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Primary ballots give Montana voters a chance to re-think their local government structures

Montana’s primary ballots being considered this year will provide voters with a unique opportunity to audit the structure and powers of city and county government.

This review of local government is listed at the end of the ballot as a “Committee Question.” Most urban voters will see two entries for him. One is the city and the other is the county government.

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This voter-initiated review, mandated by the Montana Constitution, occurs every 10 years in all 56 counties and 127 incorporated municipalities. In jurisdictions where voters approved the overhaul in the June 4 primary election, cities and counties will begin a two-year process to consider how they define government.

The review focuses on legislative authority held by city councils, county commissions, or similar elected groups. Executive branch functions, such as hiring staff and running the day-to-day operations of cities and counties, are also under review. Perhaps most importantly, the review could shift the balance of power between her two departments.

Montana’s primary ballots being considered this year will provide voters with a unique opportunity to audit the structure and powers of city and county government. (Fox News)

“This is all an experiment,” said Dan Clark, director of the Center for Local Government at Montana State University. “There’s no right or wrong. If this doesn’t work as well as they want, what could work better? And let’s try that.”

The review could lead to smaller changes, such as setting new terms for elected officials or designating ward-by-ward versus at-large representation. It could also restructure the top layer of government management, which is defined as a “form” in state law.

Variations of these forms include commission executive committees in which the city council and mayor take on legislative and executive functions, respectively. An alternative is the commission-manager format, where an elected legislative body appoints a city manager to handle administrative functions. A charter form of government is also an option, giving the government latitude to define the details and duties of the government and its employees.

There is also a town meeting form available only to towns with a population of less than 2,000 people. Residents of voting age constitute the legislative body, and 10 percent of the population must attend a meeting to form a quorum. Clark said Pinesdale, which has fewer than 1,000 Bitterroot Valley residents, operates this way.

If voters approve certain government reviews on June 4, a commission of inquiry will be elected this November to consider potential changes to local governance and recommend solutions. Any resident eligible to hold elected office within the jurisdiction may apply to serve on the commission. After about two years of study, the commission will recommend changes, and voters will have the opportunity to accept or reject the commission’s recommendations.

This process is funded by property tax levies, typically in the low six figures. Local governments were required to approve the proposed funding levels earlier this year. Unused funds are returned to the government’s general fund.

Historically, Montana cities and counties undergoing changes such as population growth are more likely to reconsider their local governments as their needs evolve.

“Some communities may be happy with their current form of government. They haven’t experienced significant change,” Clark said. “Other communities may also feel the need for that change. We’re seeing growth. Communities are getting bigger and more complex, and they’re becoming more and more likely to be able to address the challenges they may face in the future.” We may be looking at a different structure.”

One recent example comes from a review that Bozeman voters approved in 2004. After two years of research, voters approved his city charter in 2006, creating a city charter, formally establishing a neighborhood council, and authorizing the direct election of a mayor. Another proposal from this review, increasing the number of City Commission members to seven, was subsequently defeated in a 2010 vote.

This year, organizations supporting an overhaul of city government are active in Bozeman. The effort by a group called Bozeman Councilors has support from former Mayor Carson Taylor and current Deputy Mayor Joey Morrison. According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the audience during a public debate earlier this week that he supports changing the corridor to the mayor’s office. Under the current city charter, a mayor is elected and must serve as a deputy for two years before assuming the mayor’s office. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is currently in the first year of that process after being elected in 2023.

Bozeman is led by Bozeman Tenants United, which supported Morrison’s mayoral bid.

Organizer Emily Lachelle said the group supports voting in favor of a review of local government with several goals. The first is ward elections and representation on city commissions rather than at-large positions. She said the group is listening to renters in northeast Bozeman who don’t feel seen by the board, which often comes from more affluent areas.

“In many ways, the reason the Tenants Union took on this is because so many working-class Bozemanians feel deeply unrepresented in local government,” she said.

Bozeman also supports full-time positions on the city commission, which he said would better support working-class representation.

Lashell said the group also wants to change the dynamic between elected officials and appointed city officials. This stems from the controversial resignation of former City Manager Jeff Mihelich, who accepted his resignation earlier this year after a leaked video showed him making disparaging comments about commissioners and their work. There is.

Bozeman’s city charter directs city officials to enforce many of the laws from the city commission, but Lashell said this leaves too little leeway for elected officials to carry out their duties. It said it was a barrier to public accountability.

“It’s becoming harder for ordinary people to make changes,” she says. “There are many great groups in Bozeman who are trying to make change, but the current system is outdated and makes true democracy very difficult for the people of Bozeman.”

A similar effort to push for a local government overhaul is underway in Billings, where commercial real estate agent and broker David Goodridge said he learned of the scheme after years of frustration with the pace of action by the Billings City Council.

Goodridge voted against the bill in 2014. At the time, he said, he considered the prospect of an additional government commission over several years that would cost six figures and didn’t like the idea. He said he now voted against the very measure that could bring about the changes he wanted to see in Congress.

“My goal over the past eight months has been to educate as many people as possible from a grassroots standpoint not to be afraid of this ballot item,” Goodridge said. “That’s good.”

His latest initiative is called “Get To Yes.” The basic idea is to raise awareness about this downvote item and advocate for a vote to start the process.

Like Lachelle, Goodridge feels the Billings City Council delegates too much power to appointed officials.

“The question I ask a lot of people in my presentations is who do you think is applying the vision to the community? The elected leaders or the bureaucracy?” Goodridge said. Told.

He also wants to make the mayor’s position a full-time one in Montana’s largest city and free up resources for city council members to devote more time to their public roles.

“Elected people only have as much time as they can to dig deep and understand complex redistricting issues, complex staffing issues, and infrastructure issues,” he said. “If volunteer time is all they have, 10 to 20 hours is not enough time.”

Goodridge said he has received financial support and in-kind donations for website development and marketing materials from the Billings Association of Realtors, but the total amount is less than $2,000. He has a wish list for the type of local government structure he would like, but his main goal is to win voter approval during the June 4 review process.

Clark, of the MSU Center for Local Government, said the purpose of this process is not to be a referendum on the actions or policies of elected officials. Rather, it depends on how the government is run, regardless of who holds office or staff positions.

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In Billings, Goodridge said he had been waiting 10 years for this opportunity to rally voters behind the overhaul.

Since a 2004 study led to an entirely new city charter, Rachelle hasn’t been waiting for another overhaul. But 20 years later, she sees different needs for Bozeman.

“A lot has changed since then,” she said. “And I think the city charter probably worked for Bozeman back then, but it certainly isn’t working now. I don’t think we can wait another 10 years.”

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