Mayor’s address carries cautious optimism

The message was one of optimism from Red Lodge Mayor Mike Schoenike for the work completed and the tasks ahead and of inroads made in the city’s physical infrastructure to more open and informative local government.
Schoenike’s 10 minute-long State of the City Address at last week’s council meeting effectively highlighted the highs and lows of running a day-day business such as a city.

“When I joined the City Council in 2011, I believed that we had numerous issues, both real and perceived. When I took over as Mayor approximately ten months ago, after five and a half years on the City Council, I believed that we had made substantial progress on both fronts, but that our biggest challenges lay in the realm of perception,” he said.

“Today I know that we have made very significant improvements in all aspects of the City Government of Red Lodge over the past 8 years. And… we still have a tremendous number of issues to address and an enormous amount of work to do.”

He talked of the “dated and crumbling physical infrastructure” being gradually replaced and the City website being updated to includes regular postings of agendas, minutes, and supporting documents.

“The City shares information via Facebook and an email distribution list. It is easier now to learn about what is happening in Red Lodge government than it ever has been before,” said Schoenike.

He hopes to keep improving the email systems, and having more frequent press releases and summaries of on-going projects and educational videos to improve public disclosure even more.

“Today, the Red Lodge code is organized, published, and available both at City Hall and on-line. Anyone may inspect and debate the current code. While much has been done in recent years to improve and update the code, there are still numerous sections that need to be examined and revised. The code should reflect the desires of the people who live, work, and play here. The code should let members of this community know not only what they can expect from one another, but also what they should be able to expect from their local government.”
He also talked of services being supported with minimal additional tax levies, saying “These improved services have come despite average general fund property tax revenue changing by barely more than ½ of the rate of inflation.”

But even with this “belt tightening and these increased efficiencies, there is a perception that tax dollars are being misused.”

Schoenike’s view was the “City must do a better job of presenting and explaining the budget in formats that are simple to read and easy to understand.”
He told the audience that the next proposed budget will come with strategic plans that have been developed to help guide the budgeting process.

“I do not want to simply base each year’s budget upon the spending of the previous year. Rather we have committed to setting goals that each department must work towards. These plans and their corresponding budgets will continue to include the expected day-to-day services, but they will also include goals for ongoing improvements,” he said.

“As the budget approval and modification process moves forward, we will also be presenting these budgets to the public in a new format that we believe will be easier to read and much simpler to understand. We hope that this will help the public to better understand where their money is being used,” said Schoenike.

He praised the City staff saying they are an “excellent group of employees who do tremendous work for the people of this community. I am proud to work with all of them and stand behind them in their efforts.”

Schoenike in a move to set the tone for the future he publicly apologized to council member Andrew Dimich.

“Earlier this year, a request for information was made by Councilman Dimich. There was a miscommunication on my part and I came to believe that the request would require considerably more effort than it did. As a result the discussion escalated far further than ever needed. I take full responsibility for this mistake. While I take very seriously my obligations to both support and defend the staff as well as hold them accountable, I would like to publicly apologize to Mr. Dimich for allowing that particular situation escalate farther than it should have.”

Looking ahead Shoenike wants to “create and maintain a bright line dividing between the legislative roles of the Council and the executive roles of the Mayor and Staff” but with a “need to clearly define the tools for each to hold the other accountable.”

“In the past year, we have implemented numerous ways for the Council to be better informed about executive actions and staff spending. I have helped pushed for some of these measures in part because since becoming Mayor, I have realized that in the past some decisions were made solely by the executive that should have at the very least included portions of the Council.”
“I believe that we need to put systems in place to ensure that both the Mayor and the Council have the checks and balances required to hold the other accountable,” he said.

“What is the State of the City of Red Lodge? I would love to tell you all that everything is smooth sailing and that we have fixed all of the problems. That simply is not the case though…We must continue to address those problems and we must continue to look for creative ways to fund those projects. Perhaps more importantly though, for all of the physical infrastructure improvements that have been deferred and neglected, there are just as many needs in administration, public access to records, and accountability that have also been neglected,” he said.

“As Red Lodge is the 'Base Camp to the Beartooths,' so too should we look at each improvement as the base camp to working towards our next achievement,” said Schoenike.