WCR: John, welcome to the program:
John: Thank you.
WCR: Could you please start by telling us a little about your background?
John Repke: Well, personally I’ve, you know I grew up in a number of different places. Graduated from a high school in Arizona. Graduated from college in Ohio at Ohio State. Married in Tulsa. Worked in Wyoming. Worked in Oklahoma, then Wyoming, then Colorado, and then Illinois. Worked for oil and gas companies for a while and then waste management, followed by a logistics company supplier to McDonalds. And then back to the environmental services business and now I’m semi-retired. So, I’ve got, we’ve got, three kids, one of our daughters lives in Missoula, one in Chicago, son in Cincinnati and we have a granddaughter in Chicago.
WCR: You’ve only lived in the community full time for about a year, what motivated you to run for the city council?
John Repke: Well, a friend of mine said if you want to know what’s happening in town you should go to city council meetings. So I went to city council meetings and found it very interesting, especially when Haskill Basin came up, and that was being discussed. But as I sat through those meetings I started to believe that I could make a contribution as well. So that’s why I decided to run.
WCR: You stated during the recent candidate forum that your experience as a financial analyst will be a positive asset to the city council. Can you elaborate how this type of experience works to benefit the city?
John Repke: Well I should say, I mean I started as a financial analyst and I was also involved in strategic planning. I ended up being CFO of a couple pretty large companies. But my experience, one thing I know for sure is that what I, most of my career what I did is take financial information and turn it useful information. And I think that I can do that on the City Council as well. So that when I look at something like the city budget, you know I think it’s completely accurate, but it is difficult to understand. So, I think that I can lend some of my expertise to translating that into something meaningful, not only for the board but, for the council but also for the community.
WCR: The reconstruction of city hall is among the more controversial issues in this election cycle. Some in the community believe that it would be cheaper and make more sense to relocate the city hall over by the emergency services building, or elsewhere. The council chose to reconstruct it at its current location with a new parking garage. Would you have done anything different on that issue?
John Repke: Well, it’s difficult to say if I would have done anything different. Because I do think there’s a very long history there and I think if you going to do something different it might have happened years ago. I do think that the people behind this, the community leaders, and the people behind the development of Whitefish have done an outstanding job. I think Whitefish is, is a great community. That’s part of the reason why we’re here, a lot of the reason why we’re here. And, so I think that, if in their judgment after years of debate and deliberation that they settled on that location, I don’t, you know, I feel comfortable with that. So I’m not sure I would have necessarily done anything different. I do think that a City Hall can help diversify the downtown. I think it brings something to downtown. It’s essentially an office building downtown. People will work there. People will visit there and hopefully that’ll continue to support some downtown businesses when, you know, at kind of off peak times. So, I think I can see some benefit to doing that. I think that the challenge now is to make sure that it comes in on budget. It still is a, you know, between the parking garage and the City Hall itself, it’s a major commitment that the city is making. I know it’s, you know, TIF funds will be used so it’s not property taxes, but still, it, between that and some of the other projects that the city is taking on, they’re reducing the flexibility that they’ve had in terms of financing. So now it’s a question of making sure it gets managed properly
WCR: Late in the process those opposed to the city hall decision called for a public referendum on the issue. What are your thoughts on the referendum proposal?
John Repke: Well, not to contradict myself, I think at the forum I said that, I thought that, it would be difficult to manage with everything going to public referendum. I’m not well versed enough in the, you know, the procedural side of it. At what point can something go to public referendum. I know that the city has determined that this is not something that would go to public referendum. I do think that this has been debated for a long time. It’s been through a number of councils, and it’s probably time to move ahead with it, and, you know, just trust in the fact that voice, the community voice has been heard through the many councils’ that have worked their way towards this.
WCR: People lead busy lives and aren’t usually checking the local paper for notices about public meetings and workshops and don’t necessarily have time to attend even if they were aware of them. Mayre Flowers with Citizens for a Better Flathead recently called on the council to improve its public notice process to a high level of excellence and fairness. For those who don’t read the papers for public notices, what other ways can we generate awareness of these meetings and for those who are aware but don’t have time to attend, what alternative ways can they participate in city decisions?
