What motivates a citizen to run for office for the first time? What causes them to step outside their everyday life and offer time and energy to the community in which they live? What drives a person to raise campaign funds for an unpaid, volunteer City Council seat?
To answer the question, I sat down with John Anderson, a local lawyer and father of two school age sons, who is running for office for the first time. On his back porch, with the sound of his children playing in the background and an occasional whistle for his dog, he offered his perspective.
Have you ever run for office before?
No public office.
What made you want to run for Whitefish City Council?
I’ve been on the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce Board; this will be my 5th year. For the first three years, the Chamber was known as a good networking organization and I really thought it could become a lot more. About two years ago, I was asked to be part of the selection committee for the new executive director and every hiring committee wants a lawyer. We came across Kevin’s Gartland’s resume and went through the interview process. I thought there was something we could do with the organization if Kevin came on board. With that in mind, I accepted the Chairmanship and with the help of the Board and Kevin, we adopted an agenda focused on economic development.
Back then times were really tough. You know, a lot of my friends were carpenters. They hadn’t even gotten to Williston yet. It was before everyone started flocking to the oil patch. There were no jobs. I had a lot of friends in real estate who were having a really hard time. I thought the Chamber was the one organization in place where I could lead the effort to make it the leading economic development agent in Whitefish. The board was really supportive and has never rejected any portion of my agenda that I’ve ever presented to them.
What did the Chamber accomplish for economic development?
We’ve been able to bring many organizations in the valley together to coordinate resources. There were 6-10 organizations all focused on economic development. All their members were paying dues and spending money and donating, contributing, but not a lot was getting done. All of that money was going to very small efforts. So, we got behind some of the valley’s resources and were able to bring some of the resources in Kalispell up to Whitefish. All of the government and private assistance programs now have office hours in Whitefish.
There isn’t a lot of demand right now though. That’s really the next problem to tackle. There is a lot of money in the valley for investment. I think there’s roughly ten million dollars in either tax subsidies or government funds of some sort just sitting there waiting to be spent on good projects. But, there just aren’t the projects. There isn’t a demand. Demand is a little tricky in trying to get the capital available.
I guess you would need to get people to know those funds are available. Everyone thinks you can’t get funded for anything right now. How do you let people know?
Yes, and I’ve asked the Flathead County Economic Development Authority to help us market to the valley that these things are available. To Whitefish in particular because Whitefish is in a unique spot. We are doing pretty well compared to the rest of the valley. So, you’ve already got some good things going to build from. There are some good jobs in tourism. People aren’t getting rich, but they are doing okay.
So, being on the Chamber Board was a stepping stone to running for Whitefish City Council?
My term was up and I’d like to take the ideas developed there and bring them to the city council.
Was it a hard decision to run for office?
Well, making the decision was pretty hard because twice a month for four years is a big commitment. I’m a pretty busy lawyer and having a family and trying to ski every now and then and enjoy why we’re here. But, Shani, my wife, is a big help. She’s very supportive and it was a decision between the two of us because it would be time taken away from the family. And that’s where a lot of your time goes. But, most of the time I run on relatively little sleep and I am good at rearranging priorities.
How did you and Shani meet?
I was going to law school in Missoula and she was from Austin, Texas and was in school for her teaching degree. She moved up here and didn’t know a soul. She was wandering through the mall in Missoula and saw a picture of a gal adopting a dog who she had been in college with in Texas. She called her up and this gal was dating one of my roommates. Shani and I dated and it wasn’t a year before we decided to get married.
Are you from Montana?
No, I’m from Wisconsin. About an hour north of Green Bay. I came out here in 1988 and was working for the forest service at a ranger station west of Missoula during the summers in college. And I knew I wanted to stay out here. I got my law degree here and worked for a few summers. But, Texans are homing pigeons so we went to Texas for a while. I gained a lot of valuable experience there as a lawyer.
What brought you back to Montana? To Whitefish?
