With 3 incumbents leaving, city races could shape balance

From left to right, Marilyn Marler, Emily Bentley and Annelise Hedahl will not seek reelection on the Missoula City Council, while John Engen is running again for mayor, and Bryan von Lossberg, Jon Wilkins and Jordan Hess are looking to keep their seats on the City Council.

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

At least three incumbents on the Missoula City Council won’t seek reelection this year, though three others are looking to keep their seats, presenting an election that could shift the balance of the city’s governing body.

Among those leaving, Marilyn Marler will focus on her bid to fill Rep. Ellie Hill’s seat in the state Legislature, while Emily Bentley will dive into her new job as development director for the Missoula County Fairgrounds.

Annelise Hedahl will also leave her seat representing Ward 5 to focus on family and her career as a real estate agent with Lambros ERA.

“I’m not someone who is built for politics, but I also believe in serving,” Hedahl said on Tuesday. “It was a great experience and I was thankful for it.”

Over the past four years, the City Council has handled a number of social issues brought by Missoula’s left-leaning denizens, whether it was pushing back against coal or divesting from Wells Fargo over the bank’s fraudulent practices.

The council also passed an ordinance requiring mandatory background checks for gun sales and purchases, and it implemented a city ban on wild and exotic animals used by the traveling circus.

More recently, the city’s acquisition of Mountain Water Co. and its decision to issue a demolition permit for the Missoula Mercantile also proved controversial.

“You have to figure out what you believe in and stick to it,” said Hedahl. “It’s hard. I don’t know too many people who are equipped for that. I would say I was pretty sensitive and thin-skinned prior, but now I have more thick skin and I have the ability to stand my ground.”

Bentley will also leave her seat representing Ward 3 to focus on her new position as director of development at the Missoula County Fairgrounds.

County commissioners appointed Bentley in January to oversee implementation of the property’s new master plan – one that was years in the making. Bentley said the time required to serve as both a council member and fairgrounds director prompted her decision to forgo a bid for reelection.

“I always knew I loved local government, and my time on the council reinforced that passion,” Bentley said. “People don’t realize how much city councilors put it into. You have to be able to see the big picture and also get in the weeds with the minute details. It takes a certain skill to do both, and the people I serve with on the council really do have that.”

Bentley, like Hedahl and Marler, will leave behind a somewhat historic council, one that oversaw a lengthy legal battle to acquire the city’s drinking water system and voted to issue a deconstruction permit for the Missoula Mercantile.

While both issues were highly controversial – as was the council’s approval of a street-use permit for the “Bare as You Dare” bike ride in 2014 – Bentley has rarely shied away from controversy and is proud of the work she accomplished during her term.

“The water was huge, but what a legacy to leave behind,” Bentley said. “The Merc took up an entire year, but we were really proud that we saved the pharmacy. That was something that was important to us all. We felt we had a process that was fair and transparent.”

During her tenure, Bentley also joined Commissioner Cola Rowley in drafting a jail diversion plan, one intended to reduce crowding and find options to unnecessary incarceration. Ward 6 council member Michelle Cares will replace Bentley in completing the work.

In leaving the council, Bentley will also vacate her role as chair of the Land Use and Planning Committee, though she’ll take her experience to the fairgrounds as the county works to redevelop the property and blend it with the Midtown district.

“I initiated the design standards process and I’m still super involved in that and will see that through, even if I’m not on the council,” Bentley said. “We’re creating design standards for the fairgrounds, too. It’s really been a skill that I can use at the fairgrounds.”

Marler, who couldn’t be reached Tuesday for comment regarding her departure from the council, served as council president over the past four years and has filed to run for House District 90 in the state Legislature. The seat has been occupied for the past four sessions by Ellie Hill, a popular Missoula Democrat.

Marler has endorsed Julie Merritt to fill her seat on the City Council.

Those council members seeking reelection include Bryan von Lossberg in Ward 1, Jordan Hess in Ward 2 and Jon Wilkins in Ward 4. Mayor John Engen is also seeking reelection.

Three of the four incumbents already have challengers, including Jamelet Larsen in Ward 1, and Greg Strandberg and Chris Badgley in Ward 4. Lisa Triepke is running for mayor in her bid to unseat Engen.

Hess doesn’t yet have a challenger in Ward 2.

The Missoula Current will cover those running for local office or reelection once the candidate filings close in June.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com