispell voters’ intended form of representation, City Manager Doug Russell points out.

“We think it is best when the citizens of a local community decide how they are to be governed rather than a one-size fits all mentality this bill is trying to create,” Russell said of the measure.

Simply put, Friedel’s bill thrusts Billings’ problems on the rest of Montana’s urban areas. The state Senate’s failure to weigh the full ramifications of the measure is a shining example of how local control can be crushed under the weight of heavy-handed, partisan legislation.

Thankfully, Daoud planned to testify against the measure as it moved into the House last week, where hopefully representatives from Montana’s seven other first-class cities join him in shining a light on the repercussions of this poorly-considered bill.

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