Chairing the 2020 Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission probably isn't the toughest job Sheila Stearns has accepted.
Stearns, the first woman to serve as Montana commissioner of higher education, led the university system for nine years before retiring in 2012. She returned to fill leadership gaps in 2014 as interim chancellor for Montana State University Billings and in 2017 as interim president for the University of Montana.
A Glendive native who earned a doctorate in education at UM, Stearns lobbied the Legislature on behalf of the university early in her career as head of university relations. After six years as chancellor at Montana Western in Dillon, she moved to Nebraska to be president of Wayne State University where she led that institution through budget cuts. When she applied for Montana's commissioner post in 2003, the Board of Regents had just ousted its chair and vice chair and other regents wanted substantial budget changes. Stearns embraced the challenge.
Throughout her career, Stearns has employed diplomacy to move forward.
"I have more of a bent toward collaboration instead of competition,'' she told regents in 2003. After regents voted unanimously to hire her, Regent John Mercer of Polson, a former Republican speaker of the Montana House, said: "She is a known and proven leader. People like her. People trust her.''
The Supreme Court picked the commission chair Tuesday as directed by the Montana Constitution after the four other commission members were unable to agree on the fifth member. The constitution says the first four have 20 days to pick a fifth member to lead the panel, which is formed every 10 years before the U.S. Census is conducted.
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The court has been required to choose the chair for several decades because the two Republicans and two Democrats appointed by legislative leaders couldn't agree. The first four are: former state Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, selected by Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas; Dan Stusek, of Billings, a former staffer for Sen. Steve Daines and State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who was appointed by House Majority Leader Brad Tschida; Democrat Joe Lamson, who has previously served on a districting commission and was appointed this time by Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso; and Democrat Kendra Miller, appointed by House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner.
Although Essmann and Stusek asked the court to delay the appointment to allow more public input, Essmann told Montana Public Radio that he knows and respects Stearns. “I have hopes that we will have a neutral arbiter,” he said.
After voting to appoint former U.S. Magistrate Carolyn Ostby of Billings, Justices Beth Baker and Laurie McKinnon said they support the five-justice majority's choice of Stearns.
So do we. Stearns has a reputation as a smart, hard, successful worker with a deep commitment to serving her home state. We expect the four legislative appointees (who were chosen without public input or public meetings) will do their best to give advantage to their party. It is Stearns' job to be the mediator and leader who will put the constitutional mandate above partisanship.
The Montana Supreme Court made a wise decision is appointing Stearns.