By Dillon Tabish, 1-30-13
||Caption: Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher in the Kalispell City Council Chambers at City Hall. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
“This is it. I’m done.”
The election is still nine months away, but Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher has already made up her mind and will not run for a second term.
In an interview with the Beacon recently, Fisher publicly discussed for the first time her decision to step away from city politics and reflected on her first venture into public office. She acknowledged at times questioning her decision to run for office. But as mayor, she also discovered a passion for public service.
Now the 36-year-old mother of two said she’s ready to leave the political arena after this year.
At least momentarily.
Fisher is considering a run for the state Senate in the coming years.
“I think that my service to the city is probably tapped out from a mayor’s position,” she said.
“I think we’ve accomplished all the goals that I wanted to accomplish when I took the job. The rest of the things that I want to accomplish require some legislative changes.”
Four years ago as a political unknown running for office for the first time, Fisher became the third woman ever elected mayor in Kalispell.
A Great Falls native, Fisher moved with her two young sons from Missoula to the Flathead Valley in 2005 after her husband, John Fisher, passed away from cancer.
The county attorney’s office hired her as a prosecutor, which is how she met the late Jim Dupont, a former longtime sheriff who was serving as a county commissioner before he died in 2012. Dupont and Fisher remained “great friends” even after Fisher opened her own law firm downtown.
“He came into my law office one day and said, ‘You know what you need to do. We need some good leadership and I want you to run for office,’” Fisher recalled. “I thought he was crazy. I was convinced he was crazy.”
Fisher initially rejected the idea, considering herself unprepared for politics. But Dupont’s persistence and the encouragement from other supporters paid off.
On the campaign trail one of the first people she was introduced to was Norma Happ.
Happ, who has lived in Kalispell her entire life, was the first woman elected to the city council in 1975 and became the first woman elected mayor. She served until 1982 and has remained closely connected to public service in her hometown.
“She did a remarkable job and garnered a lot of respect,” Fisher said of Happ. “Certainly she paved the way for other female mayors to come after her. She’s a wonderful woman. I certainly consider her to be a mentor. I just really value the relationship I have with her.
Without having strong female mentors, I would not have as much success as I have had.”
Fisher and Happ met once a week for several months to discuss everything from issues facing Kalispell to the characteristics needed to survive the fierce world of politics.
Tammi Fisher, right, talks with Sen. Bruce Tutvedt at Scotty’s Bar south of downtown Kalispell during election night in 2009. File photo by lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
“You got to have a tough hide,” Happ, 85, said in a recent interview. “It’s not easy trying to please everybody all the time. And some things seem not worth getting into a snit about, but then they’ll come back to bite you if you don’t take them on. Sometimes it’s good to just take it on right away.”
After grilling Fisher with questions during the early days of the campaign, Happ was sold on the newcomer.
“People didn’t know who she was when she ran,” Happ said. “They said, ‘Who is that?’ I said, ‘You’d be surprised – she’s very smart and you’ll like her.’”
Fisher campaigned as a fiscal conservative, citing irresponsible growth and business barriers among the issues hurting Kalispell. Despite being an unfamiliar face, she earned 63 percent of the vote in the nonpartisan election for mayor and defeated incumbent Pam (Kennedy) Carbonari.
When Fisher stepped into office, Kalispell’s economy was struggling along with the rest of the country. The city had severely diminished cash reserves, which hit $244,122 in 2009. As Fisher described it, former City Manager Jane Howington led a remarkable turnaround to stabilization, which led to roughly $1 million in cash reserves by 2011.
“Raising our reserves and implementing the reserves policy was critically important because I can feel somewhat confident in the long-term stability and solvency of the city,” Fisher said.
The mayor serves as the ninth vote on the council, which was divided on several contentious issues over the last three years.
During her campaign, Fisher criticized impact fees as barriers to business development. On Feb. 7, 2012, Fisher and four other members of the council successfully repealed the city’s transportation impact fees with a 5-3 vote.
The decision was a victory for developers who claimed the fees were unfair and had a detrimental effect on growth. But proponents argued that without the program citywide taxpayers would be forced to carry a heavier burden when it comes to paying for development.
“We’ve seen some vertical construction and that has been refreshing,” Fisher said. “I think removing some of those anti-business regulations has been incredibly helpful in that respect.”
But Fisher acknowledged the need for an alternative to impact fees, which is atop her list of goals in the final months as mayor.
“We are going to need new roads but we need to find a mechanism to fund that construction,” she said. “Whether it’s a transaction fee or some other mechanism, I am open to all suggestions. But we need to do something that is fair so that the 10,000 taxpayers in Kalispell aren’t paying for the hundreds of thousands of users of our roads. That’s critically important and I’d like to get something accomplished.”
