The Teton County Commissioners last week opened a public hearing on whether to ask voters in June to make all county elected offices nonpartisan. The hearing will continue to the commissioners’ Jan. 16 meeting, where they are expected to approve the ordinance to put the question before voters.
Meeting Jan. 2, the commissioners said the state Legislature has approved a process by which voters can choose to remove party affiliations from the county elected offices of county commissioners, sheriffs, attorneys, superintendents of school, district court clerks, clerk and recorders, treasurers and public administrators.
The positions of county Justice of the Peace and District Court judge are already nonpartisan.
Under this process, county commissioners must hold a public hearing on an ordinance to place the language on the ballot. If there is not widespread opposition expressed during the public hearing, the commissioners can place the ordinance on the ballot and then voters can decide.
At last week’s meeting, the commissioners approved the ordinance on first reading, stipulating that the ballot question would apply to the offices of county commissioner, attorney, sheriff-coroner, superintendent of schools, District Court clerk, treasurer and clerk and recorder-surveyor. The list omitted the county’s public administrator, a position currently held by Pendroy attorney Scott O. Swanson, who filed as a Republican in his last election.
County Commission Chairman Jim Hodgskiss on Monday told the Acantha he would look into why the public administrator’s position was not included in the ordinance. “It might have been an oversight,” he said.
Clerk and Recorder-Surveyor Paula Jaconetty, who is a Republican and also serves as the county’s election administrator, said the ballot question would appear on the June primary election ballot and would not go into effect until the 2022 county election.
She said over the years she has repeatedly been questioned by voters on election fairness since she’s a Republican overseeing the county election and she would support putting the measure out to voters.
Montana Public Radio reported last November that Lewis and Clark County became the 17th out of Montana’s 56 counties to approve by popular vote the switch to nonpartisan county elections. At the same time, voters in Gallatin County rejected the same measure and elected to stick with partisan elections.
The measure would only affect elected county offices. Other county department heads, who are hired or appointed, would not be affected. Those positions include the director of the County Health Department, the Disaster and Emergency Services and Emergency Medical Services director, the Road Department superintendent, the county planner, the county sanitarian and the rural fire chief.
Jaconetty also said that city elections and elections for special district boards — like sewer districts, the Teton County Fire Fee Service Area, the hospital board and school boards — are already nonpartisan.
Jaconetty said the change would not result in any financial savings to the county.
Chris Hindoien, the chairman of the Teton County Republican Central Committee, at the hearing said he sees the conversion to nonpartisan local offices as “the wave of the future.” “Partisan politics have become such a combative sport at the national level, and it’s always been my hope we could fix that at the grassroots level, but we’re never going to get it done. The best way to do it is to take it out of the process, I guess.”
Hodgskiss said, “My thoughts on it are, we’re here for the good of the people, supposed to be.”
Hindoien said the downfall would be that county central committees for the Democrats and the Republicans would not be able to donate for candidates. Individuals could still donate to the candidate of their choice, he said, and in a small community like Teton County people are going to base their vote on the qualifications of the candidates, not what their partisan affiliation is.
“All things being equal, let’s lead rather than follow,” Hindoien said.
Dellwo said this is a “no brainer” for the commissioners because they are just putting the measure before the voters for their decision.
Lora Wier, who is a member of the Democratic Central Committee and also attended the hearing, said, “I think there will be support for it, just based on conversations I’ve had with individuals from both parties.”
Dellwo said anyone with comments on the proposed ballot measure can call the commissioners at 466-2151, send them a comment to P.O. Box 610, Choteau, MT 59422, or email them at email@example.com for Hodgskiss, firstname.lastname@example.org for Dellwo and email@example.com for Dick Snellman. Faxes can be sent to the commissioners at 466-3244.
The commissioners also unanimously approved a resolution designating more than three dozen pieces of Road Department equipment as surplus. The list includes a 1975 loader, two 1995 trucks, a 1964 plow truck, a 1969 dump truck, a 1979 plow truck, a 1968 rotary snow blower, a 1978 grader, a 1980 belly dump and various plow blades, plow frames, hydraulic tanks, shop doors, wheel plates, plastic tanks, fuel tanks, tool boxes, cattle guards and more.
County Road Superintendent Alan Gagne said he is cleaning up the Road Department premises and getting rid of old, unused equipment. He requested, and the commissioners approved, selling the property online through Public Surplus, the website used by Cascade County, rather than by sealed bid.
Gagne said the county may receive better prices on the property. Snellman said the county can set reserve prices this way.
Acantha editor Melody Martinsen requested that the commissioners advertise the surplus equipment for sale on Public Surplus through legal notices in the Choteau Acantha and the Fairfield Sun Times to comply with state law requiring the county to let the public know of surplus equipment sales through the newspaper of county record (which is the Acantha).
Gagne said there is no cost for the county to sell items through Public Surplus. The website charges buyers a 10 percent premium on top of their successful bids.
In other business, the commissioners:
•Approved writing a letter of support for Sweetgrass Development as the North Central Montana Economic Development District.
•Approved writing a letter of support for the Old Trail Museum’s grant application for funding to maintain and repair the Metis Cabin at the museum grounds in Choteau.
•Set the county fire season from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2020. During this time, those wanting to set any kind of fire have to apply for and receive a valid county burn permit. People who set fires without burn permits can be charged with a misdemeanor offense and if convicted be fined up to $500 or imprisoned in the county jail for up to six months. Further, people who set fires without proper burn permits or who fail to supervise their fires may be subject to civil litigation for property damage and the costs of fighting such fires.
•Set the county commissioners’ regular meeting date and time on the first and third Thursdays of the month at 10 a.m. in the courthouse.
•Set the hours of the county sheriff, clerk and recorder, clerk of District Court, treasurer and county attorney offices to be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except that the District clerk of court may be closed from noon to 1 p.m. daily.
•Provided that the Clerk and Recorder’s Office may be open extra hours as needed for primary and general elections.
•Renewed the county’s public posting designation as the bulletin board on the second floor of the courthouse and the enclosed bulletin board located in the main lobby at the Choteau Post Office.
•Set the salary for the county justice of the peace at 95 percent of the county’s uniform salary (that of the clerk and recorder) and set the justice of the peace’s office hours at 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
•Changed the county’s reimbursement for mileage (when a county vehicle is not available), lowering the rate by half a cent to the IRS-approved rate of $.575 per mile for the first 1,000 miles of travel within each month and at $.545 per mile for each mile over 1,000 miles per month. The state lodging reimbursement rate will be $94 per day and the meal per diem rates are $7.50 for breakfast, $8.50 for lunch and $14.50 for supper for a total of $30.50.