The City of Helena is undergoing substantive change, and right now is an exciting time. For years I heard from Helena residents that the City was not responsive, had iron-clad policies and was sectioned into departments that don’t always talk to each other. The City was perceived as having a culture of ”no.” Over the past three years we’ve worked hard to change that perception and that culture. How have we done that? First, we’ve prioritized what we have heard the community is interested in: investment in Downtown, housing strategies, improved public transportation, investments in our roads and streets. Second, we’ve taken tangible action to address community needs: snow plowing, fire safety levy and implementation of a new urban renewal district for Downtown and the old 6th Ward district. Third, we’ve worked to open up our public processes to increase transparency, discussion and community input.
It might not sound like it, but for the City of Helena, this is a fundamental shift. For quite some time, the Commission was viewed as little more than volunteers who came and went, with little to no authority. Decisions were made in the internal city bureaucracy, with no input by the Commission or public. In this new model, it is the Commission, the legislative body of the City that guides the policy direction of the city and executes on these policy directives through the efforts of hard-working and dedicated City employees. To me it makes perfect sense. Helena residents elect leaders to set an agenda for the City, promote community priorities and provide a forum for the public to be heard. You expect and deserve this. You, the Helena resident, pay for and give authority to government and expect your values and opinions to be considered and reflected by your elected body. Commission leadership is how the City is responsive to its constituents. It’s how we change the culture of “no.”
Change can be hard. Re-aligning City priorities and asking the City to be more responsive to community needs can seem strange. Some have embraced this this new City direction, while others have found it a difficult adjustment. Should we give up just because it’s difficult or hard? I don’t think so. The City, the Commission, and its dedicated professional staff will find its way through this shift, and in doing so, we will continue to provide and improve day-to-day services, while promoting long-term community needs and priorities. We are a stronger City when we welcome necessary perspectives and input through healthy, civil discussion.
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I’ve been proud to be part of the City’s improved public outreach over the past six months, through contact, input, and openness with more Helena residents. The City Manager’s Office has done a skillful job of being responsive and inclusive. This has included direct outreach to people with issues and concerns, ranging from a single household with frozen pipes, to facilitation of community discussions about parking, and to implementing welcome ADA changes. This also includes new proactive measures like weekly City updates, soon available to all on the City’s website, that detail the goings on of all City departments. If you haven’t had a chance to stop in to the City’s weekly booth at the Farmer’s Market, you should. City representatives take their Saturday morning to answer questions, take comments, and discuss any City topic you’d like, whether it be our emergency preparedness plans, open space, zoning, public transportation or utilities.
I’m all for the City’s new approach to leadership and responsiveness. I think the structure of City government does and should lie with its citizens. More importantly, the feedback I’ve received supports this new approach. People are taking notice that the City is trying to change its ways. That’s the litmus test for me of whether the Commission is on the right path. There’s another City election this fall, and Helena will get the chance to decide if it wants this new approach or wants to go back to our old City culture. I know which way I’ll be voting.
Ed Noonan is running for his second term on the Helena City Commission.