Bozeman City Hall

A look at Bozeman City Hall on Rouse Avenue.

It’s wet and gray outside city hall this particular Monday in October, toward the end of 2015, as sweater-clad City Manager Chris Kukulski leans into his microphone.

There’s a sense in the room, where Bozeman’s city commission is meeting, that the growing city’s longtime motto, “The most livable place,” is starting to wear a bit thin — and not just when some resident complaining about the wait at the intersection of 19th and Main steps up to the podium and throws the slogan in the commission’s face.

With our once-sleepy college town becoming a full-fledged city, it’s time for a first for Bozeman, Kukulski is telling the commission: a major strategic planning effort, supported by six figures’ worth of consulting work, to flesh out what livability means for a Bozeman with 10,000 or 20,000 more people.

It would be a comprehensive look at what city and its residents want for Bozeman in the long run, he’s saying, and would help the community hammer out a path for getting there. A chance for the city to coordinate its efforts on everything from land use to public safety.

“Hopefully by the mid to late summer of 2016,” he says, “we’ll be adopting a clear vision and a strategic plan to accomplish that vision.”

“To me,” he continues, “it’s an exciting process, and an exciting project.”

Fast forward a year-and-a-half.

Bozeman’s growth hasn’t slowed. If anything, it’s pulling harder on the city, stretching it in several directions, none of them easy fixes. Bills for street projects are mounting as traffic backs up. With new residents moving in by the hundreds, housing is less and less affordable. Development pressure has pushed concern over neighborhood preservation toward a boiling point.

The $124,000 strategic planning project, pitched as a tool to get a handle on all that and more, has skidded past its planned completion date, dogged by staff turnover, commission politics and confusion over what exactly it’s supposed to accomplish.

And Kukulski, who had run city government for the past 13 years until being pushed out in March, is looking for new work.

Speaking last month, as commissioners appointed Kukulski’s interim replacement, Commissioner Jeff Krauss put it bluntly: “I believe that the strategic plan ran off the rails.”

With commissioners looking toward the city elections barreling their way this fall, they’re scheduled to pick up the planning effort at its weekly meeting Monday. But with the effort derailed — or “stalled,” to use the phrase Mayor Carson Taylor considers more apt — it’s less than clear Bozeman will end up with the clarity of direction it needs out of the bargain.

Coordination

If you know nothing else about Bozeman’s municipal government — governed by a five-member citizen commission and administered by a professional city manager — understand that it’s a machine that revolves around its paperwork, specifically, its formal planning documents.

The city has at least 22 separate plans in effect, by the Chronicle’s count, totaling more than 3,100 pages of direction for city government. It has a plan for transportation, for its fire department, for downtown parking. There’s an economic development plan, a parks plan, a sewer plan — and more.

With elected commissioners serving part-time, those planning documents are their main tool. As the strategic plan was pitched initially, by Kukulski and Taylor, it was a chance to help the commission make sense of its planning documents and their contradictions, gaps that cause the city and its residents plenty of headaches.

The Bozeman Community Plan, or growth policy, has been a particular concern. It’s an older document (dating to 2009 though state law says it should be reviewed every five years) and articulates enough goals — 43, plus 207 detailed “objectives” — that commissioners complain it isn’t always helpful in guiding tough decisions like debates over high-density development.

Commissioner Chris Mehl, for instance, the son of a minister, has taken to comparing the community plan to the Bible — so expansive that you can find a chapter and verse to back up your position regardless of your stance on an issue.

Supporters of taller, denser buildings, for example, point to sections where the growth policy touts the benefits of infill. Opponents, on the other hand, have taken to quoting passages where it discusses the importance of neighborhood preservation.

Given that, Mehl and Krauss in particular have talked about the value of a strategic plan in terms of prioritization, helping the city articulate not just municipal values but also hammer out which ones should win out when they end up at odds.

Price tag

Initially, the planning effort seemed to have broad support at city hall. But Krauss, Bozeman’s on-again-off-again mayor and a longtime critic of Kukulski’s management, picked an early fight over its specifics, refusing in February 2016 to vote for a $124,000 contract to hire a consultant for the effort.

“This proposal is long on process and short on what it is we’re going to get out of this,” he said at the time. “It looks a little half-baked.”

Kukulski had placed the contract, with international engineering firm HDR, on the commission’s consent agenda — reserved for non-controversial business where the body routinely takes a bulk vote to save time. At Krauss’ insistence though, it was hauled off consent, leading to a half-hour debate.

The move wasn’t out of character for Krauss, who seems to relish a maverick role and often stakes out positions at odds with the three-commissioner block of Mayor Taylor, Commissioner Mehl and Deputy Mayor Cyndy Andrus that often drives the body’s decision making. Krauss routinely casts a protest vote against the city’s annual budget, for example, and joined Commissioner I-Ho Pomeroy in voting against the city’s current affordable housing plan.

With the HDR contract, the commission ultimately split 3-2 in favor of approval, with Krauss and Pomeroy’s dissent overruled by Taylor, Mehl and Andrus.

“I’ve always felt that there’s a gap between the vision statement and the multiple plans that we have,” Taylor said. “We have to fill that gap with a document that lays out more of a strategic plan.”

Frustration

With HDR hired, the consultants got to work, spending the better part of last summer passing around surveys and holding public meetings to develop “vision statements” intended to outline community values.

At an August commission meeting, the firm said it had surveyed 600 people and collected 2,700-plus comments from the public, with its work including an outreach booth set up at the Sweet Pea Festival.

In the interim, though, chief city planner Wendy Thomas resigned, saying she wanted to move back east after her husband was transferred away from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.

