SISU interviews Missoula’s mayor

Missoula Mayor John Engen answers students' questions during an exclusive interview with the class. Clem Work photo.

Missoula Mayor John Engen answers students’ questions during an exclusive interview with the class. Clem Work photo.

Better jobs, solutions to homelessness are Missoula mayor’s top goals

Developing more and better paying jobs and solving the problem of homelessness are two of Missoula’s biggest challenges, the city’s mayor told journalism students from China Monday.

John Engen, Missoula’s three-term mayor and a former journalist, answered questions asked by visiting students from Shanghai International Studies University and by Han Meng, a visiting photojournalist from The Beijing News.

Mayor Engen said Missoula’s economy is recovering from the latest recession, but homelessness and underemployment continue to pose problems. He also talked about his administration efforts to be transparent with journalists and public.

Helping the homeless

It’s not unusual for Missoula residents to see people in the city’s downtown area who ask for help or beg for money. In rare cases, such people can pose danger to the society but they have their rights as citizens as well, Engen said.

Engen said Missoula’s city government is working on a 10-year plan to reduce the number of homeless people, and the first step is to understand the many root causes of the problem.

He said some people are homeless because they have lost their jobs for economic reasons or because of ill health. Others suffer from mental illness or addiction to drugs or alcohol — or both. It can be hard for officials to figure out each person’s specific problems in order to help them.

However, Engen said, “It is our obligation and responsibility to help those homeless people, to see that they are treated with dignity and respect.”

The challenge is to see that they have food and shelter and that their basic human needs are being met.

He said one solution for those suffering from addiction may be a housing model called “wet housing,” which provides shelter, food and counseling for addicts without insisting that they immediately stop drinking.

The idea is controversial, he said, but it may be less expensive and more effective than leaving addicts on the street, putting them in jail or sending them to treatment programs that admit only people who are not intoxicated.

Another solution, he said, is to encourage the construction of more housing for people who do not make enough money to afford the high initial costs of rent, which can include security deposits and other charges.

This is applied to deal with the fundamental problem of housing the homeless, though the funds raising is challenging, especially when the typical American way is to support one’s own living.

More and better jobs

The mayor said most effective solution to that and other problems is to improve the local economy be attracting business that creates jobs that pay more money.

Engen said that many students who study in the University of Montana are trying to figure out a way to stay in Missoula, which causes “underemployment,” a situation in which highly educated people cannot find jobs that pay enough.

He said he often jokes that the person serving his morning coffee probably has a master’s degree and the person who serves his lunch probably has a Ph.D.

The challenge, he added, is attracting business that can thrive in Missoula’s “service” economy, whose major employers offer jobs in areas such as heath care, education, government and retail sales.

Missoula used to be part of a larger timber economy and its air was full of smoke because of lumber mills. However, the economy in Missoula has changed a great deal over last 30 to 40 years.

“Over the course of these last decades, (the timber) economy has gone away for a variety of reasons,” Engen said. “And that has been a difficult transition for Missoula and western Montana, which are really moving from that resource-based economy to a service economy.”

Now, he said, Missoula is working to attract insurance companies, manufacturers and high-technology businesses to fill the gap.

Tensions with news media

Mayor Engen also talked about his relationship with Missoula journalists and his administration’s efforts to provide information to the public. Generally, he said, he works well with journalists, but a healthy tension exists between them as well.

“We are transparent,” Engen said, but added that the city has to work actively to communicate with the people it serves.

“Some folks will ask questions thoughtfully, aggressively, on behalf of the public, and it is my obligation to respond those questions seriously,” he said.

But he also said the occasionally meets with journalists who know nothing about the history and background of some issues, and so their questions from the beginning are based on wrong premises.

“How much responsibility do I have to take for educating that reporter?” he asked.

As a former journalist himself, Engen said it is important that journalists be skeptical, but not cynical. He said it is sometimes difficult to work with reporters who think “I’m a reporter, you’re a politician. You’re a liar, and I carry the flag of justice.”

Government needs thoughtful news coverage, which can give context and background to issues. Such coverage, he said, helps citizens make big decisions and sometimes urges them to take action on problems they care about, such as crime.

But Engen also said that sometimes the headlines do not accurate reflect what the story is about, and because many read just the headlines, they may get the wrong idea about actions that government is taking or contemplating.

The challenge of new media

Another major challenge for government, he said, is adjusting quickly to the “huge challenge” of putting public information online and keeping the public informed by social media.

According to Ginny Merriam, the mayor’s communications director, the city’s information policy is to “never lie ever, never miss represent” and to be as transparent as possible. The city posts records, agendas, correspondence, crime and budget information on its website.

Social media is an important tool as well, she said, because it gives the city a way to connect with people as individuals.

“News about people is the thing that Facebook does best,” said Merriam, who is also a former journalist and UM journalism graduate.

She noted that just last week, the police department’s official Facebook page gained 900 hits in just two hours when officials posted a photo of a suspect who had been peering through residents’ windows at night.

Now officials are paying more attention on the recreation and safety on Facebook, she said.

Engen also acknowledged the importance of the Internet and social media, but he added that he sometimes worries that these tools can spread misinformation quickly.

He said it is still important to have journalists who can filter good information from bad and “package information in a way that is interesting and helps us understand what is important.”

Merriam said city government must learn how to best use these tools so it can communicate quickly and effectively with the public.

Challenges of the job

Engen, Missoula’s 50th mayor, is a native of the city. He was elected in 2005 in a race that began with six candidates. He was re-elected in 2009 and 2014 by a wide margins.

He is a graduate of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, and worked as a copy editor, page designer and columnist for the city’s daily newspaper, The Missoulian.

Being mayor is a difficult job, he said, but he added that he is fortunate to live in a city where many people

For Engen, the top qualification for being mayor is that he must be able to deal with more than one thing at a time, acknowledge the people he serves, and find ways to balance differing opinions..

“I am occasionally overwhelmed with balancing the large picture of how we move forward as a community together with the daily details of being a full-time mayor,” Engen said.

— SISU reporters Chen Xiaoying, Chen Yijun, Jiang Yiyun, Li Huizhong, Lu Nan, Yu Shijie contributed to this story.

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