John Repke: Well that’s a, I think that’s a tough question. I think that will probably forever be a problem. I do have the time and because my interest in it I have gone to a number of meetings other than council meetings; budget meetings, city, city hall planning meetings. That type of thing and they are not well attended. In fact even city council meetings, other than when something major is on the agenda, they are very well attended. So, I do think that it’s important for the community to be involved and engaged in their local government. I find that if I go to the website, all of the information is there. There’s a wealth of information. You can drill down and see just about anything you want to see. There’s, quite a bit of transparency I would say in the part of city government. You know, beyond newspapers, websites, you know, radio, you know, postings outside City Hall, I’m not really, I’d have to give that some thought as how you could, you know, continue to reach people. I mean, one thing is, a good civics course in, you know in the maybe junior highs, and high schools where they do spend some time attending, you know, city council, city government type meeting to see how the process works might be a way to get more young people interested early so that they keep that interest.
WCR: Water quality in Whitefish Lake is a concern for most residents and I understand that leaks from septic systems around the lake are a major contributor to water quality problems. There is currently an engineering analysis being completed about options for addressing this, but what actions would you like to see to address it? Do you have any thought on that?
John Repke: Well, I’ve met with, you know, the staff over at the Whitefish Lake Institute, and I think the approach they’re taking is a very rational disciplined approach. I mean, they’re really relying on the science without getting too much ahead of themselves. So I like what they’re doing. I think these preliminary engineering reports are an important step. I think that with that we’ll have more information about how we’re going to deal with the problem. But the problem isn’t just septic. It’s also invasive aquatic species, its runoff, it’s just the development pressure. So the lake, which is extremely important to Whitefish, for recreational purposes, for economic purposes, is under pressure. Because it falls within the city limits of Whitefish, the city government needs to play a role in making sure that it’s, you know, that the water remains, you know, as clean as possible. So there will need to be some difficult discussions and decisions about how to makes sure that happens.
WCR: Following adoption of the Critical Areas Ordinance in 2008 the city and the county engaged in a 6 year battle that eventually led to the Montana Supreme Court awarding the county jurisdiction over regulating development in the so called “doughnut” areas adjacent to the city boundaries. Do you believe it’s important for the city to have authority over development adjacent to city boundaries or have some sort of say or influence over that?
John Repke: Well, I guess I’ll answer that in two parts. First of all, I understand the, you know, being subject to certain regulations without a vote, and that, at the core of the doughnut issue, I think that’s what it came down to. It was regulation without representation. So, I get that. But there’s also, as I understand, a law, you know, a Montana state law that requires that counties take into consideration the cities growth plan when they zone areas that are adjacent to the city. And I just think that makes sense. I mean I don’t know how a city can plan its growth and manage it effectively when you’d have pockets of density outside the city perimeter when the city itself hasn’t fully developed and you know, filled in its open spaces. So in order to effectively manage the growth effectively and efficiently, use the infrastructure of the city, and the services of the city. I do think that it’s important that the country recognize the cities growth plan.
WCR: I know you weren’t necessarily following this at the time here per say during a lot of the things that occurred but to the extent that you’ve looked back on it do you feel there were any mistakes in how the city handled the issue and how it might have handled it differently?
John Repke: I really can’t comment on that. I certainly have been following that issue for a number of years but specifically how the city handled it and what they could have done differently I don’t know.
WCR: What are your ideas for trying to mend relations with the County and achieve a better working relationship over the doughnut issue?
John Repke: Well I do think it’s important that the city and the county have a working relationship and I was happy to see at the last city council meeting that there were signs that that might start to happen when it came to some of the, you know the regulations about zoning and activities around waterways. So I think that’s a step in the right direction, I think that’s very important. Being new to that whole dynamic, I guess I say I have a little bit of an advantage because I don’t have any baggage, any history, and any preconceived biases that are somewhat natural but, you know, I’m really just open to, and hopefully if I’m city council, counter-parts in the county would feel the same way, just open to finding reasonable solutions that are good for both. Because we’re in the county, you know, we have to find a way to work together.
