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McNew joins Libby City Council

by DERRICK PERKINS
Daily Inter Lake | September 24, 2021 7:00 AM

Local businessman Zachariah McNew joined the Libby City Council on Sept. 20, taking Mayor Peggy Williams’ former seat.

McNew was one of two candidates already running for a city council seat in the November election to get an interview for the vacant spot. Melissa Berke, who still will appear on the municipal ballot, also applied for the open position.

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Zacharia McNew is sworn in as a Libby city councilor Sept. 20. (Derrick Perkins/The Western News)

A third man, Garrey Allen, expressed interested, but did not submit a completed application prior to the special meeting. City officials said a family emergency kept Allen from finalizing the documentation prior to the Sept. 16 deadline. City councilors Rob Dufficy and Hugh Taylor argued for moving ahead with the appointment process sans Allen, citing the incomplete application.

Ultimately, city councilors split 3-2 in favor of making McNew a new colleague. The owner of Town and Country Property Management as well as several other ventures, McNew touted his business experience and involvement in local organizations, including the Rotary Club, during his interview.

He listed housing, employment and channeling future economic growth as his main concerns. The outside world has discovered Libby, he said, but at the same time locals are struggling to find jobs and keep their homes.

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City Councilor Zachariah McNew, center, gets up to speed with help from Libby City Clerk and Treasurer Samuel Sikes at a Sept. 20 meeting. (Derrick Perkins/The Western News)

“I see Libby at another crossroad of change,” he said. “I see Libby’s been found. We’ve been discovered. People know we’ve got great mountains and fishing and great people. But we don’t have housing. We need housing; we need jobs.”

As a city councilor, McNew said he hoped to leverage his background to foster new business ventures in Libby. He also hoped to improve communication between community groups, specifically those focused on economic development.

Asked by Taylor to identify Libby’s top challenge, McNew said finding support for reinvesting in the community.

“There are a lot in our community that are stuck in the old ways,” he said. “We’ve got to start building back into our community, so our youth will stay here and keep moving forward.”

In a slight nod to the debate earlier this year around the Cabinet View Golf Club’s since-repaid loan from City Hall, McNew said previous officials had not fully availed themselves of opportunities.

“In years past, things have happened that could have been handled better,” he said.

The golf club was one of several businesses and organizations to benefit from an $8 million economic development pot the city received from the federal government in the early 2000s. Very little of the money, which was doled out in grants and loans, made it back to city coffers. Earlier this year, the golf club paid back its $1.54 million loan for the development of its back nine in exchange for a $541,000 city grant to help pay for a new clubhouse.

“We got a lot of money at one time and it could have been handled better,” McNew said.

City councilors asked similar questions of Berke, who described herself as a Libby native, mother and entrepreneur.

“… I’m in it for the long haul and I’m here to make Libby better if I can,” she said.

Berke told city councilors she had begun attending meetings when practicable to keep up on current matters before the body. She also went through the municipal budget with City Clerk and Treasurer Samuel Sikes.

“I’m trying to learn,” she said. “I’ll learn as much as I can if you guys appoint me.”

Like McNew, Berke cited housing and employment as the most pressing needs in Libby. She harkened back to Libby’s past, when many residents worked in the mines or the timber industry.

“Our housing costs are rising. We need higher paying jobs,” she said. “We need industry here; we don’t have that anymore.”

Though several residents were in attendance, none opted to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Dufficy opened the nomination process by putting Berke’s name forward. City Councilor Gary Beach nominated McNew. He was joined by city councilors Brian Zimmerman and Kristin Smith. Taylor sided with Dufficy in backing Berke.

McNew took the oath of office immediately following the 3-2 vote and joined city councilors for their regularly scheduled 7 p.m. meeting that same evening.

Despite his ascension, McNew said Sept. 22 that he will continue to campaign for a city council seat during this fall’s election. In an interview after the appointment, McNew said he appreciated the selection, but would prefer a full term. It also was too late to remove his name from the ballot, he said.

“It’s great to be appointed to a two-year term, but I would still like to win an election for a four-year term,” he said.

Were he to win, McNew said he would give up his current seat. That leaves McNew, Berke and resident Darrel “DC” Orr vying against incumbents Beach, Dufficy and Smith on the November ballot.