Politics Pop: Federal building update, elections reminders and COVID inspections
Election Day is around the corner with the Nov. 3 general election less than a month away. The Missoula County Elections Office mailed ballots to Missoula County residents who are active registered voters on Oct. 9. Ballots are due back by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3. Postmarks are not sufficient so it’s important for voters to make sure they don’t wait until the last minute to mail their ballots, said Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman.
Ballots can also be dropped at one of 11 drop-off locations within the county up until 8 p.m. on Election Day. All ballots will also include prepaid postage. All elections information can be found on the county’s website at missoulavotes.com. This week, the county was also awarded a $312,000 grant to ensure it informs voters about how the mail election will work.
Although the county opted to conduct a mail ballot election in light of the coronavirus pandemic, voters can still access in-person voting and voter registration at the Elections Center at 140 N. Russell St. The office will be closed Monday, Oct. 12, in observance of Indigenous Peoples Day. If a voter chooses to vote in-person, their mailed ballot will be voided.
The county is looking for ways to support Liquid Planet in the Missoula County Courthouse as reduced foot traffic in the building has impacted sales, Missoula County Auditor David Wall said. The courthouse is open, but the county has pared back many services due to the pandemic and encouraged people to use online platforms. In an effort to make sure small businesses stay afloat, Wall said the county waived rent for the business for a few months when the courthouse was closed and is now hoping to offer them reduced rent after finalizing a formal agreement. County Commissioner Josh Slotnick expressed support to Wall for the reduced rent during a meeting this week: “I do really appreciate the sympathetic tone you have with this,” Slotnick said.
Commissioner Slotnick responded to a Missoula City Council member who said a proposed policy is racist that would give some preference to businesses looking to contract with the county that are owned by people of color, women or people with disabilities. Councilor Sandra Vasecka said last week that she thought the policy was racist and another business owner said that by extension, county commissioners and staff were also racists. In an editorial published in the Missoula Current this week, Slotnick said “such powerful claims warrant a response.”
“They were right, we’re racists, but not for the reasons claimed,” Slotnick wrote. “…This system where the virtue of your birth almost absolutely determines your eventual wealth and achievement is racist. We all were born into this system and benefit from it every day.” He wrote that eventually he hopes political efforts like the policy will not be needed, but said “we have a lot of work to do.”
County staff who proposed the policy last week said it would help “level the playing field” for businesses that have historically been disadvantaged due to diminished capital and credit opportunities compared to other businesses in the same field that are not owned by people of color, women, or people with disabilities. The county has not yet set a date to vote on the policy.
Missoula County is seeking funding for a temporary attorney to help with increased needs due to COVID-19, which has reduced staffing capacity in the County Attorney’s Office, the county’s grants administrator Nancy Rittel told commissioners this week. Rittel said the county is applying for a grant from the Montana Board of Crime Control to support the position.
Deputy County Attorney Matt Jennings told the Missoulian that the position is needed because some attorneys have reduced their hours to balance work with child care and homeschooling. Jennings said the county is also experiencing a backlog of cases because most jury trials and in-person appearances were put on hold for several months at the onset of the pandemic in the spring.
“Because of that backlog you know we’re trying to catch up now and that’s probably going to last for quite some time,” he said. I mean I think the ripple effects from having to hit the pause button is going to go on for a year, maybe even a couple years or maybe change our system in some ways.”
He said crime has also increased in the last few months based on more referrals the office is receiving. In addition, he noted that some of the county’s innovative efforts in the area of criminal justice such as the jail diversion program “take more resources and not less.” The program helps some people avoid criminal conviction in non-violent cases, but Jennings said those cases can “take more work than just charging somebody.”
The Missoula City-County Health Department is increasing its enforcement of coronavirus restrictions as cases continue to spike and after a fourth county resident died of COVID-19 on Tuesday. The health department will conduct unannounced inspections at places where people socialize like bars and restaurants to make sure establishments are following the governor’s Phase 2 restrictions and local health officer orders.
“Failure to comply with COVID-19 restrictions may result in further restrictions, closures or referral to prosecution based on upcoming follow-up inspections,” Missoula County COVID-19 Incident Commander Cindy Farr said Tuesday.
The county also launched a new website for COVID-19 information, missoulainfo.com, which also has a feedback portal for residents, data on case counts and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
City and county staff said acquiring the federal building is taking longer than originally planned, due in part to some challenges posed by COVID-19, such as looking at ways that the city and county can share the space amid the pandemic and into the future.
“The end of the calendar year was talked about for some things, but there’s a lot we still have to identify,” said Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer.
That includes considerations like whether there will be a separate meeting room for commissioners from Missoula City Council chambers, or whether they will share a combined space.
Bickell said the city and county are the only entities that are being considered for the building transfer, and that he thinks staff can have some “gross numbers” by the end of the calendar year to update city and county officials.
Missoula Parks and Recreation is offering day camps and after-school programs at reduced rates to keep kids busy when they’re not in school. The “Base Camp” will include homework time and access to computers for online work, and rigorous COVID-19 safety protocols. A grant from the Montana Coronavirus Relief Fund will help offer rates as little as $2 per day for some families. All families, regardless of income, are eligible for discounts from 50 to 95% with the Base Camp Scholarship. More information can be found at www.missoulaparks.org.
City Council will not meet on Monday, Oct. 12 in observance of Indigenous Peoples Day. The Council will hold committee meetings on Wednesday, Oct. 14 and have its next regular meeting on Monday, Oct. 19.