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For officeholders, the ears have it

by Margaret E. Davis
| April 24, 2022 12:00 AM

The 2022 race for Flathead County commissioner has four contenders in the upcoming election. What makes it such a hot seat? I also wondered, What does a county commissioner do all day?

To find out I spent a recent Thursday shadowing one of the three.

Over six hours, I learned what county commissioners do. Mostly, they listen.

I used to only imagine elected leaders as the people at the front of the room, often at a podium. That may be part of the job, but it is an infrequent one.

Commissioners start the day answering email, returning phone messages and reading each morning’s delivered packet of documents. Then if it’s Tuesday (and sometimes Thursday), they convene in chambers. After the Pledge of Allegiance comes public comment: a chance for anyone to speak their mind in the handsome room on the third floor of the 1903 courthouse.

Today it’s a representative from the Columbia Falls schools with an idea about voting, a topic that will come up again this morning when county elections officials report on the recent certification of voting equipment.

In chambers, commissioners get to the nitty-gritty of the agenda, considering bids for road graders and an order for cab chassis, then a subdivision, a report about the landfill and changes on “hamburger road” at the fairgrounds. The chair keeps the agenda rolling to the minute.

Lunchtime may not be commissioners’ own as we head off to a meeting of a board. Each commissioner serves on about six boards, adding to their calendars and responsibilities. The commissioner I’m with does give a short report, but mostly listens.

Back at 800 S. Main, a leader of one of the valley’s chambers of commerce comes in to ask if a type of business could be limited in that community’s center. The commissioner asks what kind of business is mushrooming there; the chamber official says, “Real estate offices — we’ve got nine of them.” After discussion of that and a few other concerns, the answer is no, they can’t limit real estate offices. The commissioner then tends to more email and phone messages, while waiting for a man who had poked his head in earlier in the day to ask if he could later have a visit about the library.

More listening.

Meanwhile, a staffer arrives with information about trim and gutters on a new county building at Idaho Street and U.S. 93. An abiding curiosity in all things, from construction materials to sewage treatment facilities, serves a leader well in these parts, in these times.

In business school, my favorite professor drilled into us the keywords for success: “open systems.”

“Closed systems left to themselves will slow and die,” Professor Chris Meade would say, adding, “An open system thrives on new insights and information.”

It’s easy to see the difference between a closed system of government (say, North Korea) and our country’s open one. The day I spent among the county commissioners I took heart in the public meetings and the opportunity for comment, witnessed certification of the voting machines, and the ability for someone to just make contact and schedule a visit about an issue important to them.

Heading back to my office, I concluded: May our leaders continue to be open; may they be listeners.

Audience development director Margaret E. Davis can be reached at 406-758-4436 or mdavis@dailyinterlake.com

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