By Michael Howell
Commissioner Greg Chilcott started the discussion at last Tuesday’s meeting of the Ravalli County Commissioners stating that Ravalli County is only one of three counties to have more than three commissioners. The other two, he said, were the city/county conglomerations of Anaconda/Deerlodge and Butte/Silver Bow. He said the county was spending about $150,000 annually on the two commissioner positions that were added by public initiative back in 2006. He said the public wants to go back to three and it has been a topic of discussion by the board since February 2011. He stated the County Attorney had become “an expert on the matter” of how a transition could occur.
Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht explained that there were only three ways to change the form of local government. One is through the public initiative process. A petition is circulated among the electorate to place the issue on the ballot. This is how the number of commissioners was increased from three to five.
A second way is through the Government Study Commission process. Every ten years state law mandates that the public consider on the ballot whether a government study commission should be created. In a separate decision the electorate votes on the recommendations put forward by the study commission. Recht said that historically the electorate generally approves establishing the study commission but rarely approves the study commission’s recommendations.
The third alternative method of placing the issue on the ballot, according to Recht, is that the Board of County Commissioners may adopt an ordinance putting to the public the question of whether the form of local government should be modified.
“If the third option is chosen, “said Recht, “the County Attorney’s Office has prepared some ballot wording.” He said the ballot language needed to be very precise, avoiding any ambiguities, and that the ballot measure cannot generate any contradictions with other ballot measures.
Recht noted that when changes were last made there were several changes proposed and some people were unsure about how to vote on one issue since it depended on what was chosen by the voters on another issue. Recht said he saw it working with a two part process, first reducing the current commissioner terms to two years and then considering a ballot issue to reduce the number of commissioners to three, each serving six year terms. Following the election the new commission would draw lots to see who got a two-year term, who got a four-year term and who got a six-year term before coming up for future elections. He said it isn’t clear when the three-year moratorium on any future changes, required by law, would begin. Recht said that putting both issues on the same ballot could lead to inconsistent responses by the voters.
Commissioners J.R. Iman and Greg Chilcott are both recent winners in the Republican primary races for the November elections. They have both stated that they would not protest having those terms restricted to two years to facilitate putting the possible reduction of the Board before the voters.
Iman said that 30 % of the people he talks to are asking him what the commissioners are going to do about the issue. He said it was not in the board’s purview to say yes or no on the issue.
“It needs to be well explained and the public needs to decide,” he said.
Commissioner Ron Stoltz expressed concern that if the commissioners put it on the ballot and the number of members was changed and the government study commission was approved in a few years and things were possibly changed back, or changed to some other option, that it would precipitate instability in government and lead to inefficiency.
Commissioner Suzy Foss expressed similar concerns. She wondered if a change of government on the next ballot would actually negate the possibility of making any changes with the government study commission in two years when the law places a three-year moratorium on any changes after one is made.
Recht stated that the study commission might approve making the change after the moratorium expired.
Chilcott said, “We work at this job every day and gain experience in the working of local government.” He said all this work is not always apparent to citizens. But it puts the commissioners in the position, he said, to put the best possible language on the ballot. He said the commissioners were in the best position to make recommendations for making government more cost effective and providing more efficient services.
“Reducing the cost of the County Board of Commissioners by 40% is a good thing,” said Chilcott, “and six-year terms makes sense.”
“I’m not sure we’re saving money,” said Foss. She said the county’s CFO had similar concerns. She said all the things that did not get done by a three-commissioner board need to be considered.
“Look what we’ve accomplished with five,” she said. “We’ve been so productive and involved.” She said that other counties that have only three commissioners also find the need for an Administrator at an additional cost that needs to be considered. She said others have hired a secretary for the Administrator as well. Others report, she said, of having to hire additional Human Resource Officers as well. She said that all of these potential costs need to be considered in the decision.
“I don’t know if I can say three commissioners is the best option if its dollars and cents being considered,” said Foss.
Chilcott said that he knew of two citizens that were ready to carry a petition to place this on the ballot and they would act if the commission didn’t.
“We are better served if we use our expertise to put the best initiative on the ballot,” said Chilcott. “In the absence of that I anticipate citizens doing it, and whether or not they contact us to use our experience in this is unknown. I think we’ll have a better ballot issue and a more informed public if we put it on the ballot.”
Foss expressed concern that the public would interpret it as an endorsement of the three-commissioner option.
Chilcott said that each commissioner could advocate or oppose the ballot issue but that the Board of Commissioners was simply putting it up for public consideration.
Iman said it was the Board’s job to put the facts out but not to decide for the people on the issue.
“We organize the public debate so all the facts come out and legal has a chance to word it in the right way,” said Iman.
In the public comment period David Hurtt recommended that the Commissioners place the reduction of the number of board members to three on the ballot. He said the county was no longer growing and three commissioners were enough to do the job. He said he knew how Chilcott and Iman stood on the issue but he was disappointed that none of the other commissioners would respond to his inquiries on the matter. He said that the Executive Director of MACO had informed him that no other county in Montana was even considering increasing the size of their local government.
Bill Menager, who is one of the three individuals being recommended by the Ravalli County Central Committee to fill former commissioner Matt Kanenwisher’s position on the board, advised waiting for the Government Study Commission process.
“I don’t want to see that kind of flip flop in government,” he said, “We need stability.” He said we don’t know if it is going to save money and the study commission was the best process to investigate all those questions.
Foss said that she was “not uncomfortable putting it on the ballot as long as it is clear that the Board is not advocating one form over the other” but simply providing information. “My feeling is it is too much work for three, but I am willing to have the discussion,” she said.
Chilcott said he believed it would be on the ballot anyway and that the commissioners are in the best position to provide the best language.
Stoltz said that the process should be delayed to allow the replacement appointment for Kanenwisher’s seat to participate.
Chilcott said that delaying it delays the public education process.
If the commissioners decide to pass such an ordinance they would have to hold two public hearings.
The consensus was to move forward but no timeline was established.