Cracking The River City Echo Chamber

“We created an echo chamber,” he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.” – Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security advisor to President Barack Obama, in the New York Times Magazine.

While a surprisingly candid admission by Rhodes, the Obama administration’s tactics in selling the Iran deal were not in and of themselves revolutionary. It’s called spin, and self-interested government officials are regular practitioners of it. In fact, we have an “echo chamber” right here in Great Falls.

If you consume the Tribune, TV news, or if you follow the City Commissioners at work, chances are you often hear about how “Great Falls is on the move,” that our community is teeming with “momentum,” or any number of other platitudinous forms of cheerleading. It’s been that way here for as long as I can remember. Despite the rhetoric from politicians and a complicit, pro-incumbent media, the “momentum” has never materialized into something truly tangible or measurable. Over the course of decades, Great Falls, in almost every way possible, has either declined or more or less stayed the same.

This “happy talk” reached a nadir in 2015, when Bob Kelly, Bill Bronson, and Tracy Houck won the City elections. Almost overnight, media swooned about a resurgent Great Falls. If you thought Great Falls was going places before, it was really going to be something now. A November 27, 2015 guest editorial from Mike Dalton pointed to a spate of “progressive” politicians newly in power:

Obviously, a new era, an era of solid, dedicated change and growth has arrived with the appointment, hiring and electing of a new generation of leaders to guide our city’s evolution.

To name a few, we have Bob Kelly, mayor; Bill Bronson and Tracy Houck, commissioners; Jane Weber, Cascade County commissioner; Superintendent Tammy Lacey of Great Falls Public Schools; Susan Wolff, dean of Great Falls College Montana State University; Craig Raymond, city Planning & Community Development director; Jolene Wetterau, CDBG grant administrator, and Joe Petrella, city Park and Recreation director.

A January 11, 2016 Tribune headline gushed, “Kelly: Great Falls is on the rise.” Over time, the echo chamber calcified behind a rah-rah narrative built and regurgitated so many times it is now repeated without audit and has finally been accepted as “fact.” The editorial board of the Great Falls Tribune has evidently bought into the notion that it better serves the public by acting as community cheerleaders first and journalists second. When the Tribune endorsed the school bond last year, the editors pointed to our “growing” community:

We don’t buy the old arguments that Great Falls is stagnant and shouldn’t spend any more money on its schools. Great Falls has about 60,000 people and it’s growing [emphasis added]; the city has positive leadership with fine hired professionals such as Lacey and City Manager Greg Doyon, and new, energetic leadership exhibited by Mayor Bob Kelly and others. The future of Great Falls is bright.

A town of “60,00 people and it’s growing”? Amazingly, the Trib shot down its own dishonest talking point just last week, when one of its newest reporters, Seaborn Larson, published Census data showing a population decline over the past four years. (It’s not often that a media outlet busts itself for running “fake news.” Ha ha.)

That all brings us to the present, where Brett Doney wants a pile of cash for the GFDA. Over the course of lobbying the public (demonstrating a “need” for an economic development levy), Doney, in an apparent break from protocol, has actually told the truth about the state of Great Falls. According to Doney, jobs are being sucked out of Great Falls and there is a bit of a problem here — so much so that he has never been this “scared” in his 32 years of working in economic development. Meanwhile, the politicians are as clueless as ever. In the Trib’s Census story:

Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly said the number decline doesn’t scare him. In fact, he laughed out loud when asked for comment on the decline.

With Kelly now up for re-election, and after his touting for over a year the “momentum” in Great Falls — you know, since he’s been in charge — it will be interesting to see if he is capable of graduating from amusement to substantively addressing the issue. The old adage comes to mind: The first step to solving any problem is first admitting that you have one. (Just a guess: Kelly didn’t actually find the population decline funny.)

He did offer more than laughs in the Trib article, though:

‘I think what’s important when looking at any kind of statistic like that is whether it’s the beginning of a trend or the end of one,’ Kelly said. ‘I think that away from the economic aspects, which are driven by the private entities in town, our obligation as a city is to make this town as attractive and safe here as possible.’

