Three of the four Ward 3 candidates campaigning to succeed term-limited Rich McFadden on the Billings City Council said during a forum Sunday they’ve learned what’s on constituents’ minds the old-fashioned way: by knocking on doors and visiting with them.
Denise Joy, Tyler Starkweather and Nadja Brown participated in Sunday afternoon’s candidate forum at Central Park. The fourth candidate, Michael Larson, a former council member, was out of town. Russell Rowland has announced he’s dropping out of the race, but his name is on the ballot for the Sept. 12 primary.
The top two vote-getters in the primary will face one another in Nov. 7 general election.
As in previous forums, candidates responded with a quick yes or no on a handful of current issues.
Brown was the only one to turn thumbs down on both a nondiscrimination ordinance and whether climate change is human caused.
All three agreed on whether to add more police to fight human trafficking, the city’s complete streets policy and an expansion of public transportation.
All expressed different takes on better engaging people in municipal government.
Starkweather said the public view of the current City Council “is not too favorable.” Council members need to be reachable, he said, including by phone and email. When millennials do speak up, “listen to us,” he said. “We might not always be right, but allow us that dialogue.”
Brown spoke about the importance of voting and contacting council members with whom one disagrees. “If there’s something you want to see changed, you have to speak up and let us know what you want changed,” she said.
Joy thinks the city's social media outreach can be strengthened. She said she wants council members to “to pay regular attention to the task forces and the board and commission meetings.”
Billings can keep its millennials and attract others, Starkweather said, by focusing on green space and connecting pedestrian and bicycle paths — and by figuring out a way to better utilize the Yellowstone River.
Brown said that the city’s complete streets — designed for the safety of motorized and nonmotorized users — are someof the best benefits the city can offer millennials. “When our streets are complete, people ride their bikes and walk their dogs,” she said.
Joy said the Billings Chamber of Commerce and Big Sky Economic Development “do a lot of tremendous work to increase economic opportunities.” More can be done, she said, to strengthen startup businesses.
While all three said they support the city’s current charter, candidates differed on their assessment of how the council-manager system works in Billings.
The current council, according to Starkweather, routinely “goes over the city administrator’s head, hounding department heads, and that’s unprofessional,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, the city administrator (Tina Volek) is doing a heck of a job. We need to go back to the charter’s original use.”
With Volek retiring Sept. 30, “we need to find someone transparent and willing to work with the council,” said Brown, who’s serving on a committee to advise the council on its selection. “If we find the right person, we might not have to deal with so many things that are at odds between the two of them.”
Joy advised against a strong mayor form of government, citing the example of the machine built by former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. “What we have is professional administration,” she said. “With strong mayors you can have nepotism and corruption that is quite strong.”
Both Joy and Starkweather expressed support for the proposed One Big Sky Center, but Brown said she’s “heard a lot of concern” about the project from Ward 3 residents. “I can’t say I’m on board," she said, "until I know all the facts and how the tax dollars will be spent.”
Starkweather said that at 150 sworn officers, the Billings Police Department is short “by at least 100 officers.” Joy said police are too often called upon “to solve our social problems.” Brown said she’d support hiring more police, “but only if we can find a way to do that while lowering our property taxes.”