Five men-two Democrats and three Republicans-have stepped up to the plate to try to capture the seat being vacated by Fern Hart.
Because state law gives county commissioners narrowly-defined authority, it's not as attractive a position as city council member can be. Unlike their part-time counterparts a block away at city hall, commissioners put in 40-plus hours a week, and are charged with administering the county's day to day business and providing support to the county's other elected officials.
Still, there are some complex issues facing the county, including tight budgets and a severe shortage of office space. And the ever-thorny issue of growth management-and how to work with city officials in a productive manner-will continue to be all-consuming.
The primary election, where voters will pick one candidate from each party to face off in the fall, is scheduled for June 2.
Mike Barton (D) Barton enters the race with a political and bureaucratic resume thicker than a Mark Twain novel. It begins in the 1970s when he was the assistant director of the state's Human Resource Council. From there he made stops along the way as assistant director of the Missoula Office of Community Development (now know as Office of Planning and Grants), a liaison for U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, and then as assistant director for two years of the Human Resources office at the University of Montana.
For Barton, nearly all of the important issues facing the county fall under the umbrella of growth management.
The debate over establishing a growth boundary, says Barton, is a diversion from the real question: Who pays for the cost of providing services to new development?
"Most folks I've been talking to don't like the idea of drawing a line. But it's already happening with the city sewer service," he says. "The question is who going to participate in the discussion."
Bill Carey (D) Carey might not have Barton's resume, but his name recognition in the community-as director of Missoula's Food Bank and former state legislator-is substantial. Affordable housing, growth management and maintaining the separation between urban areas and rural areas, says Carey, are the key issues facing the county.
"We have to look at the mistakes other cities have made," he says, "and find creative solutions rather than calling each other names."
As an example of a city making mistakes, Carey points to Cleveland, Ohio, which has lost population but gained in ground area. To avoid such a conundrum here in Missoula, he supports the Urban Growth Boundary currently being proposed.
Jerry Ballas (R) Ballas is a third generation Missoulian, an architect who's been involved with Southside Lions Club, Habitat for Humanity and the University Area Homeowners Association.
As with the other candidates, Ballas sees growth management as the biggie, and he is still getting a feel for all its complexities and nuisances. But when it comes to the most controversial aspect-the urban growth area-Ballas says he against it.
But representing the widespread political differences throughout Missoula County is a concern for Ballas as well. He calls himself a middle of the road Republican and is a supporter of Barbara Evans.
"A county commissioner is suppose to be a leader of the people who vote, and tries to represent as broad a base as you can throughout the county."
John Duncan (R) Duncan is also a third generation Missoulian who can trace his roots in the Garden City back to 1879. He comes to the race with no political experience, except for two failed campaigns: one for county commissioner in 1978; the other for public administrator in 1964.
When asked what he sees as the role of county government in the lives of its citizens, Duncan responds flatly, "I think there should be less intrusion in the private lives of the county citizens."
While Duncan says he hasn't yet seen the new comprehensive plan that city and county officials are currently debating, he does think that affordable housing-that is, providing more of it-is the biggest issue staring the county in the face.
"Almost all of the affordable housing that I can see is that housing being provided by the Missoula Housing Authority," he says. "It's the only way to go."
John Fletcher (R) Fletcher is running on an oxymoron. He has filed for the Republican Party's primary and calls himself a "classic Burkean conservative." Yet he is a long-time and active member of the Missoula New Party.
Fletcher freely admits to not being a dues-paying member of the Republican Party, and says that like most New Party members, he was attracted to the political committee out of frustration with the two party system.
"Party politics and loyalties have little meaning for a commissioner's performance," he says.
Fletcher has served on the Missoula Consolidated Planning Board, the Missoula Transportation Coordinating Committee and the Missoula Planning Policy Committee.
Calling himself a "process person more than issue person," Fletcher would like to attract more and better paying jobs to the county. While he'd like the to see the comprehensive plan passed, he says, he is more concerned with supporting the county's staff and other elected officials-and focusing on other less-than glamorous issues, like servicing the county's public debt.