Who'll review? 

Turning the city and county inside out

Just because you believe the mayor should be taken out behind the woodshed for a whooping or just because you’re convinced that the city isn’t filling those potholes fast enough does not necessarily qualify you for a position on the city and county government review commissions.

“What they’re really designed to do is look at local government,” says County Commissioner Jean Curtiss.

In June, citizens of Missoula County voted more than 60 percent in favor of reviewing both the city and county forms of government.

“I was really not surprised,” says Missoula Housing Authority’s Karen Ward, who served as chairwoman of the city’s 1994–1995 review commission. “I think there’s a lot more dissatisfaction with the government right now.”

Such opportunities to evaluate local forms of government are provided by the Montana Constitution. Every 10 years, voters get the chance to choose whether they believe their city and county should undergo a citizen review. Over the years, Montana municipal governments have made some dramatic changes based on review commission recommendations subsequently put to a successful vote. Butte and Silverbow combined their city and county governments, as did Deer Lodge and Anaconda.

Ten years ago in Missoula, citizens voted to study the city but not the county.

At the time, the city review commission found that “the most significant challenge facing City government is growth.”

This time around, “I bet growth will still come out to be the number one concern—how we manage growth,” says Ward.

In 1996, the commission recommended that voters choose whether they wanted neighborhood councils; residents voted to establish them.

The review commission recommended that the city appoint a fiscal officer instead of having the citizens elect one. At the time, Ed Childers was the city treasurer.

“He lost his job because he was an elected city treasurer,” says Ward. Now, Childers is a council member representing Ward 6.

Commissions help determine how their respective bodies make decisions internally, too. Last time, says Ward, her group decided to make decisions, for the most part, by reaching consensus.

While the commissions do not wield the power to make changes to government themselves, they do choose which areas of government to study, and make recommendations based on that study.

“One of the neatest things about this is it gives a group of citizens a huge amount of power and authority to sit down and sort of slog through this stuff,” says Ward 1’s Heidi Kendall.

While Kendall is a City Council member and not a review commission candidate, she is interested in the topic. Her not-so-secret agenda is that she believes City Council might be too large.

“We get a lot of representation when we have two City Council members per ward and there are six wards,” says Kendall. Smaller councils, she acknowledges, offer less representation, but may also be “less awkward, time consuming and unwieldy.”

County Commissioner Curtiss, on the other hand, wonders if the commissions might choose to study a consolidated form of government, where the city and county governments are merged.

No one, believes Ward, runs without an agenda. Her advice for the incoming review commissions is that they reveal their hidden agendas immediately so they can put their preconceived notions to the test. The commission can invite various city and county administrators to report on different aspects of government.

“I don’t think any of us really understood [government] that well,” says Ward of her 1995 stint on the review commission .

On November’s ballot, 25 candidates are running for seven seats on the county review commission; another 30 people are on the ballot for seven seats on the city review commission. The Montana League of Women Voters has posted information on candidates at the Missoula Public Library.

Curtiss says that the best way to get to know the candidates is to look at the list of names on the election ballot, open the phone book, pick up the phone and give them a call.

The questions, says Ward, should start with why they chose to run. If their response is that they dislike the mayor (or the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker), they’re probably not really intent on studying the existing form of government, which the commissions are charged to do.

“If I say, we have a weak mayor form of government, I don’t think most people know what that means,” says Ward. “It doesn’t mean our mayor is weak.” (It means City Council members are elected, as is the mayor, and they share powers of government.)

“I think it would be great if it could be a broad spectrum of people,” says Kendall. People who are active in their community, people who have lived in Missoula for a long time, but mainly, says Kendall, people who are just interested.

Ward says sitting on a review commission is “a perfect way to serve.” No one gets mad at you, she says, you don’t have to raise money and it’s short-term.

But it isn’t a frivolous endeavor, as evidenced by the county’s and city’s funding of a paid staff position to assist the commissions. Serving on the review commission was rewarding, says Ward. She was surprised to learn the amount of money the city spends on the fire department—$7 million for four stations annually, just within the city, says city finance director Brentt Ramharter. And she gained a greater respect for the document that emerged from the 1972 Constitutional Convention.

“You read the preamble to the Montana Constitution—it’s beautiful,” she says.

kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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