WCR: Earlier this year we had a successful vote on the funding for conserving Haskill Basin. Another new conservation effort has been announced involving Plum Creek lands in the Lazy Creek drainage north of the lake. Do you believe this will also require city funding and, if so, what are your thoughts about it?
John Repke: You know I’m aware of that. I’m not aware of the details behind it. If it’s modeled after Haskill Basin, and I would imagine that it is, I think that’s a good thing, I mean I think that the solution that was ultimately reached for Haskill Basin made sense. I know Haskill Basin, I personally I believe that Haskill Basin is going to be a real asset to the city, obviously for water, but also recreation and view.
WCR: There is currently around $4 million in unallocated Tax Increment Financing or TIF funds that need to be spent by 2020 or it’ll be lost. Could you explain what type of projects you would like to see the funds spent on?
John Repke: Well, I would, you know I’m kind of a conservative finance guy so I would hate to jump to any conclusions at this point. What is unallocated at this point, as I understand it, is the last couple years of that. So we have a couple of years to determine exactly what will be available. Again, we’ve got City Hall and the parking garage we have to deal with and, you know, possibly some other things that might come up. So I’d be a little bit hesitant to jump ahead and commit funds that are still theoretical at this point. You know, that said, the TIF funds are primarily, or their intended to, you know, stimulate economic growth, and support the economy, in particular within the area that the TIF is drawn from. So, I would need to look more closely at what exactly it can be used for. But I do think that anything could help support finding ways to protect the lake would be good. I know some people have mentioned affordable housing and I think that’s a reasonable thing, but again I would want to better understand how the moneys would be used for affordable housing and, you know, once we kind of sort through those things see what we can do. But I’m a little bit, I think right now we need to tackle what, you know, what’s on the plate now before we get too far ahead of ourselves.
WCR: Earlier this year the council adopted the Revised Downtown Master Plan. Most don’t want Whitefish to become another Aspen or Vail. What actions does the city need to take to avoid that and do you believe the Downtown Master Plan supports that vision?
John Repke: Well, I do think it does, and I’ve read through that and also the growth plan and I think they’re both good documents, and I think, you know, as with anything of that size and scale there’s probably no one that agrees with 100% percent of it. But I think generally they’re good tools for guiding policy. You know, I agree that Whitefish is Whitefish because it has the character and the charm that it has and it’s very important that we keep that. It’s, Whitefish is getting recognized all the time; the ski area of course is, but Whitefish itself is also getting recognized as a real, kind of unique place, because of its, the character that it has. So we do need to try to protect that. I lived in a longtime in a town outside of Chicago that ultimately ended up being, you know, essentially overrun by chains, and it kind of lost, it had a, was a 150 year old town. It had a lot of character at one point, but, you know the chains came in, it’s still a nice place, but it certainly doesn’t have the character, so their needs to be effective zoning and effective policy that will keep Whitefish, especially the core downtown area as much as it is as we can.
WCR: So, speaking to the specifics in the plan. The Downtown Master Plan envisions a “boutique” hotel along 1st street between Baker and Central Ave. One of the things people like about our downtown is that it is vibrant and serves locals as much as tourists. Does encouraging a hotel in the center of downtown jeopardize the character and “grit” of Whitefish in your opinion?
John Repke: Well, I wouldn’t say that it necessarily does, I do think that we have to be, yea we would have to take a look at exactly what that is. I mean a small boutique hotel could, you know, it could fit in nicely, I mean, we also need to be very cognizant of not over extending ourselves, you know, we have a limited infrastructure here. We have to make sure that we don’t lose out charm and character by over overloading what we have and we also have to be careful that we don’t oversupply certain businesses and put existing ones at risk.
WCR: The Downtown Master Plan envisions enhanced mixed use and pedestrian friendly development. But this contrasts sharply with the more sprawling, vehicle oriented development south of town along the highway. Do you support the city acting in the future to bring more mixed-use, pedestrian friendly development to the rest of the city so that sprawl doesn’t undermine what we have in our downtown core?