Other divisive topics remain unresolved, such as the city airport and Highway 93 alternate route, or bypass.
Fisher is an outspoken opponent of upgrading the municipal airport with federal funds. After the council voted to accept federal funds and upgrade, a citizen’s referendum emerged and successfully gathered enough votes to put the issue on the upcoming election ballot.
“I like the fact that the public is going to be able to vote on that,” she said. “I hope that the public who do vote are fully informed and do their own independent research to figure out the viability and all the positions involved.”
Fisher said the unfinished bypass stands out as a disappointment during her tenure. The local government has done everything it can to complete the long-standing project, but funding has dried up at the federal and state levels.
“It’s critically important for this community to have the north half of the bypass done. I’m pretty disappointed that that hasn’t occurred. But that is completely out of the hands of the city council,” she said. “We are completely impotent to create that change without the help of the state and the federal government.”
As a state senator, Fisher said she could increase her sway for local issues like funding the bypass, which is exactly what she intends to do if she runs.
Most recently Fisher was in the minority on the council when she voted against paying $2.26 million in tax increment finance funds for a permanent easement for Kidsports Complex. While expressing support for the popular youth athletic facility, she remained opposed to only using TIF funds.
Another big issue facing Kalispell in Fisher’s final term is the city’s core revitalization plan, which was recently completed and is awaiting a feasibility study.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that the costs are not going to be extraordinary. It’s an aggressive plan,” she said. “We also need to figure out a way to fund even the development of that. I’m firm in my mind that that cannot be a wholly funded city project. It just can’t be. I couldn’t swallow that.”
However, she acknowledged the plan is forward thinking and an important vision for Kalispell.
“The economy just has killed us and we need something to be optimistic about with regards to what this community could be and look like,” Fisher said.
“Even if it’s just a vision, at least we have something to motivate us to move forward just from how we look and who we are and what we’re developing into as a community.”
Tammi Fisher, left, listens to remarks from high school students during a city council meeting after being sworn in as mayor in 2010. File photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
As a first-time politician, Fisher has realized what Happ warned her about. The job requires thick skin and can present overwhelming challenges.
“When you’re tackling some very difficult issues, where the issues tug at your own heart strings and you’re trying to unwind messes, that’s been extraordinarily difficult,” Fisher said.
Fisher said one of the most challenging times was when the city was negotiating with the firefighters union during labor agreements. It nearly led to several firefighters being laid off. Fisher said she regrets the way the city handled that situation.
“The results have more to do with our firefighters being committed to the city of Kalispell than really it did with any negotiation skills on our part,” Fisher said.
But when she looks back on the council’s decisions over the last three years, she said she feels at peace.
“I think where the council has landed on decisions has been pretty good. Even for council decisions that I may not have agreed with, I feel like there was an underlying basis that was legitimate for the decision,” she said.
Would she do it again?
“I would,” she said. “I’m surprised that I’m saying that. I guess I would … I think we have a really good ship right now. I’m really proud of the accomplishments the council and the staff have made the past three years.”
By speaking publicly about her decision for the first time, and only a month into 2013, Fisher has likely sparked the campaign for a successor overnight.
The first day to file as a candidate in this year’s municipal elections is April 29. Registration is open until June 27. The general election is Nov. 5.
Besides the mayor position, Kalispell will have four seats on the city council up for reelection. They are currently occupied by Bob Hafferman in Ward 1, Jeff Zauner in Ward 2, Jim Atkinson in Ward 3 and Tim Kluesner in Ward 4.
The mayor is paid an annual salary of $9,000 plus a stipend of $1,800. Candidates must be a resident of Montana for at least three years and a resident of Kalispell for at least two. City councilors are paid $5,000 annually plus $900 in stipend money. Candidates must be residents of their respective wards for at least 60 days leading up to an election.
Fisher said she will be interested to see who emerges as candidates for mayor. She recommends they have self-confidence and pursue the position for the right reasons.
“You shouldn’t do it for the name. You just shouldn’t. That’s not the right reason,” she said. “And you should never make decisions based upon it being a popular choice or concern about whether or not you’ll be reelected.”
She will miss her interactions throughout the community.
“It has been great. It’s really been fun,” she said. “But I don’t need a moniker in order to create an identity for myself. I’m pretty self secure. It will be interesting for me to go back to grocery shopping in my sweatpants and having nobody recognize me. I will probably welcome that.”
[End of article]