MISSOULA — The president of the Missoula City Council said she’s ready and willing to fill in as mayor if needed once Mayor John Engen begins treatment for cancer later next week.
Under city regulations, Gwen Jones would step in as mayor on a temporary basis if Engen were to take a leave of absence. Jones represents Ward 3 and was elected council president earlier this year.
“There are different levels of stepping in. Right now, it’s just to support him by taking anything off his plate that we’re able to,” Jones said Wednesday evening. “With treatments, if he’s either out of town or not up to working in person, I can easily cover anything that needs to be covered.”
Ginny Merriam, the city’s communications director, said the City Council president has in the past stepped in to serve as mayor on a temporary basis. Former council president Marilyn Marler did so roughly five years ago when Engen was recovering from illness.
Jones is ready to do the same if called upon, though her thoughts are on the mayor’s health.
“I’m pretty involved already. This would be a little more, but it’s fine,” she said. “My son is a freshman in college, and everyone is out of the house. I put a lot of time into council because I like it and I can. I’m glad to be able to step up right now to help in any way because this is a big one.”
Engen earlier this week announced that he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and will begin treatment next week after consulting with an oncologist. Jones would only step in if Engen were to step away at some point during treatment.
The mayor has stated his intention to stay on the job but added that he may have to divest some duties. In the event that Engen resigned, the City Council would be called upon to elect a new mayor to finish Engen’s term.
“I don’t know that we’ll all vote unanimously on things, but (council) is a good group of people. Given the seriousness of the situation and how important the mayor is to this community, I imagine everyone on this council understands how important it is to work together. It’s our job to keep the city running and be a functional council. I think we are a functional council, and everyone understands how important it is to remain functional,” Jones said.
Like Merriam, Jones said the city has a number of solid leaders who are able to keep things flowing smoothly. The city recently hired a new COO while Dale Bickell, the city’s CAO, is well versed in city affairs after so many years.
Jones and council vice president Jordan Hess also have tenure and bring some institutional knowledge to the table.
“We have a deep bench on council. We’ve got a lot of good people,” Jones said. “We’ve got a centrist core and we have good department heads and can pick up the slack wherever we can.”