John Repke: Well, I do support you know, anything that allows better pedestrian flow and bike flow. I’m on the bike path & pedestrian path committee and I’m on there because I have an interest in that and do think it’s a real asset to the community. I mean if you look at the beautiful weather we had this summer, I mean if people can get out and walk or run or bike on a network of trails, that’s a real asset to the community, not only for the community, but also for the tourists. We have this wonderful Whitefish Trail system outside of town and it seems almost, you know, inconsistent that within town we have a similar kind of network. So yes, I certainly would like to see something done to continue to build that network. And it’s not, I’m on the bike committee, so I know that it’s, there are challenges in getting that done, and getting easements and that type of thing, but we need to continue to try to do that.
WCR: Workforce housing has become an important issue in this election; but it’s not a new issue to Whitefish and has been frequently brought up in past elections with not a lot of progress being made. How do we go from talk to action on this issue and do you have any ideas that you would bring to the council if elected?
John Repke: Well, you know, I, this is a, you know, it’s a long time issue because it’s a difficult issue. I see it as two separate things. One is what I would call, and what seems to be commonly called called, the workforce housing issue, which is finding, in that regard competing against other communities to get people in here during the busy seasons to staff the businesses so that they can stay open and operate and be successful. That is, you know, that issue is primarily a business issue and I went to the work, the affordable housing summit, and the, one of the things that came out of that meeting is that business leaders would get together, especially ones that, you know, the larger employers, get together and talk about what they could do to address that problem, and I think that is absolutely step one, and the thing that needs to happen, for that elements of the problem. On the other side is just, is the idea that, a community has more character when it has more diversity and I think that’s absolutely true with Whitefish, but housing prices are starting to squeeze out, you know, the teachers and nurses and police and firemen and that, you know, those people, and it’s a healthier community when they can live in the town that they work in. But that’s a more difficult problem. I know there’s been some efforts made. The current program that the city runs with the density bonus has not been successful so we need to look at other ways to make it work. We’re not the only community that’s ever faced this issue, and at the affordable housing summit, there was, Jackson Hole was used to, as an example of a community that has implemented some programs and has been able to increase, at least somewhat the percentage of people that can live and work in the community. So, we need to look at the other communities. I don’t know that, I would say that, do I have any ideas, I think that step one with an idea is to look around and see what else has been successful and see if that, programs in those communities would work here in Whitefish, and if so, start from there. That’s what I would try to do.
WCR: While other candidates focused on light manufacturing as a way to stimulate economic growth, you differentiated yourself at the recent candidate forum by referencing office employers such as CH Robinson as jobs that can help sustain and grow our economy. What do you see as the advantages of these types of office or tech jobs as opposed to manufacturing jobs?
John Repke: Well, again, as a former CFO, I have to say that I, and one that worked in fairly heavy duty businesses, maybe I’m a little bit biased, but I look at Whitefish right now, and we have a shortage of workforce as we just discussed, we do have rail, but otherwise logistics are somewhat of a challenge, we have high property values, state of Montana has a relatively high income tax, so when I think about bringing manufacturing or something, an industrial process company, to Whitefish, within the borders of the city of Whitefish, I think we’re chasing something that we might not get. And I could, you know, I would stay open minded if somebody proposed something that seemed to fit. We would certainly listen to it and consider it, but I think that that’s, you know we’re, we’d be heading down a path that we may never get where we want to be. I think that, I think there is, there may be more diversity in this town than we realize, I mean I know this is anecdotal, but I do know several people that work out of their home, and their income, and their activities are tied to areas outside the city of Whitefish and I think that’s kind of the definition of economic diversity and I’d like to better understand, you know, those kind of situations, I’d also, and I do as I said with a company like CH Robinson, I think this is, this type of town works well for something, a business like that, where there is a very high quality of life for the employees there. Their business is not related to Whitefish itself, at all, but it’s successful. You know, it provides reasonably well paying jobs to a number of people who then re-invest in the community, whether it’s through housing or just local spending. So, I think there is, there are opportunities for diversity, again I’m a little bit cautious about too much on the manufacturing industrial services type businesses, but, you know, let’s create an environment where companies want to come here the see what happens.
