UM Public Administration Student Connects Residents With City

A picture of Ashley Brittner Wells
Ashley Brittner Wells, a student in UM’s Department of Public Administration and Policy, is gaining valuable experience as a community engagement specialist for the City of Missoula. 

MISSOULA – Engaging with city government can be difficult for residents if they don’t feel they have a meaningful voice. This is where University of Montana student Ashley Brittner Wells comes in.

Brittner Wells is the new community engagement specialist for the City of Missoula’s Office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation. Her role in this position is to help the government interface with Missoula’s residents.

“I get to focus on helping people engage with city government,” said Brittner Wells, a student in the Department of Public Administration and Policy of UM’s Baucus Institute. “This opens up conversations between the city and people who may feel they don’t have the ability to reach out on their own.”

She has worked a variety of different jobs, all within the public and nonprofit sectors.

“I have always liked working with the public, and every job I’ve had has involved being a liaison with the community,” Brittner Wells said. “I feel lucky to connect the public with public service. I grew up in East Missoula and went to college here. I wanted to engage with the community I grew up in.”

While Brittner Wells had many of the skills needed for this position, extra training from the Baucus Institute’s inaugural Baucus Leaders Montana Program helped her take these skills to the next level.

The Baucus Institute Department of Public Administration and Policy is housed within the Alexander Blewett III School of Law. DPAP provides an innovative public service education for pre-career and in-career public and nonprofit administration students.

“Our Montana Baucus Leader Program affords students opportunities to use their skills from the classroom to connect during applied summer learning experiences,” said Dr. Sara Rinfret, the MPA director. “Our goal is to carry out Sen. Baucus’ commitment to public service. Ashley’s Baucus Leader experience provided her with additional skills and connections to land a new position to be a leader for city government.”

“When I found out about the certificate of public administration, the first two weeks of class had me hooked,” Brittner Wells said. “The program coalesced the skills I already had, and then sharpened them. I am able to utilize the skills learned in class on a daily basis in my position with the city.”

She took part in a mentorship program with Missoula County and a fellowship with her future boss, Eran Pehan, through the Baucus Leaders Montana fellowship at the City of Missoula

 “You are learning with working professionals in class, and the mentorship portion gives you connections and helps you see the bigger picture,” Brittner Wells said.

Pehan is the director of Community Planning, Development and Innovation for the City of Missoula.

“Ashley brings a wealth of skills – both natural experience and from the Baucus Institute,” Pehan said. “She approaches this position with a bigger-picture view of how a community works. It is unique to be able to take a 10K view of a situation and be able to get into the weeds to get things done.

“These skills make her very effective. She has the ability to listen to citizens, build relationships and coordinate people around issues. She doesn’t shy away from conflict; she leans into it, providing people a voice.”

The Office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation promotes equitable growth in a sustainable community. It creates plans on homelessness, climate change and national policies at a local level.

“We study growth in the city and are making sure we grow with an equitable and inclusive lens,” Pehan said. “We want to make sure that as Missoula grows, no one is left behind. Ashley is learning new skills through DPAP and then turns around and applies them. We get to try new things and see how they work. It is an incredible example of how real-world experience pairs with academic experience.”

In reflecting on this new position, Pehan sees the benefit of having a longer-term approach in working with the community.

“Before Ashley’s position, we only interfaced with the public on a project-by-project basis,” Pehan said. “Now there is one person overseeing all projects. This will develop into an institutional knowledge that connects the dots and makes us more effective as public employees. It makes people feel connected to the local government in a way they haven’t felt before. Government makes better decisions when citizens are involved.”

As for Brittner Wells: “I feel lucky to be a part of the department. This position is very exciting. People in our community are interested and want to be engaged. I get to help tell those stories and share those concerns and get to connect people. People know what they want. It is more about getting them to the table than being their representative.

“It’s about empowering people.”


Contact: Phil Stempin; director of events, marketing and communications; UM Blewett III School of Law;; 406-243-6509.