Helena’s municipal government is at a crossroads, and what happens in the next city commission election will determine the direction of our community for years to come.
Since the beginning of this year, the city’s fire chief, police chief, public works director, human resources director and finance director have either resigned or retired, and the information technology director for the city and county has given notice that he is stepping down in December.
The new city manager was ordered to complete “Management 101” training after an independent investigator hired by the city found a variety of issues with her “bearing and management style.”
The city commission has been meeting behind closed doors to discuss personnel matters without first providing the rationale required by the Montana Supreme Court, according to a letter from a Helena attorney who specializes in open meetings and open records issues.
The city commission has also revamped the process used to create the city budget, which does not include funding for a police chief or fire chief this year.
Despite strong objections from its own Civic Center Advisory Board, the commission recently approved a major departmental restructuring that the city manager had quietly implemented out of public view several months earlier.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with strategic and transparent change, but what we’re seeing now looks more like a repeal and replace of a city government that seemed to be working pretty well before. And it’s unclear who is driving the ship.
While the city’s new public information officer is making great strides in what must be an impossible job, the current administration’s approach to transparency has been cagey at best. And it has become clear that the only way to make our local government open and accessible again is by electing new leadership at the top.
If you are comfortable with the way the city is operating, by all means, cast your votes for incumbent commissioners Ed Noonan and Kali Wicks. Both bring some good experience and ideas to the table, and they may have received our endorsement under different circumstances.
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But at this particular time, we believe our city needs levelheaded leaders who will return transparency and accountability to our local government. And we believe Sean Logan and Emily Dean are the candidates best positioned to do that.
Logan retired in 2015 after 20 years with the Helena Fire Department, including his last three as chief. He is a proven leader with an understanding of the city’s culture and history, which is becoming increasingly important amid the current exodus of longtime city staff, and he has what it takes to help repair the city’s relationships with its staff and the community as a whole.
Logan is also prioritizing essential city services such as fire protection and water, wastewater, solid waste and transportation services and noted that “if you’re taking care of that, you have your hands full.”
A professional communicator who currently works as the communications specialist for the Montana School Boards Association, Dean recently said at a public candidate forum that no change can be "transformational or sustainable if people are not aware of the process." Her commonsense ideas for improving government transparency include holding all city commission meetings in the city commission chambers where they can be recorded and live-streamed, and implementing an email distribution list that can be used to send important updates city-wide.
Dean’s priorities also include ensuring reliable city services, reducing solid waste and improving opportunities for everyone, and she has the knowledge and temperament to support what the city is doing right and challenge what the city is doing wrong.
Although having a like-minded city commission might be more efficient, it certainly is not fair to the many Helena residents whose interests are not being represented.
Helena’s governing body should be as diverse as its citizenry. Logan and Dean will help provide the balance our city commission is lacking, and we encourage Helena residents to vote for these two great candidates on the ballots being mailed out next week.
This is the opinion of the Independent Record editorial board: Publisher Anita Fasbender, Editor Jesse Chaney and community members Alana Listoe and Chuck Butler.