Well, first, we know we’re not at the beginning of a trend. The population has been declining since 2013. Last year’s drop was the largest of the four years. Second, what does Kelly mean by “attractive?” Does he mean aesthetically? I’m an architect and planner, and even I wouldn’t suggest that it is feasible or good policy to legislate aesthetics. If Kelly means attractive to private enterprise, then he and his colleagues have failed miserably. Just look at Calumet. When have you ever heard of anyone willing to invest $450 MILLION DOLLARS into our community? Doney and Jolene Schalper of the GFDA are right. We have to retain as well as attract talent. Denying Calumet a tax abatement tells you all you need to know about this City Commission. When a wealthy developer like Brad Talcott wants a TIF for retail and service jobs, the City can’t wait to throw money his way. But if the high-paying manufacturing sector comes calling — the jobs everyone claims to want here — too bad, they’re out of luck. (By the way, I have no problem with the City granting Talcott or anyone else TIF’s. It’s simply worth noting who the City has picked as the winners and losers in business.)

Think about the chill the Calumet decision sent throughout the private sector. If you’re in business and thinking of relocating or expanding here, why would you? It’s better to look elsewhere, to a community that doesn’t produce these types of headlines, one that is unapologetically “open” for business. There are plenty to choose from. And while denying the abatement absolutely devastated Calumet (this year, no employees received raises or bonuses — they didn’t even have a Christmas party), it also affects the companies that do business with Calumet, big vendors like Northwest Pipe Fittings and Loenbro. But the City just had to have that money — $6-7 million spread over 10 years, which of the City’s roughly $100 million annual budget, results in less than 1%. And remember, even if the City had granted the abatement, the amount of tax collected would have still exceeded Calumet’s pre-expansion tax rate. How much is ever enough for the City?

I wish I could tell you that at least one of the City Commissioners took a principled stand on behalf of the business community, but none did. The motion carried 5-0. Put bluntly, what this means is that there is virtually no real vision on the City Commission. For our City leadership, short-term thinking carries the day, and in their minds, nothing they do is ever wrong. Don’t believe it? In January, the City Commissioners went on a retreat at MSU-Great Falls. The minutes are posted here:


City Manager Greg Doyon and the Commission began discussion of a look back on past year accomplishments that included:

  •   Parking survey
  •   Arco water rights
  •   Sale of Med Tech lots
  •   Sign Code revision
  •   Library Board Updates
  •   HPAC
  •   Cell phone ban/fines
  •   Holman property
  •   West Bank Landing TIF
  •   Wild fire response
  •   Fireworks town hall discussions
  •   Paris Gibson mural
  •   Final ECP audit
  •   Park Master Plan
  •   August flooding/look at infrastructure
  •   Hired three cops/GFPD good use social media
  •   Purchased fire trucks

The parties discussed the emphasis on making public safety a priority. The City Commission stayed focused and made progress. Discussion continued that, even though emphasis has been on public safety, each department is valued. The parties discussed the positive feedback they have been hearing from the community, and that the attitude of Great Falls has changed. No one has heard anything negative except at City Commission meetings. Great Falls has good momentum in the right direction.” [emphasis added]

If there was ever any question as to whether or not our City Commissioners exist in an echo chamber, your doubts can be put to rest. Great Falls has “momentum in the right direction?” Really? We’re losing jobs, population has declined for four straight years, and crime is on the rise. Meanwhile, the folks who run City Hall seem completely addicted to raising taxes and fees. They also want to grow government, never mind the declining population. How’s that for positive momentum?

Now, lest you think I’m some sky-is-falling alarmist, I can assure you that I am not. I’ve lived here continuously for the past 36 years, and in that time, Great Falls has remained largely the same community it is today. But when we constantly hear about “momentum” in the face of negatively trending big picture statistics (like jobs, population, and crime), at what point does somebody call, “Bullsh*t”?

Politicians like the mayor perpetuate this echo chamber for two reasons. First, they do so in self-congratulatory fashion to bolster their re-election chances, and second, they gin up faux-growth sentiments to convince us it’s OK to expand government and habitually raise our taxes. Bob Kelly campaigned as a “change” candidate who would “hold public meetings and commission meetings at venues that deserve attention, such as the Natatorium, on a public bus if possible, in the welding classrooms of Montana State University-Great Falls College.” I haven’t been on the public transit lately, but it doesn’t feel like the City has made any effort to come to the people. If anything, government is more insular than ever.

I don’t want elected officials whose default is to produce just positive (or negative) rhetoric. Good, bad, or indifferent, I’d just like to hear the truth. If Great Falls is to really move forward, we need to hear the truth.

We can handle it, and moreover, we deserve it.