Voters in Billings Ward 4 have the choice of two articulate, intelligent and capable candidates on the Nov. 7 ballot. Both George Blackard and Penny Ronning have invested heavily in community service, both have demonstrated leadership to better our community. But their backgrounds and perspectives are very different.
Blackard, who grew up in Kansas and served in the U.S. Navy before attending college, moved to Billings in 1995 has been active in local veterans service groups. Service to others and to the community is important to him, he told editorial board.
“One thing Billings shouldn’t do is be quick to lose its identity,” said Blackard, who is known to often shovel his neighbors’ sidewalks on snowy days. “It’s still a small town.”
A Billings native, Ronning grew up in her parents’ restaurant, the Happy Diner, where she got to know a broad cross-section of the community. After working away from Billings for many years in Christian ministries, including prisons, she earned a degree in film and an MBA from Montana State University in Bozeman, became a professional photographer and owned an art gallery in Livingston. She returned home to care for her mother.
Ronning is concerned about the rising numbers of children in foster care and children who are homeless in Billings. These problems can’t be ignored at the city level, she said.
Ronning organized the nonprofit Human Trafficking Task Force in Billings. The Billings Police Department has limited resources, so she found a way to provide officers training in identifying and assisting human trafficking victims, including children. The officers were trained at no cost to the city.
“If we are for safety, we need to apply it to kids,” Ronning said. “The city is more than just roads and buildings.” Ronning said the police department needs more money to keep Billings safe.
She also wants to see Billings be more successful in competition with other cities. “City government needs to be more aggressive at bringing in new business,” she said.
She praised Police Chief Rich St. John for the department’s volunteer program and its citizens’ academy and wants to see more police interaction with citizens.
“I know we’re not immune to hate groups. We need to go to schools and talk to kids,” she said.
Blackard’s interest in city government increased when a plan for higher water rates was announced earlier this year. He’s glad the City Council rejected that increase, but said the city still wastes water in its parks and on streets.
“We have a crime problem and a drug problem,” Blackard said, and the BPD has 50-60 officers fewer than most cities our size.
Blackard is doubtful that voters will pay more for BPD. He suggested that the city “get all the civic organizations together and get them to help. Nobody’s going to pass a mill levy for more officers just because we need them.”
At a forum last month at the Alberta Bair Theater, Blackard was the only candidate among the 10 attending who said he is against letting Billings vote on a local option sales tax and wouldn’t support using downtown tax increment financing for One Big Sky Center to be built downtown.
Ronning said she supports both the local option concept and the potential use of TIF for One Big Sky Center.
“Diverse groups make the best decisions,” Ronning said. We agree. If it was possible, we’d like to see both Ronning and Blackard on the City Council. But the voters of Ward 4 can elect only one. We encourage them to send Ronning to the council. She has a perspective that is energetic, positive and creatively different than most of the present council.
With Ward 4 neighborhoods growing fast, Ronning will be a voice for the change that her constituents need to keep their families safe and to reach out to make their community stronger citywide.