Who’s the Boss? 

Some citizens wonder who’s really running Ravalli County

In 1994, Ravalli County citizens voted to retain their three-commissioner form of county government. Six years later, some citizens are complaining that Bitterrooters were robbed of that vote. They’re saying that one man, an appointed adviser who cannot be voted out of office, is calling all the shots in Ravalli County.

In the county’s super-heated political atmosphere, questions have been raised, both quietly and openly, about whether this political appointee has usurped power from a complacent board of commissioners, and from the citizens themselves.

In the past few years Ravalli County government has become so slipshod that citizen lawsuits brought against the county, unresolved problems from years past and reporters’ complaints about procedural errors and illegally closed meetings have dogged the board nearly to distraction. At the same time, the county’s fiscal health was such that commissioners began meeting with their department heads and other employees to figure a way out of a financial morass. The budget situation was so dire, in fact, that at one roundtable financial discussion, a county employee actually suggested the county hold a fair to raise more revenues.

About 18 months ago, the commission hired Don Klepper to help them make decisions for a county that had grown beyond the management ability of three citizen-legislators. As the county’s chief administrative officer, Klepper manages the county budget and advises the board on a number of issues.

Though the board has nothing but praise for Klepper, not everyone is convinced that hiring him was the right choice for Ravalli County’s citizens.

Helen Philips is the president of the Ravalli County League of Women Voters. She says the League was so concerned that Klepper was making decisions for the commission that a special League board meeting was held to discuss the matter.

Though the League ultimately decided to closely monitor county government, rather than take any specific action, Philips is clearly troubled that county government is in the hands of one man who was never elected. “We had a special board meeting last week, and a lot of the board members were upset at the amount of power Klepper has and whether he’s exceeded his authority,” Philips says. “In 1994, the voters said they definitely wanted to continue under three commissioners. That’s what we’re supposed to have.”

And despite the League’s doubts, that’s exactly what Ravalli County does have, according to Gordon Morris, the executive director of the Montana Association of Counties.

The fiscal and policy problems that prompted the commission to hire a chief administrator are not unique to Ravalli County, Morris says, nor is the move to business-type management. Other counties also are moving toward a more professional way of running government, he says, such as Park County, which is “hard-pressed” to keep up with its growth, and tiny Meagher County, which is having a difficult time keeping abreast of new subdivisions.

Morris also dismisses the idea that Ravalli County has a manager form of government that is in violation of the 1994 vote. “I don’t think you do. Maybe we’re just playing semantics here, but there is a difference,” he observes.

Unlike county managers who operate under the manager form of government, Klepper is a “quasi-manager” with no actual legal authority. Instead, Morris says, he “serves at the pleasure of the board.”

Hiring a professional financial adviser is an option that’s already being used in some of the larger counties, he adds, including Missoula, Yellowstone, and Lewis and Clark. “Frankly, in the traditional three-member board of county commissioners, it’s one that works well,” he says. “It brings an element of professionalism.”

The commissioners themselves are well pleased with Klepper, even if their constituents are suspicious of the arrangement.

“He does a lot of research on the issues that come up,” says Commission Chairman Jack Atthowe. “He comes back to us with their recommendations. The decision is always the board of county commissioners’. We’re getting much more research than we’ve ever gotten before. I think the decisions are much, much better. They’re certainly much more researched.”

If the voters have not been arbitrarily overturned, and if the county commission runs much more smoothly than it has in years, then what’s the problem?

In a word: personality. Specifically, Klepper’s.

Klepper has been described by his supporters and detractors alike as a “bulldog,” a “hired gun,” and “King Klepper.” He makes no excuses for his bull-in-a-china-shop management style. He took the job at a time when public confidence in county government was at an all-time low, and proceeded to ruffle feathers without much concern for the political fall-out.

“It’s not as if the old way was working,” he says. “Counties change because they have a problem. If [Ravalli County] hadn’t been running money through a knothole, there wouldn’t have been a reason for change. There has to be a reason for change.”

Philips, who calls Klepper a “smooth talker,” agrees, though a bit reluctantly, that Klepper has successfully turned around a county budget that was bleeding red ink. “This is the biggest strong point Mr. Klepper has going for him,” she says. “He has made some progress in turning that zoo over there into a bona fide government. You have to give him his due. He has whipped that courthouse into shape.”

Still, “he’s not a people-person,” she says. “And he doesn’t seem to care. He lets the chips fall where they may. He’s very divisive. I don’t have total faith in Mr. Klepper.”

Klepper, who will not renew his contract with Ravalli County when it expires next April, said he’ll have Ravalli County’s myriad financial, personnel and policy problems straightened out when he leaves. And he won’t rest. He’ll just take on some other big problem in need of a big fix. “I function best in the worst situations,” he says, smiling.

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