Is it time for citizens to study their county and city governments and consider changes – large or small – in the structure of government?
That question will be on June 3 ballots across Montana. Most city dwellers will see the question twice: once pertaining to county government, once for their city government.
These questions must be asked under a unique provision of the Montana Constitution, which requires local governments to put this issue before voters every 10 years.
After voters ratified the state constitution in 1972, the first round of local government reviews led to big changes. The city of Billings adopted its current charter form of government that gave the citizens more power to run their city with fewer state government restrictions. When voters approved the Billings city charter, they voted to have a city council and mayor who would hire and supervise a professional city administrator to run the city’s day-to-day operations. Previously, an elected mayor ran the city.
Butte and Silver Bow County consolidated their city and county governments as did Anaconda and Deer Lodge County. A few counties chose to have nonpartisan elections for county offices. Over the years, most larger Montana cities have adopted their own local government charters.
The most recent change Billings adopted through the decennial review process was allowing the mayor to vote on all issues before the City Council. Initially, the charter allowed the mayor a vote only in the case of a tie.
If a majority of Primary Election voters are in favor of a local government review, the next step is electing review commission members. Nonpartisan candidates would file for election in the November General Election.
“It’s a great idea,” said Alec Hansen, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns. “It has created some freedom and flexibility in local government.”
Review commissions don’t always lead to change. Hansen noted that voters in the city and county of Missoula rejected a consolidation proposal about the same time Butte consolidated with Silverbow.
“The determining factor is trust in existing government,” Hansen said from Helena.
County Commissioner Jim Reno got his start as an elected public official on the county government review commission elected in 1994. The commission studied county government for two years and proposed significant changes, including expansion of the county commission to five members, instead of three. Voters said “no.”
“It was a helluva civics lesson,” Reno said of his review commission work. “We didn’t sell the public on it.”
Yet he said the intensive study of county government was “absolutely” worthwhile.
“It taught me a very good lesson: Unless people perceive local government as broken, they won’t change it.”
In 2004, Billings and Yellowstone County voters didn’t approve a study commission. Laurel voted for a commission, but didn’t make any changes.
We encourage voters to support local government reviews. Let’s take stock of our local governments and seriously consider whether the structure of our city and county governments are still meeting the needs of our growing cities and county. Billings and Yellowstone County have changed tremendously in the 20 years since a local government review was conducted.
Does the current structure of elected and appointed county offices still make sense? Does the city charter need updating?
These are important questions that deserve thorough consideration from the citizens of our cities and county.