Columbia Falls voters are set to decide how to fill three City Council spots and the mayor’s office for the next four years.
They will need to meet the needs of a city population that has grown 34 percent since 2000.
The election will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 7. Absentee ballots will be mailed out Oct. 18.
In separate interviews with the Daily Inter Lake, candidates discussed the challenges and opportunities presented by this growth.
Don Barnhart hopes to win a third term as the city’s mayor.
“We’ve helped this city advance along its road to rediscovering itself..I think the record of Columbia Falls just kind of speaks for myself,” he said, adding that issues with city government have “all been handled properly, and certainly to my satisfaction.”
While Barnhart recognizes that Columbia Falls’s growth has created challenges, he says it remains an economical place to build and live.
The construction-firm owner and former volunteer fire chief also considers the city’s utilities “in great shape,” and expects its growth to continue.
John Rallis may have the loftiest goals of any candidate in this year’s race.
“I want to industrialize again,” he said. “Columbia Fallis is growing, the trouble is it’s not growing in the right direction, because what you’re getting is more tourists with more low-paying jobs.”
If elected, he said he would recruit manufacturers to Columbia Falls, guided by his business experience, and fully devote himself to the role.
“I don’t want to be a part-time mayor like Mr. Barnhart, I expect to be a full-time mayor.”
City Council members “have to be willing to change to make things happen...and hopefully I can persuade them.”
“If I get elected with a large plurality,” he predicted, “that will tell them right there that they’re gonna have to change.”
City Council race
Paula Robinson promises that her experience will make her a careful steward of city finances.
“It’s all about the dollar,” she said, identifying economic development, public safety, and the budget as the top three areas that need city attention. She touted the experience she would bring to these issues, experience she gained first as a Flathead County finance technician, then on three consecutive terms as the county’s clerk and recorder.
As this election approached, Robinson turned her focus to city governance.
“I’m very vested in the city of Columbia Falls...and I believe in the city, and the direction it’s going.”
But she recognizes that “there’s so many needs within the city, [and] dollars are so restricted...It’s going to be a work in progress for a period of time.”
Originally from Colorado, Steve Duffy moved to Columbia Falls in 2004, and has since served on its planning board.
Duffy says that he’s “concerned about not having the ability to extend the boundaries of the city. I think annexation is a hot topic that’s going to come up.”
He also expects parking challenges to increase, and that the city will eventually need a water treatment plant.
He thinks the current council members “are doing a pretty darn good job...but I don’t think they need to add another person who’s been in and around the city their whole lives.”
While he considers himself “part of the community” after 13 years of residence, he also says that “my experience on the outside may be well-used on this council.”
Having served on City Council on and off since 1996, Mike Shepard said that “I bring stability...I bring historical perspective.”
“When we make a decision, 99.99 percent of the time, it’s the correct decision,” he says, citing the city’s actions toward the former Glencore aluminum plant.
“We were at the forefront of actually pushing for the EPA to get involved...I want to have at least another four years to work on the potential problems with that cleanup.”
Shepard’s also working to bring a fishing pond to River’s Edge Park, and hopes to resolve challenges related to the county 911 center’s capital improvement plan. More broadly, he hopes to see “something moving in that would actually develop into long-term stable jobs for a lot of our younger kids.”
Councilor Jenny Lovering said that, in her view, “we still need to focus on not being solely a tourist town, we need to make sure we don’t outgrow the people here.”
Lovering voiced concerns about rising real estate values pricing out some residents. While she called on City Council to “try to make sure that rates are reasonable, that bills are reasonable,” she acknowledged the body’s limited influence over rates. Lovering also stressed the value of aesthetic improvements to city streets.
“I think we need to make sure our downtown is likeable and walkable,” she said.
She also hopes to continue because, as a Columbia Falls High School teacher, “I especially appreciate being able to share with my students the importance of being civically active.”