Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles of the four retiring members of the Missoula City Council.
Five years ago, Annelise Hedahl would stand around the metaphorical water cooler with friends and colleagues in her business networking group, grousing about local government.
“We didn’t know enough about any of the issues, but we were sure somebody somewhere was getting screwed,” she said.
Then she heard, via the water cooler, that a City Council committee wanted to regulate snout-front houses, where the garage protrudes out in front of the house.
“I remember thinking, ‘So I can’t build my house back if it burns down?’ I was so mad, but of course, I didn’t actually know anything about what the council had actually discussed.”
Then came word that the city might mothball Fire Station 5.
“My husband is a city fireman, and even though he wouldn’t have been affected, I thought it was so ridiculous,” Hedahl said. “I lived a half-mile away and my 3-year-old liked to eat hot dogs and grapes. And I just thought, ‘All right, who is running things down there?’ “
So, with encouragement from former Councilman Dick Haines, Hedahl ran for the Ward 5 seat on Missoula City Council and won.
A full term in office later, happily opting not to run for reelection, she bids farewell this week to a council and city staff she has grown to appreciate and respect – who are now not only colleagues but friends.
“I have a whole new respect for how local government operates, and the importance of it,” Hedahl said in an interview. “I didn’t give City Council enough credit before I got on council. Now I have such an appreciation for how the city runs and what the staff does and what council members do – the hard work that happens behind the scenes.
“It’s an incredible group.”
Hedahl, a Missoula real estate agent, also earned the respect of her fellow council members and Mayor John Engen, who teased her at December’s final City Council meeting for “engaging in a process we call one and done.”
“But her one (term) has been one of impact,” said Engen. “Annelise brought to this body a sense of humor and charm and intelligence, and a perspective that sometimes goes missing as we delve into the details of governance and the occasional bureaucracy that goes along with that.”
“Annelise is a person who will cut to the chase and she will represent what she believes to be reason and common sense, and she does that in a way that is respectful … and a little bit sneaky,” the mayor said. “She is also a person who will listen to anybody talk about anything, and she will do it openly and with sincerity. And at the end of those conversations, she will let you know where she stands, again respectfully and sincerely.”
Hedahl will continue her civic involvement as a member of the Missoula Economic Partnership’s Board of Directors, but she’s unlikely to venture again into politics.
“I really don’t have a lot of business being in politics,” she said. “It’s not a passion of mine. My heart is in supporting people and encouraging people. I want to be a third-string quarterback for people who are involved.”
For Hedahl, the City Council’s most significant work during her tenure was the condemnation and legal victory to take ownership of Missoula’s drinking water system, which earlier this year made the transition from Mountain Water Co. to Missoula Water.
“The water company purchase is just monumental,” she said. “At the time, it was hell. My ward is very conservative and there was quite a bit of opposition to the condemnation proceedings, and I spent a lot of time explaining why I thought it was important for us to own our own water.
“Condemnation was a necessary evil to make that ownership happen, and I do believe we’ll see the difference that it makes to Missoula in the long run – having our water owned by the municipality.”
There is a side to serving on City Council, she said, that involved “making decisions for the greater good and then standing by those decisions.”
So, has happened many times during the lengthy and expensive Mountain Water condemnation proceedings, “you go to a dinner party and people start complaining about the water case and you have to say, “No, trust me, it’s the right thing to do.’ “
When Stacey Anderson decided to run for the open Ward 5 seat this past fall, she asked Hedahl how she spent most of her time as a council member.
“Meeting people and correcting misinformation,” came the reply. “There is so much misinformation out there about what the council is actually doing and how we voted and what was approved and what wasn’t approved.”
An example: When, several years ago, a group of activists staged a naked bicycle ride through Missoula one Sunday a friend called Hedahl to complain that City Council sanctioned the event.
“I cannot believe you guys approved that,” the friend said. “I hope you voted against it.”
“We did not vote on it,” came Hedahl’s reply.
“Well the pastor said you did during church this morning,” the friend said, digging in. “He said that’s why the naked bike ride was happening.”
Which, of course, is precisely the kind of misinformation – be it from around the water cooler or church pew – that led Hedahl to run for City Council in the first place.
Whereupon, she said, her education and appreciation for the truth of what actually happens began.
And no, there was no proposed regulation of snout-front houses. And Fire Station 5 was not closed, and never really was at any risk of closure.
“Anyone who is willing to step up and do this job will quickly learn the truth,” Hedahl said. “This job is not easy. But you will forever be changed by the experience.”
She cried, in fact, in saying goodbye to her fellow council members earlier this month.
“Although I have not made big policy changes, I listened and tried to help where I could and made the best decisions that I could,” Hedahl said, her voice faltering. “I promise you I put my heart into every decision.”
She thanked Engen for his leadership and for “loving Missoula more than any of us ever could.” She thanked City Attorney Jim Nugent for his “thorough, all-caps emails.” And city clerk Marty Rehbein for “being better than Google.”
And her fellow council members: “You listen even when you are tired. You listen even when you are at a friend’s barbecue or in line at the grocery store. You are some of the most kind and thoughtful and most intelligent people I’ve ever been able to work with. I have been changed for the better because of you.”