On Tuesday, May 16, Gregg Smith wrote a post about the City’s CDBG allocation process, our fifth and most recent article on the topic. Since the publication of our first CDBG content on April 27, this blog has received nearly 8,000 page views. Suffice it to say, then, that this has swelled into an issue of significant community interest.
Things picked up over the past week. The blog (and I, personally) received a number of emails and calls from members of the public.
I can report with confidence two things: 1) people are starting to pay attention to local government, and 2) most of these folks are really, really unhappy with the CDBG shenanigans. One of the dozen or so folks who wrote to us recently was our former Mayor, Michael Winters. He said he wanted to chat, and graciously agreed to be interviewed about CDBG, the City Commission, and the state of Great Falls.
Below is the transcript of my interview with Mayor Winters…
You reached out to us, and said you wanted to chat. What’s been on your mind these days, Mayor Mike?
I think what’s been on my mind as we go into the summer months (and I don’t pay much attention to the City Commission meetings for the most part), but I’ve seen some different things that I’d question. The business with the one commissioner.
I just have to say, is it youthful ignorance? Is that commissioner not aware of what appears to be a conflict, or does this commission just not give a rat’s tail about conflicts or not? A good example of that is all the political activity going on Paris Gibson Square. I remember they had Governor Bullock there and the whole lineup of Democrats for some rally before the election, but only on the one side. Then they use it to get people to the women’s march. I don’t believe an organization that is sponsored by the people’s funds should be doing such. I don’t think our tax dollars should be supporting a place that encourages political activism, no matter who it would be. In this case, it’s totally for the one party. It’s a museum, and I don’t believe that’s the workings of what a museum ought to be. They should be neutral. People have their own feelings and agendas and should be able to express them, but not through the properties that are commonly held.
The prior commission showed integrity, and they showed the wherewithal to do the right thing, all the time. I don’t see that we have a great deal of leadership right now. We need accountability. This issue with the conflict is, this is the right opportunity for the mayor to offer a public statement about this, yet the mayor has said nothing. Is that leadership?
It appears to the people who have talked to me (and people will stop me in the stores), and they question the integrity of what’s happening in the city. What is integrity? It’s doing the right thing while nobody’s watching. Some can’t do the right thing when the people are watching! And if you can’t do that, then you can’t possibly represent all the people.
The idea of conflicts of interest, there should never be a conflict of interest. You’re not there to serve your own interests or ideas, you’re there to represent the people in the people’s house, and that’s the Civic Center. You have to put your own ideas in your back pocket and listen to what the people have to say.
I wasn’t what you would call the typical mayor. What we had was a huge influx of money from upper-echelon people to replace me. The election was financed on different skillsets, however, the community knew my skillsets. But who is being represented now? Are we representing the elites in town, or are we representing the average, hard-working community supporters?
I think the important part of being a commissioner or mayor is knowing how to get along with people. It doesn’t mean you always capitulate, but you must be able to read people, understand people, and you’ve got to listen to people. When my phone rings, it didn’t matter what time it was, I would always answer it. When they would call, they weren’t practicing dialing the telephone, they wanted to talk to the mayor. Our commission addressed everyone’s concerns equally. The prior commission also worked to the point where the department heads addressed people’s concerns and people over time were able to put trust back in city government, and that is just a fact.
If you were still mayor, and these conflicts presented themselves on your commission, how would you handle the situation?
The mayor is only one representative, but you really are the number one citizen in a lot of ways, and I think within the parameters of what he can do, I would have put a stop to all conflicts of interest, and I would have no problem whatsoever letting all the commissioners know that I would do that. I would say so publicly, and I would put a stop to it on the spot. Now unfortunately, that hasn’t happened here.
The last commission brought back a higher level of understanding, of integrity, of trust, that the working class person could call a commissioner and get a straight answer. We did the same working with the city manager and the departments, that the people are the ruling clan, and that we need to represent them correctly, and strongly.
Employees of the city government are employees of the general public, and the general public are the customers – you have to listen to them, respect where they are coming from, and if they have problems that can be negotiated or comprised, that’s what you have to be doing. You have to be representing the entire community, not just certain special interest groups – and that’s what seems to be happening currently.
What do you attribute to the relative lack of growth in Great Falls, and what would you like to see happen?
It’s our attitude. Community attitude. “Not in my backyard.” It’s OK to have the small community atmosphere and attitudes, but that impedes growth. And rather than accepting what’s given to us, let’s reach out to other potential businesses. When I was mayor, I reached out to a number of businesses and asked them to come here, businesses that would have added to our potential growth. One had considered us seriously, one major company in particular was interested in coming here. They sent their real estate person here to look us over. But we had a snowstorm in December when he came, and the attraction unfortunately wore off in a hurry.
I also don’t view Great Falls as just Great Falls. It stretches out to Simms, Augusta, and beyond the physical borders of Great Falls. At the Veteran’s memorial, and I did this for the memorial and our community, now we have 250 Blackfeet warriors’ names on our memorial. We did that by reaching out. You have to reach out.
We have the potential of serving and being an example of all the communities within our reach, we could absolutely be the shining star on the prairie. It’s what we the people want and if we the people want our community to grow, then it’s about reaching out to the people we want and who need us. That’s growth.
One of the largest and major concerns I have is the “not in my backyard” philosophy. We want growth and we want to stimulate the economy, we want jobs and industries, as long as it doesn’t impede the flow of traffic, or their views, and I don’t mean their political views. For the most part, the community wants to come to the commission meetings and air their views when there is a conflict, when they feel like they’re being stepped on, and when they feel like their personal standard of level is being compromised, and a good example of that was the conflict in the Fox Farm interchange.
