Missoula City Council OKs travel to New Zealand sister city, over Ramos’ objections

A delegation from Palmerston North, New Zealand, visited Missoula last October. (Courtesy photo)

City Councilman Jesse Ramos tried to nix a $5,150 contribution to send two representatives to a conference in Missoula’s sister city, but found no takers among his colleagues at Monday night’s meeting.

His pitch: At a time when local residents are struggling to pay their tax bills, this expense would be a good place to say “no.”

“It is tone deaf on our part, when we have had a lot of people come to us with genuine concerns, people who are struggling right now,” Ramos said.

Nine other council members, however, said “yes” to amending the city’s agreement with Arts Missoula to fund attendance at the conference in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Councilwoman Heidi West said exchanges like those between Missoula and Palmerston North are an essential part of resolving global issues, including climate change.

“In our current political climate, cities are where the power is – and where we can really effect change,” she said.

Councilwoman Heather Harp said funding questions have always dogged Missoula’s sister city program. “This is not new,” she said.

“But I think we can all agree that with today’s environment, it is at the apex of its necessity,” Harp said. “We have to overcome the struggles, overcome the differences among us, and the best way to do that is to get to know one another.”

Arts Missoula executive director Tom Bensen said he is seeking non-governmental funding to bring another two or three citizens on the trip representing Missoula’s Native American population.

“We have a great deal to learn from Palmerston North and New Zealand, particularly watching how the Native population and the European descendants, how they work jointly in government and in business there,” Bensen said.

So in addition to the two Arts Missoula employees – whose travel would be financed by the city – Bensen said he is aggressively seeking outside funding for two, possibly three, Native Americans to attend the events.

“We are very eager to have some Native American representation to come on this journey,” he said.

The trip is, essentially, “continuing education” for the Arts Missoula employees, Harp said, a type of expense that wouldn’t be questioned for city departments.

Ramos suggested that Arts Missoula utilize a GoFundMe page to raise the money. “I do think this community is very generous and very loving,” and would come up with the travel money through private channels, he said.

“I fail to see how this expenditure improves our roads or helps our police or fire departments or our economy in general,” he said.

The final vote on the expense was 9-1. Two council members were absent: Mirtha Becerra and Julie Merritt.