By Michael Howell
At a meeting last Thursday, the County Commissioners discussed the possibility of placing the issue of reducing the number of commission seats from five to three on the ballot in the upcoming elections in November. At the end of about two hours of discussion and public comment a motion was made to schedule the First Reading of the proposed ordinance that would place the issue on the ballot. It was only after a few members of the public raised a question about the timing and the deadline for placing anything on the ballot that it became evident that it was already too late. State law requires adequate public notice of the first reading of an ordinance and at least 12 days between the first and second reading of the ordinance. There is not sufficient time to complete the process by the August 21 deadline for placing any issue on the November ballot.
At the beginning of the meeting, Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht noted that there are three ways to alter the form of local government. A Local Government Study Commission can be formed and place an issue on the ballot. An issue may be placed on the ballot by public petition. Or the county commissioners can pass an ordinance placing an issue on the ballot.
“Ultimately, no matter what process is used, it goes to the electors in order to be adopted,” said Recht. He said if it is done by ordinance the law requires two readings to be held at least 12 days apart.
Commissioner Suzy Foss said one thing that bothered her about going forward was that the voters had just approved spending $30,000 on a Local Government Study Commission and she wondered if there was any conflict.
Recht said that nothing to do with the study commission would prohibit the adoption of an ordinance.
Commissioner Ron Stoltz noted that if certain commissioners are elected to a four-year term and then the term is reduced, the county is required to continue paying them for their full term.
Foss said that could eliminate any savings in the reduction of numbers.
Recht said that the savings would not be immediate.
Commission Chair Greg Chilcott said that recent court history over the change from three to five indicates the opposite is true.
Stoltz said if the issue is really the savings it may not work because it will just mean hiring a manager to get all the work done. He suggested putting a prohibition against hiring a manager in the ordinance.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows said that he was not in favor of a county manager but that there was no reason to take the option off the table.
“We’ve asked every department to make cuts and we need to look at our own commission,” said Burrows. He also stated that putting the issue on the ballot did not circumvent the study commission. He said they still have all options open.
Stoltz mentioned the problem of a three-year moratorium on changing the form of government after some change is made. He thought this would interfere with any action the study commission might consider.
Recht said that a moratorium kicks in when the form of government is changed. He said the reduction in the number of commissioners was not a change in form of government, just a reduction in the number of seats.
Stoltz said that commissioner action might be quicker than waiting on the Study commission but not if it spawned a lawsuit. He said the 48-hour notice for the meeting that day did not look good. He said it was not good to do things at the last minute.
Commissioner Burrows said claims that the commission is trying to enact something under the radar were ridiculous since it only put the matter up to the voters. He said if it was his own decision today he would not go back to three, but to give the people the option is important.
Commissioner J.R. Iman said that either way the voters get to decide at the polls.
Commissioner Chilcott echoed him but added that the four year terms put in place with the move to five commissioners had not worked out well.
“Every other election a whole new majority could be elected and it hasn’t worked effectively,” he said.
At that point copies of the ordinance were distributed to the public and public comment was taken.
The draft ordinance contained the following ballot language: “Should the existing form of County government, as defined by the current ratified plan of government recorded in Ravalli County at document #639937, be amended by making the following changes but no others?”
The changes include:
• Commencing January 1, 2017: reduce the number of Commissioners to three; revise the term of each Commissioner to overlapping six year terms; and reduce the number of Commission Districts to three.
• Facilitate an orderly transition from five to three by temporarily limiting the term of all five commissioners in office on January 1, 2015 so that the terms of all five expire simultaneously on December 31, 2016 and thereafter staggering the overlapping terms of the three commissioners by drawing lots.
Lee Tickell said that he supported going from five to three but that it should probably be left to the study commission along with several other issues that needed to be addressed such as creating some non-partisan offices. He said if the commissioners were really looking to save money they could do that immediately by all five going to half-time and cutting their pay.
