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Mayor Schoenike “optimistic” about the future

By: 
Alastair Baker
News Editor

Mike Schoenike is happy with his 14-month tenure as Mayor of Red Lodge. Although he admits that after spending five years on the council and nine years on the planning board the experience is akin to stepping into the ocean.
“You don’t realize how much more you are stepping into with the mayor’s job. You’ve been in the ocean and you know you’re walking out and walking out and all of a sudden you take that next step and the water is way over your head. You go ‘There’s more too this than I thought,’” Schoenike laughed.
“It’s felt like a long time but in other ways it’s like, is it up already? But I think in those 14-16 months I feel we’ve gotten some good things done. Even just with the staff,” he said.
“We’re doing things that we’ve never done before. In the spring we went to the Club House on the Golf Course and had lunch and talked about what other departments are doing. We are going to have a Christmas party and that has never been done. It is to connect and to recognize the staff, and acknowledge they do a lot of work and we appreciate the hard work,” he said.
Schoenike feels he has the temperament and strength to see through another term in a job that requires “time and commitment.”
“It takes a willingness and ability to sort through a lot of different viewpoints and not obviously have the answer predetermined. And a pretty thick skin,” he said.
To anyone coming on board be it as Mayor or a council member Schoenike offers a words of advice.’
“It takes a while to understand how many different sides there are to every issue. Over the years all sorts of stuff that has come up. You have to balance the different groups and maintain fairness for everybody,” he said.
Schoenike is proud of the public conversation he’s encouraged at council meetings, something he says his predecessors Ed Williams and Brian Roat “were not huge proponents of.”
“One of the things I did when I took over is to give people lots of opportunities to speak and I certainly am that,” he said.
As to it’s effectiveness Schoenike says “I think there are probably some people who take advantage of it and I have staff and council members say ‘You don’t have to do that’ and I don’t do it because the state statue say I have to, I do it because I think it is the right thing.”
“I think we get better answers in the end if we hear opinions and people with better ideas. There’ s a lot of value to letting people speak. A lot of times even in the accusations there is sometimes a good idea hidden in there,” he said.
“One of the best things we’ve done since I became Mayor is put together the budget presentation documents. Here is where the money is coming from and where it is going. Does it make it easier to see we spent 2/3 of the budget on pay roll? Yes, we sure do. 2/3 of the City’s general fund goes to pay roll,” said Schoenike.
“We have an auditor come in every year and we’ve just replaced the auditor, not because we have a problem, but I think there is some value to bringing in another auditor,” he said.
Highlighting the budget in such a way also helps explain that obtaining capital and grants isn’t always as easy as the public thinks, he implied.
“There are elaborate sets of rules about where the money comes from and where it goes. It’s a lot of work, not only in trying to get them and especially the state run grants, there’s a lot of administrative hoops that people don’t think about,” he said.
The same issue arises with projects. In recent months complaints about the slowness of the N.Haggin Water project have been heard at the council meetings. To this Schoenike comments that people are “getting water and we are testing the water” and that the $2 million project is tied to funding issues.
Amid all this Schoenike admits to being “worried” about the prospect of Red Lodge being unable to attract suitable and qualified personnel after a recent spate of resignations.
“Honestly I think you’d be foolish not to ask this question,” he said of future candidates.
He is obviously disappointed in losing the Community Development Director Peter Italiano who worked with the Public Works Department on the varies projects the City has lined up.
“When Forest (Sanderson) left we never thought we’d find a resource like this again and we got lucky and found Peter. And he was even better. And now we’re losing him,” he said. “He and Loni (Hanson) cleaned up a lot of old ordinances and resolutions and made them easier to find.”
He countered recent criticism about moving the Mayor’s office upstairs saying that the original office was a “hallway” and “not appropriate for doing a number of things like confidential meetings with personnel.”
The old mayor’s office has since become a break/resource room where the public can go and look through any ordinance and resolution.
“If someone wants to meet with me, or anyone else, we will come down and meet them in the council chamber,” said Schoneike.
Schoenike is “Optimistic” about the next two years “about some of the things we can get done.”
“We’re turning the corner. We will hire a new police chief, and moving forward, think about what community policing means in this town,” he said.
He wants to see officers on the street and doing bar walks but they need training in this aspect.
“Have we trained them for this? Do they come across as friendly and approachable? Or are they coming across as aggressive or defensive or problematic?” he said.
Regarding his opponent, Bill Larson, Schoenike is “concerned” that Larson was a council member who resigned his position but “He doesn’t talk about this.”
Schoenike says he’s taken his “beatings in the last 14 months” but “At the end of the day I do the best I can with the same philosophy I’ve had all along; I don’t know if I will make the best decisions but I’m always going to have a rational explanation for the decisions that I make.”
“I don’t think that any question is forever closed. If we make a mistake let’s revisit it and make it better. We put a lot of time and energy into the situation in the first place,” said Schoenike.

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