There are other things we can do, though.
What has the community done to reach out to the universities? We have a private university that graduates people, but what have we done as a City to encourage them? What kind of programs have we offered as a community to help those folks out? Have the city offices made it easier for people who want to come here? Have we made it more appealing for people who want to come here? Have we as a community said, “Hey, this is an enticing place”? Yeah, we have a river, 50-some miles of a trail, but most of it is never touched. There could be a rowing club, there could be more festivities and events on the river. The community needs to pick up and work in unison with city government. City government cannot and should not do it alone. You need the cooperation of everyone in the community.
People say, we need this industry to come here or that industry to come here, but wouldn’t it be nice of some of those folks actually invested their money to bring those industries there themselves? That’s the only way it’s gonna get done.
If you don’t like something, how can you help correct it? How can you make our community more pleasantly appealing to other folks? We’re a very friendly, accepting community, we’re a generous community. At the same time, if you want to attract other people, there must be something more fundamental and on the ground to make people come here.
You served three terms as mayor. Of all the commissioners, who did you most enjoy serving with and why?
I enjoyed all five of us working together, and we relied on each other for different guidance. The one commissioner that I felt the most in tune with was Bob Jones. He and I both have the sound basic structure that we both understand the public. And I like Fred Burow because of his common sense approach to things. I like Bronson because he has a legal background, though he sometimes over pushed that. We came together and worked together as a team. I liked Mary Jolley a great deal. She was a very good commissioner, and I’m sure she’s an excellent judge. She spoke her mind, and she understood exactly where she was in life as it pertains to being a commissioner, and she was a very, very good representative.
Rick Tryon and Gregg Smith wrote about this before. How do you assess the state of Great Falls as it stands today?
I think we are poised for continual slow and gradual growth, a potential that we can realize if we work together. We have the potential of working more with Malmstrom, having Malmstrom more involved with our community and the City, the potential of having both the universities working with us more and us with them more. I think we’re poised for a great potential jumpoff point. We have to want to reach out and understand that while some things are a given, we have to reach sometimes a little harder and a little further. We don’t have to accept the minimum.
I was very critical of the City Commission for denying Calumet a tax abatement after Calumet invested an additional $450 million into our community. What did you think of the City’s decision?
I’m not sure that it was the right decision. I think the total number [of the requested abatement] was maybe too high. But I thought the City and Calumet could have negotiated that down to a smaller number and over a longer period of time so it didn’t hit taxpayers as hard. All it did was put up a red flag to other businesses that said, “Yeah, they want us to come there, but they don’t want to help us out.” It was too high, but I thought it was a mistake to let it go entirely.
What are your thoughts on the City’s proposed parks maintenance district?
When you look at that perspective, we just had water and sewer rate increases, each time the increases happen, the people paying for them by and large don’t have the extra spendable income to kick into our local businesses, and I think that’s something that isn’t being considered. I don’t want to see the parks district. It’s too large and too much. Park and rec is my favorite department, but what we have to do is put in place some analysis into the process, to see that each arm of government is operating more efficiently. So let’s start with efficiency of departments. Then let’s adjust how efficiently they’re functioning.
I think we should consider selling some park land that isn’t being utilized. The land up by Gore Hill, the City should consider selling it. The people who have the adjoining property, they’re parking there anyway, so sell it to them. There’s a park with an active railroad on the West side, where no mother would let her child play, the City should consider selling that also.
I think we should make our parks more gorgeous, and the community can help do that too. Community interaction is just so important.
For a community that’s been losing people for the past few years, and with all the fixed incomes we have, we keep raising taxes and fees. At some point we have to hold the line.
A lot was made about the City’s cell phone ordinance down in Helena, specifically with Rep. Jeremy Trebas’ bill. Your commission instituted the ban. What say you?
I cant imagine for a moment that a legislator representing the people of Great Falls would go to the Legislature and try to enact limits on how we govern ourselves. I would have gone to the Legislature like Kelly and Bronson did. Legislators should focus on state business, and we as city commissioners should focus on city and local business.
What are you most proud of accomplishing in your tenure as mayor?
I think I’m more proud of working with the city commissioners, together as a team, working toward a common goal, and that was always to help out the community. We ended the fiasco with the ECP business, we were on the hook for $60 million flat out cash. We got out for 3.5 [million], and then were some blunders that the city already owned in debts, water credit debts, and that was included. We negotiated that $60 million down to $3.5 million.
One might argue you saved the city.
We did save the city! There’s no doubt about it. We were sitting head long into bankruptcy. We were on the course of disaster, but we got out, and it was our commission that did it – collectively. We had James Santoro, who was the City Attorney at the time and excellent counsel, and they gave us choices, but our commission made the right choices and we did it.
If you were given the opportunity to do it all over, would you do anything differently? and/or would you run again for any office?
Yes, I would have. I would have acted more professionally. I have maintained my principles and I never compromised my integrity, but I could have acted more professionally in conducting our meetings. I wouldn’t have changed a vote, and I feel like I did the job right. I could have used 50 cent words instead of 5 cent words, but I’m a straight talker and I talked how I talked.
Would I run again? I have been considering running for a spot on the city commission. I’d like to stay involved. The strongest thing any elected person should be able to say without tongue in cheek is, “I don’t know what kind of mayor or commissioner I was.” That’s up the for the public to decide and to tell me. People will ask me, “Mike, were you a good mayor?” and I’d have to say, “Well, I don’t know, you tell me, and you’d have to ask the people. That’s for everyone else to decide.”