Mark West, a Democratic candidate for Commission District #1, said that he would support going from five to three but that he also would like to see the commission seats filled by district rather than an at-large vote. He said that way the commissioner can get to know the people in his district and better represent them.
Ray Hawk, the Republican candidate for District #1, said that he voted against the five commissioner system and would still advocate for three. He said that because there were at least two issues involved – reducing the number and changing the term from four to six years – it was best left up to the study commission.
Marlin Ostrander, Democratic candidate for District #5, said the voters needed to know the facts about the money and the savings. He said one commission position represents only .4% of the total budget. Two positions would save less than 1% and the cost of the change was likely to be more than what was being saved. He said if the two commissioners were doing their job it would be OK.
Clint Burson, Democratic candidate for District #4, said the commission was stepping on the toes of the government study commission. He said it was interesting that the commissioners were all saying that this was not political.
“But the offices you are talking about shortening are the ones up for election,” said Burson. He said Commissioners Chilcott and Iman could just resign and let the three elected officials take office. He said that his supporters were under the belief that he would be elected to a four-year term. He urged the commissioners to leave it up to the study commission.
Jan Wisniewski urged the commissioners to leave it up to the study commission.
“Give them the study commission they voted for without changing everything beforehand,” he said.
Lee Tickell said that having two parallel tracks working on the issues would have the potential for a major wreck to occur. He said he supported going from five to three but it should be left up to the non-partisan study commission.
Commissioner Chilcott took issue with some of the public comment. He rejected the idea that he and Iman should “walk away from their jobs.”
“We were elected to do a job,” said Chilcott. “This job is hard work. If you want good people doing good jobs it should be compensated,” he said.
Iman said that everybody but one person who spoke was in favor of going from five to three commissioners.
“This resolution does one thing,” said Iman. “It asks the people, do you want to consider this. We have a back up in the study commission if the voters reject this.” He said the answer to, “why now?” was “why not?”
Foss said that it sounds really neat, “but that’s spoken by people who are pretty ignorant of what goes on in county government.” She said that the issue of four or six year terms was not about the commissioners, but about the citizens who work in the government and the volunteers who work in the government.
“We’ve had two extreme changes and swings,” she said, “and it’s a great heyday for the press because each swing they get to go and decide the fate of the election without having any knowledge of what they are talking about and the citizens are voting based on ignorance and the press and not on the truth.” She said that by having six-year terms it would “prevent the extremists on either side from having a win or loss.”
“I don’t really care how many commissioners there are,” she said “whether it’s three, five or eighteen. You get your money’s worth by the people here. It’s a 24/7 job. Just because someone is not in the building doesn’t mean they are not working on behalf of the citizens. If you think they are at home on the weekends taking it easy you can forget about it. If you think this is a cushy job you can forget about it.”
She said the job requires passion, “and you damn well better learn about how it works. And what happens on the ripple effect when you have extremes in any direction… Frankly, I would keep it at five and go to six-year terms. When I see what we have accomplished in the last six years… a lot of things just couldn’t get done with three people running their butts off.”
Foss said that she got to know the people in her district before she ran for office and got to know the people in the other districts during her campaign.
“So shame on anybody who thinks they are going to learn that after you are elected,” she said. “I’m going to vote for the best person, not the party. I’ve never been a party person.”
Burrows said that when looked at as a percentage of the entire budget .8% may seem insignificant, but looked at on its own, $150,000 would open a lot of options such as incremental raises for the employees, etc.
Deputy County Attorney Recht clarified that under the law a three-commissioner board is required to have six-year terms.
Chilcott requested a motion and Burrows moved to set a date for the first reading of the ordinance. That’s when they discovered, through public input, the problem with the timing and that no ordinance could be passed in time to place it on the ballot. The motion was withdrawn.
Commission Chair Chilcott apologized, saying that when he scheduled the meeting he believed that only seven days instead of 12 were required between the first and second readings.