Additionally, the planning project ended up shoved to the back burner as the city focused on another immediate effort — pushing the unsuccessful $71.5 million law and justice center bond that would have let it build a new police and courts campus in partnership with Gallatin County.

By the time the city’s leaders picked the big-picture planning effort back up, with the holidays approaching, the effort had missed by months the September 2016 completion date outlined in the HDR contract.

Furthermore, by the time commissioners, senior city staff and HDR consultants headed into a strategic planning retreat Dec. 8 and 9, multiple commissioners had become visibly frustrated with the process. Some said they were struggling to make sense of the consultants’ vocabulary, while others sighed as the body spent hours wordsmithing detailed “value statements.”

Even Mehl, who had supported the $124,000 contract, was one of the discontents.

“Right now we have six visions, which are not the same as the conversation areas, which are not the same as the core values statements, which are not the same as the Appendix B that the consultant sent me,” he wrote in an email to Mayor Taylor the morning of the Dec. 8 retreat, with Kukulski cc’d.

“I need some real help understanding this, why it is, why it’s necessary, and how we convey this to the public,” he continued.

He still wasn’t satisfied two-and-a-half months later, in February, when he wrote to Taylor alone saying, “I know I’m not following this as closely as you but I am REALLY CONFUSED.”

By the time a second round of daylong retreats rolled around in March, Kukulski was having an increasingly hard time getting commissioners to commit to retreat dates, internal emails indicate.

Mehl complained from the commission dais March 6 about the retreats forcing him to use vacation time to get away from his day job. When the group met March 9, Krauss came in late, then grumbled he’d been told the wrong start time.

Ousted

And then, March 21, at 1:30 p.m., commissioners gathered reporters in a city hall conference room to make a sudden announcement: Kukulski, at the city’s helm since 2004, was out.

Reading a prepared statement, Mayor Taylor said the commission and their longtime administrator had agreed to “move in separate directions.” Commissioners have otherwise avoided explaining the apparent ouster, citing legal obligations over Kukulski’s privacy.

Emails obtained by the Chronicle through a public records request do indicate the move was at least several months in the making, being discussed at Kukulski’s annual closed-door performance review in December of last year — a few days after the first set of strategic planning retreats.

(The city provided the Chronicle 476 pages of emails, considered public documents, charging a $238 fee. It says the work it took to process the paper’s request, including redactions to information about Kukulski’s performance review, took 15 hours of staff time.)

Krauss, for example, complained about Kukulski discussing the December performance review with others at city hall in two brief emails sent to Taylor.

“I heard CK told his staff all about his review, which was four of the commissioners supported him but not me,” Krauss wrote in one message, dated Dec. 20. He followed up with a similar message Dec. 30, its subject line reading “To retain or not retain?”

The commission held another closed-door meeting with Kukulski the night before the announcement, March 20, but the city manager’s fate appears to have already been sealed — emails between Taylor and Mehl from earlier that day indicate they had already begun drafting their press release and already had in mind an interim city manager, Helena resident Dennis Taylor (no relation to the mayor).

Additionally, while Mayor Taylor delivered the message to the public March 21, the emails indicate it was Mehl, a former congressional staffer, who wrote the bulk of the commission’s statement. He also mapped out an informal plan for handling reporters’ questions as the announcement was made.

“--Why did you fire him?” Mehl wrote. “Stick to script.”

In an interview following his departure, Kukulski wouldn’t discuss specifics of the disputes that led to his ouster on the record, but said it had become clear it was time for him to move on when he realized he had lost the commission’s trust.

“They just decided they wanted a new city manager,” he said.

Decisions

It isn’t entirely clear what role Kukulski’s handling of the strategic plan played in the commission’s decision to seek new leadership. His sudden departure, however, interrupted a series of meetings scheduled with Oregon-based HDR consultants and left the planning process — the city’s big push to get a handle on its growth — even further off course.

Commissioners are now saying they’re hoping Dennis Taylor, the interim city manager they brought in from Helena, can help them salvage the project going forward.

Asked about the planning process this week, Krauss doubled down on his critiques of how it’s been handled — repeating complaints he’s made for years about the city being too dependent on outside consultants for planning projects, as opposed to doing its critical thinking in house.

But, he said, he does see the work as important.

“As we get bigger, ‘What kind of city do we want to be?’ is sort of an over-arching question,” he said.

“Do we go the way of Park City and Aspen and Boulder and some of the high-amenity and low-affordability cities, or are we still trying to do something different?” he continued. “Are we going to go the Boulder route, or are we going to try to preserve some of the middle-class culture in the city itself?”

“It’s not a question you can answer ‘We want it all,’” he said. “We want it all is not a strategy.”

Hindsight

Mayor Taylor said this week he’s still optimistic about where the planning effort is headed.

“I’m trying to focus on the future,” he said, acknowledging “it’s been delayed, and it’s not been done in exactly the way I would have done it if I were in charge of it.”

“When it’s all said and done,” he said, “we will have spent the money for a product that’s worth it.”

As for Kukulski, the way he sees it a certain level of messiness is inevitable with tough, complex conversations like figuring out what the future should look like for a growing city. He also said he could have done a better job of handling its scheduling given the law and justice center push.

The key, he said, is to judge the effort by the product that comes out of the process — noting he didn’t get the opportunity to finish the job.

“It was messy, and I think there was some real frustration with how messy it was,” he also said. “I wish it wasn’t as messy as it was.”

“In hindsight,” he said, “I wouldn’t do it that way again.”

Eric Dietrich can be reached at 406-582-2628 or edietrich@dailychronicle.com. He is on Twitter at @eidietrich.

Locations

Eric Dietrich covers city government and health for the Chronicle.

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