We came back about six or seven years ago. We decided to move back to Montana and wanted a small town that could satisfy someone from Austin so we came to Whitefish. We just love it so much. It is a perfect combination of so many things. World class skiing, great schools, the best places to eat, the community. It’s spectacular.
So what are some issues important to you?
I think whether we like it or not the Critical Areas Ordinance is something we are all going to have to deal with. The next council is going to have to resolve it. It’s been made an issue and frankly I think that parts of it need to be simplified that just aren’t working. The best intentions went into it for the most part. Clean water was the primary goal and I don’t know if most folks know it, but Whitefish gets a lot of its drinking water from the lake so it is important that the water stay clean. Anyone who takes a sip of water within the city limits has probably got some portion of the water from the lake in it. So, I think that’s a good goal to have, but it really needs to be much easier to administer. I don’t think anyone right now can build a house and be certain it is in compliance with portions of the Critical Areas Ordinance. It’s just so complex and it needs to be simplified and made clearer. I think my being a lawyer can start to help us get there.
Is there anything you’d like to see changed in Whitefish?
I’d like to see the downtown and the Highway 93 businesses more coordinated in their approach to Whitefish and it is going to take a long time for that to happen. And what I mean by that is that when you come in (and I don’t think there is anything wrong with their appearance right now),but it is going to change over time. I hope those businesses on the strip and downtown realize they depend on each other and that coordinating appearance or signage or landscaping would help development. One of the goals of the Chamber was to get the two areas to talk. While at the Chamber, we had them sit down and talk and they at least agreed to have a study done to determine what would be best for the strip. A collaborative approach would help all the businesses in Whitefish.
What do you think should stay the same?
I’d like to see the downtown stay the center of town. That’s what attracts people and gives it its vibe. And I hope that people appreciate the ski hill. Just a few years ago it was at risk of closing. I don’t think people realize that without Foley’s investment, I am not certain that we’d have a ski hill this winter. People really need to understand the hill’s importance. Another thing that a lot of people don’t realize is how important the railroad is to the economy. There are a lot of jobs in this town from the railroad and those people are making a very good living, contributing their tax dollars and serving on boards. Between tourism and the railroad, those things have helped Whitefish ride out some difficult times.
Is there anything you’d like people to know about you?
I tend to bring people together. I think that’s the best approach. And with what I do for a living, I realize that’s not always possible. I also understand the toll it takes on a community when there’s a lot of divisiveness and rancor. You know, you just have to keep talking to people. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you have to alternate routes, but I tend to try to bring people together and I will make every effort I can (personally it’s kind of the way I’m wired) to try to keep the communication open. But, I’ve done it enough to realize that at some point talking isn’t going to do you any more good. I have the ability to find out where that line is without drawing it too quickly. I tend to be more patient.
Also, people should understand that I am pro business but I also think that businesses thrive in places where people want to live. Whitefish is a place where people want to live. In studies about the best cities to do business in, there is always a very vibrant downtown, but also they aren’t so restrictive to limit growth in other parts of town. Focus on maintaining character, but promoting growth too. People think zero regulation is best for business. I don’t think that. And over regulation is bad too. That stifles it. You need to cultivate a business atmosphere. It doesn’t just happen. Whitefish has a reputation of being difficult to do business in in terms of getting permits or finding out how things work. I think the city should be more friendly and do their best to make it easy.
I have one more question. Well, actually two. How tall are you?
Six foot six.
And what do you like best about Whitefish?
I don’t think I could really say. There are a lot of things that come together in Whitefish to make it unique. Whitefish is Whitefish. That’s what I like about it.
For more information about John, text JohnAnderson to the number 90210 or visit his campaign website and Facebook Page. There are currently three Whitefish City Council seats and six candidates running for the opportunity to have their voice heard. They include Mary Vail, Richard Hildner, Life Noell, Frank Sweeney, Doug Wise, and John Anderson. Whitefish Life would be happy to speak with any or all of the other candidates should they be interested.