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Kalispell officials oppose bill that would shake up city government

Daily Inter Lake | March 30, 2023 12:00 AM

A bill under consideration in the state Legislature that would require Kalispell to redraw the city’s wards or eliminate half of its City Council seats is proving unpopular among municipal officials.

Sponsored by Sen. Chris Friedel, R-Billings, the Senate Bill 381 would limit municipalities designated as 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.

The bill has passed the Senate, and is now under review by the House.

Friedel, a former city councilor in Billings, the state’s most populous city, said the legislation would give residents there better representation on local matters.

“The wards are so big, they’re bigger than a senate seat in the Legislature,” Friedel said.

Friedel’s hope is that the legislation would limit each Billings councilor to about 10,000 constituents.

With a population of over 117,000 people, Billings dwarfs Kalispell’s roughly 26,000 residents. Even so, Kalispell is considered a first-class city.

Kalispell’s Council is currently made up of nine members, two for each of the city’s four wards and the mayor. That arrangement would pass out of favor if Friedel’s legislation becomes law.

Councilor Ryan Hunter of Ward 3 questioned the bill’s necessity.

“I’m not a big believer in enacting new laws to fix problems which don’t exist,” he said. “What’s the problem here?”

Hunter saw his seat as one likely to face elimination as it is on the ballot in the next municipal election in November. He also worried losing half the voices on the Council would lead to less political variety.

“You’d lose quite a bit of diversity of opinion if we were to lose half the seats,” Hunter said. “Why should we change it because someone from Billings wants to change it?”

Councilor Sid Daoud, representing Ward 4, agreed, and said he would be testifying against the bill via Zoom.

“The people voted in the style and makeup of our city government,” Daoud wrote in an email. “This bill intends to ignore the will of the people and change the makeup of our City Council at the cost of disregarding the citizens of Kalispell.”

“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,” Daoud added.

City Manager Doug Russell thinks that the bill would go against Kalispell voters’ wishes as they set up the current structure of municipal government. It could also have the opposite effect of Friedel’s intention, Russell said.

“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,” wrote Russell in an email. “Moreover, the current system of two Council members from each ward enhances the representation from those wards.”

Daoud thinks Friedel should stay out of Kalispell’s affairs.

“Hey Senator Friedel, instead of fixing a problem that does not exist outside of Billings, fix Billings!” he wrote in the email.

Reporter Adrian Knowler can be reached at 758-4407 or