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Candidates needed for government review commissions

by Daily Inter Lake
| June 9, 2024 12:00 AM

Columbia Falls and Whitefish voters last week opted to enact a unique opportunity afforded by the Montana Constitution to scrutinize how their local governments function.

The question asking for a local government review is required by law every decade and appeared on all primary election ballots for voters in Flathead County and each of the valley’s municipalities. Whitefish overwhelmingly supported the measure with 62% of voters in favor, while Columbia Falls narrowly favored the option with 52% in support. Kalispell turned down the opportunity, as did voters in the county. 

Statewide, a dozen counties and 42 cities approved measures to conduct a government review. 

There is a financial impact that comes with the process that is funded through a property tax levy, which likely soured some on the idea. Funding for the Whitefish review tops out at $21,445, and the Columbia Falls review cannot exceed $55,000. 

It’s also an arduous endeavor that requires public participation from local citizens with a sound understanding of how government functions. 

Whitefish and Columbia Falls will now solicit candidates for nonpartisan study commissions who will be elected during the Nov. 5 general election. Those members will then attend a training session in December conducted by the Montana State University Local Government Center. 

Over the following two years, commissioners will focus their review on the power, structure and plan of their local government. Many options are available for the commission to consider.  

In Bozeman, for example, there is a movement to utilize its government review process to reassess its city charter and to create ward elections for their council, opposed to at-large seats. Commissioners could also recommend different term limits or pay for elected officials, change the number of seats on a council, or even recommend that elections should be partisan. 

In Whitefish, government reviews in 2004 and 2014 produced mixed results. The last go-around, the commission studied options to create an ombudsman position, which ultimately failed. The decade prior, the government review commission recommended changing the mayoral term from two to four years, which was approved by voters. 

The commission could also stick with the status quo and decide no changes are necessary. They are not, however, authorized to change fees or taxes, alter the election process, add or remove laws, or remove or discipline staff or elected officials. 

If changes are recommended, they will deliver a final report for voters to consider during the November 2026 election. 

Now is the time for Columbia Falls and Whitefish citizens to get involved. There are no qualifications to become a candidate other than residing within the city and having a genuine interest in assessing the city’s legislative and executive operations. 

Candidates can file with the county election administrator this summer, with a deadline of Aug. 12.