Helena swears in new mayor Collins, commissioners Haladay, O’Loughlin

(HELENA) A crowd filled the Montana State Capitol rotunda Tuesday morning, to watch the swearing-in of Helena’s newest city leaders.

Among those officially taking office was Wilmot Collins, the city’s first new mayor in 16 years.

“I am excited,” he said. “I’m looking forward to meeting with the people of Helena, and listening to our issues and working through them.”

Collins was joined by City Commissioners Andres Haladay – starting his second term – and Heather O’Loughlin – elected for the first time. District Judge Mike Menahan administered the oath of office to all three.

Leaders from Gov. Steve Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney to county commissioners and local lawmakers were in attendance, along with the mayor and commissioners’ families, friends, co-workers and supporters.

Collins became mayor after narrowly defeating four-term incumbent Jim Smith in November’s elections. His victory immediately drew national attention because of his unique life story. Born in Liberia, he came to Helena with his wife more than 20 years ago, while their home country was in the middle of a civil war. Today, he works as a child protection specialist with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services and serves in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Historians believe he will be the first black mayor to serve officially in Helena and in the state of Montana.

Collins has called the time since his election a “whirlwind.” By Tuesday morning, he was beginning to lose his voice.

“It has been busy, but you know what? For the people of Helena, I’ll do it again,” he said.

O’Loughlin, Helena’s new city commissioner, is the co-director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center. She said she’s grateful for the opportunity to serve the city.

“I’ve got a lot that I’m hoping to accomplish, and I’m excited to work with fellow commissioners to get things done,” said O’Loughlin.

Haladay, an attorney, was first elected to the city commission in 2013 and won reelection in November. He spoke to the people of Helena, whether or not they supported his candidacy.

“We’re here to work for you over the next four years and listen to you and work with you and figure out how to keep making Helena a better place,” he said.

Collins, Haladay and O’Loughlin ran together in the November elections as a self-described “progressive slate” of candidates. They’ve promised to tackle big issues facing Helena, from affordable housing to funding for fire and police protection.

But Collins said he understands city leaders need to work on residents’ everyday concerns, like snow plowing, as well.

“My email is so packed right now from issues on snow removal, it’s been crazy,” he said. “We’ve got to get to the table and talk.”

After his election, Collins was invited to take part in a seminar at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, along with other newly-elected mayors from around the country. He said it was valuable to meet and talk with other people facing the same challenges he will.

“It brought some sense of calm to me, knowing that Helena issues are not only Helena’s issues – it’s nationwide,” he said.

The new mayor and city commissioners will begin their work this week. They will take part in an administrative meeting Wednesday, then have their first official commission meeting next Monday night.

During Tuesday’s ceremonies, Collins reached out to city employees, the city and county commissions and the Helena community.

“I open my arms,” he told them. “I’m ready to work with you.”