Are we there yet?

| October 21, 2020 1:00 AM

Serving as an elected, but unpaid, City Council member can be a thankless job with countless meetings squeezed into a work week that, for most on the council, includes a full-time job. I write this with appreciation for the council’s service, but also to ask them to see from the public’s perspective that more can and needs to be done to show the public that speaking up is worth the effort.

When it comes to transparency, and respectful, robust and informed opportunities for public participation in Whitefish, are we really there yet? I don’t think so.

Holding required public hearings is something the Council does regularly, but the planning staff’s failure to treat public comment respectfully at these hearings needs serious improvement. Most recently, though by no means for the first time, at the Sept. 8 Council meeting the planning director acknowledged, but then disrespectfully dismissed, the 10 letters of written public comment that had been received, saying they were “formula type comments, most of which were cut and paste type comments.” Such statements by the planning director are not only uncalled for and disrespectful, but they are intimidating to members of the public who feel they are being dismissed for expressing their concerns, many of which they share with others. Moreover, such comments by the planning director are in violation of the city’s adopted Rules for Civil Dialogue.

In this instance, the city had received these public comments in opposition to several changes to city zoning that the planning director was recommending. Those changes were in regard to multifamily housing and uses in the Highway 93 Corridor — issues that impact many Whitefish residents and businesses. To the Council’s credit, several council members asked the planning director questions, based on concerns raised in this public comment, and amended the ordinance to address at least one major concern the public had raised.

Montana courts have repeatedly held that local government bodies, like a City Council, have an obligation to consider public comments, and incorporate those comments into its decision-making process/record. Routinely, Whitefish planning office reports and findings-of-fact are devoid of any reference to the issues raised by the public. Coupled with the City Council’s policy of not answering questions during a public hearing, this means both the public and the Council don’t get to hear debate or possible solutions to questions/concerns the public raises.

As an example, one of the aforementioned “cut and paste” comments reference the community uproar over the 7th Street Apartments and asked: “Show us how these proposed multi family zoning changes will preserve the character of our single-family neighborhoods?” After the housing development near Muldown Elementary, which the Council ended up denying, why is the planning office now proposing zoning changes to allow multiple multi-family buildings on a residential lot.

It appears the public, with this change, will no longer even have a voice to object, or ask that the development have conditions to better fit in the neighborhood. This was but one change proposed in the 69 pages of text and changes the public was asked to comment on and many other changes deserve more time for community questions and review.

As growth pressures continue to intensify in Whitefish, the traditional public process is proving inadequate, given the complexity of issues facing the city. City Council leadership is needed to find new tools to engage the public in respectful and meaningful ways, allowing for more questions and answers, well before a vote is taken.

Cheryl Watkins, South Whitefish Neighborhood Association