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Missoula City Attorney: Legislative meddling from Helena quashing city’s right to self govern

The Missoula City Attorney has joined other city officials from Montana’s metropolitan regions in criticizing the Legislature’s recent attempt to eliminate towns’ self-government powers, even as its members condemn federal overreach from the nation’s capital.

Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent issued a legal opinion last week intended to “inform and provide” local elected officials with clear insight into what many are now describing as the long arm of the Montana Legislature, citing a long list of bills that preempted ordinances adopted by self-governing cities.

“There is now a pattern forming in which state legislatures across the United States are more often and with more breadth, subject wise, preempting local government authority and power concerning local community matters,” Nugent said in a Friday legal opinion.

Nugent’s complaints echo those of Missoula Mayor John Engen, certain members of the City Council, and all three Missoula County commissioners. The latter has expressed dissatisfaction with recent legislative activity and its heavy-handed drive to limit municipal rules and regulations.

On rare occasions, lawmakers from eastern Montana have taken issue with specific Missoula rules and successfully campaigned to modify state law, preempting the will of a majority of local voters.

“There have been multiple examples of state preemption that have directly harmed the City of Missoula in recent decades,” Nugent said. “There had previously been quite a broad range of the state of Montana engaging in Missoula City Council and Missoula community concerns.”

Previously, Missoula attempted to implement background checks for most gun transactions and transfers inside city borders. It has also covered municipal construction standards and amateur radio antenna requirements.

However, during the 2021 session, with Republicans having a substantial majority in both the House and Senate and all state positions, a slew of measures repealed a city’s right to self-government.

Among these, the Legislature stripped a local health officer of the ability to take specific steps during a public health emergency, such as the present epidemic. According to Nugent, it also deprived municipal governments “any jurisdiction to prevent the sale of alternative nicotine products or vapor products.”

The Legislature also denied local governments the ability to levy carbon taxes, barred “discrimination” based on a person’s vaccination status, and restricted the use of masks. It also rejected a voter-approved bill imposing a 2-cent fuel tax, even though the 1979 Legislature established that jurisdiction.

“The 2021 Montana State Legislature acted proactively in nearly a half-dozen topics of prospective local government regulatory interest and potential regulatory interest to certain Missoulians,” Nugent said.

Mayor John Engen Nugent of Missoula is not alone in his worries. Last year, Missoula Mayor John Engen said that towns and counties around Montana have campaigned for acceptable local sovereignty under the state Constitution.

However, he claims that the Legislature has tried to curtail local autonomy in recent years while strengthening its responsibilities.

“When lawmakers from far-flung parts of Montana impose their views over those of local authorities,” Engen said, “such acts seem to fly in the face of the spirit and text of our Constitution.”

Missoula County commissioners have also spoken up. Members of the Montana Republican Party have proudly pushed for state rights, demanding the freedom to create their laws and regulations free of influence from Washington, D.C.

Many others, including Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, have questioned the hypocrisy.

“They fight about getting the federal government off the state’s back and giving greater decision-making authority to local governments, but they’re doing the exact opposite,” Strohmaier recently said. “The link is thin at best if people assert that the choices we make locally here have a negative influence on another jurisdiction across the state.”