WCR: Cities across Montana, including Billings, Bozeman, Helena and Missoula, have adopted climate action plans to evaluate their contribution to climate change, and to devise goals by which they plan to become “carbon neutral.” Would you support a locally crafted climate action plan for the city?
John Repke: Well, I, in general yes, you know I worked for companies where we made efforts to find more fuel efficient, you know, operate trucks off of propane, you know, find ways to do things more fuel efficiently, try to be more responsible as a corporate citizen in the communities, and think that that extends to the city itself and I think we should be cognizant of what the impact is, the city itself has on the environment, I would, I think when you look around this community one of the real amenities is the fact that we live in an absolutely beautiful place, with a phenomenal natural environment and we should be respectful of that and we should do what we can as a city to protect it.
WCR: We spoke before the start of the interview about recycling and I wasn’t necessarily going to ask about this but we do have a little bit of time, and given your background in waste management you’d be a good person to ask. We don’t have a municipal recycling program here. We have some private efforts. Is it possible for the city of Whitefish to have a municipal recycling program, would you support it, do you have ideas on how to make that happen.
John: Well, I absolutely support a municipal recycling program. I think the question is, is mandatory curbside recycling the way to go and I know that that’s being considered right now. Personally, we’ve recycled some twenty some-odd years and we, I went to one of the recycling stations today as a matter of fact to drop off the recycling. So, I believe that recycling is the responsible right thing to do. How do you do it is another question. I know they city was looking at a 15 dollar per month costs for curbside recycling and I would say that seems like quite a bit. I mean, I think that would, I’m going to backtrack here affordable housing a little bit. We have to be cognizant of what, it’s expensive to live in this town, housing is part of it, but let’s make sure that we don’t, and water rights are high, and if recycling is high we start squeeze things from both sides, we have to be, we have to think about that. I’m going to say this without having done the analysis on it, so I don’t know if it’s the right solution or not, but I think it would be interesting to explore a true recycling facility, rather than these little drop off locations that we have. At the place I went to this morning there were three bags of trash left right outside the recycling containers. Now, for the people that live in the neighborhood there that seems like that could bring in rodents, obviously bears, and it’s just not a well-managed process for recycling, and I think that it might be worth exploring a true, you know, well lit, paved, well drained to a, some kind of a filter, monitored recycling facility where people could come in, recycle, the cardboard container wouldn’t be overflowing and you could do your recycling, and if it was monitored people wouldn’t be dropping trash off and type of thing. But I would interested in seeing that explored before we head down the path of mandatory recycling. Again, I’m a full supporter of recycling, but I want to make sure we do this right. In this community the amount that you pay for your trash does not include the disposal costs; it’s just the hauling costs. So, in some communities when you implement a recycling program you would see a reduction in your disposal costs for your trash that would offset the increase for cost of curbside collection and recycling, and we don’t have that here so it would be a complete add-on without any netting. So, I think it’s absolutely something we need to think about, we need to explore, but at this point I’m not convinced that mandatory curbside is the way to go.
WCR: Last question. How would you differentiate yourself from the other candidates running for city council?
John Repke: Well, for one, I have a, you know, I’ve been in business for a long time, you know, over 30 years. I’ve been on the finance side, so I do think I bring something unique there that isn’t currently on the council and I think that can make a difference. I mean, everything, I mean, not everything, but a lot of things like we’ve talked about whether it be affordable housing or recycling, or what to do with the TIF funds, it just, a lot of things come down to the finance side of it, you know, what does it cost, how are we going to fund it, that type of thing. And that’s something I have a lot of experience with, that, and as I mentioned earlier, translating that financial data into information that can be used by the council as well as the community. So, I think I bring something there. I also, admittedly I’m the newest to town, even though we’ve been part-time residents for a number of years, who are, full-time we’re new and while that doesn’t maybe give me all of the history, it does, I do bring a perspective from other communities I’ve lived in and other things that I’ve seen. And I’ve had an interest in city government for a long time so I paid attention to this type of thing and I think that that brings something as well.
WCR: Great, well John thank you so much coming in and speaking with us.
John Repke: Well. Thank You.