Ravalli County 

Intra-party politics

During the June 3 Republican primary, three members of the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners could be ousted by members of their own party.

“The political philosophy of the commission will shift back to a more moderate stance,” predicts Ravalli County Commission candidate Ray Hawk. He says he’s set to trounce incumbent Ron Stoltz during the Republican primary and thereby help steer the five-member commission back toward the center.

It’s not a coincidence that the three Republican incumbents—Stoltz, Suzy Foss and Jeff Burrows—are those who cast the deciding votes in two recent heavily criticized commission decisions. In September, the trio voted to decline a federal grant that for 40 years funded family planning services for low-income women. That same month, they voted to appoint embattled Ravalli County Treasurer Valerie Stamey to her post.

Stamey had no background in managerial accounting prior to being selected to lead the treasurer’s office. She was, however, a Republican Party insider. In February, an independent audit found that Stamey had stopped producing monthly treasury reports and failed to deposit a backlog of property tax payments. Critics, including Hawk, say the commissioners’ decision to hire someone with little experience contributed to the county’s finances falling apart. “They could have hired somebody besides an unqualified political ally,” Hawk says.

Foss challenger Doug Schallenberger steers clear of such pointed criticisms, but he echoes Hawk when saying he aims to change the commission. “It just seems like they went more to the extreme side,” Schallenberger says.

While Schallenberger criticizes Foss for leaning too far right, another Foss challenger, former Ravalli County Planning Board Chair Jan Wisniewski, says Foss isn’t sufficiently conservative.

“I think she’s not quite firm enough,” says Wisniewski, who was ousted from the planning board for reportedly referring to indigenous people during a public meeting as “drunken Indians.”

In response to the myriad criticisms, incumbents say they’ve done good work. After years of teetering toward insolvency, the county budget is balanced, they say. Burrows, who faces Bill Menager in the primary, says also that he’s keen to learn from mistakes. For example, he aims to revamp hiring protocol based on the lessons learned from the Stamey controversy.

In the final days before the primary, incumbents argue it’s easy to second-guess from the sidelines. Actually performing under such heavy scrutiny is a significantly more challenging task. “I think that anytime somebody runs they think they can do a better job,” Burrows says.

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