By Michael Howell
Three County Commissioners took the oath of office last Monday, December 31. Jeff Burrows, who was appointed to serve temporarily following the resignation of former Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher, was elected in November to continue in that seat. Burrows defeated Democratic candidate John Ormiston and Independent candidate Nancy Joy Valk for the job. Burrows was recently selected as Chairman of the Board. Commissioner J.R. Iman, who ran unopposed in the last election, will serve another four-year term as will Commissioner Greg Chilcott, who beat his Democratic rival Dave Smith in the last election.
Comparatively new to the Board of Commissioners, Jeff Burrows said, “So far I’m mainly just trying to keep my feet under me.” He said he was mostly learning about the Board’s policies and procedures. Burrows said that the adoption of the Large Predator Policy and the Natural Resource Policy were steps in the right direction. He said Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Julie King’s stated concerns about the county’s efforts at “coordination” are based on a misconception.
“She is talking about Coordination with a capital “C” and County Supremacy. You don’t see county supremacy anywhere in these documents,” said Burrows.
As far as the future goes, Burrows said there is the fight over the proposed Water Rights Compact Agreement between the state, the federal government and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Burrows said that one side was claiming that it would have no effects on water rights. But the other side claims it is opening a “Pandora’s Box.” Burrows sides with the latter.
“They took the Hellgate Treaty and the aboriginal fishing rights and made it a claim for ‘instream flows’,” said Burrows. He expressed concerns about how hunting rights were going to be interpreted. He said this agreement was just with the Salish-Kootenai on the Flathead Reservation but he was concerned that other tribes may eventually be involved.
Burrows said that if you look at it from simply the perspective of Ravalli County, it appears to be a good deal.
“But on the whole our neighbors to the north may have water rights in jeopardy,” he said.
Burrows said that he anticipated weighing in at the Legislature over proposed changes in the “exempt well” provisions in the state’s water rights regulations. He did not elaborate.
Commissioner J.R. Iman said that he thought one of the most significant actions taken by the Board of Commissioners in recent years was adoption of a Zero Based Budget. He said after the first year of implementation things seem to be going well.
Iman was also proud about the upgrades made to the 911 Center.
“The improvements we made there will take the county into the next twenty years, without adding any cost to the taxpayer,” he said.
Iman noted that the county also got a facility for the Ravalli County Search and Rescue as well as a facility for mental health services that both serve essential public needs.
“There are some levels of service that we simply can’t afford,” said Iman, “but I think the public understands we have to live within our means. Everybody is learning to do more with less and government is no exception.”
Iman said the passage of the Predator Policy and the Natural Resource Policy were important achievements.
“When it comes to water,” Iman said, “there are water problems on the horizon and though it is not necessarily a direct responsibility of county government, we’ve got to protect our water. We need to be sure our needs are met and not sold down the river.”
Iman said that the Board needed to move forward with the airport upgrades. He said an alternative had been chosen that would not allow larger aircraft as some people feared.
“We need to protect the people living to the south and improve safety for the pilots,” said Iman. “We’ve been at this for ten years, it’s time to move forward.”
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said that one good thing about the re-election of the three incumbents was the chance for continuity.
“We will have some continuity that will allow us to continue refining county policy,” he said.
“One thing I’m really excited about,” said Chilcott, “is the passage of the Natural Resource Policy and the Large Predator Policy, both of which better define the county’s position on a multitude of impacts and effects of decisions being made by the federal government.” He said the policies will help the county preserve its history and protect its culture, customs and economy.
“Hopefully in the next two years we will have finished codifying our ordinances,” said Chilcott. He said the county was working hard on economic development issues through the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority.
Chilcott was recently elected President of the Montana Association of Counties. He said he will be directly involved with the legislative issues affecting counties across the state but that he never takes off his hat as Ravalli County Commissioner either and will be speaking up about issues facing Ravalli County.
He said one looming issue was the huge deficit in the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). He said it would take a lot of work and a lot of cooperation to find a solution.
Also sworn into office on the last day of the year were the new Clerk of District Court Paige Allen Trautwein and County Treasurer Marie Keeton.
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