In 2016, Ravalli County citizens approved a public initiative to reduce the number of members serving on the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners from five to three. As the County shifts to a three-member Board of Commissioners, three of the current five-member board, Jeff Burrows, Chris Hoffman and Greg Chilcott, are returning to office, while the other two, Ray Hawk and Doug Schallenberger, chose not to run. The three re-elected commissioners were sworn in at a ceremony held on December 31 at the County Administration building. The same day, outgoing Commissioners Hawk and Schallenberger were honored for their past service.
The Bitterroot Star asked the three returning Commissioners for their perspective on the potential impacts of having the board membership reduced to three from five.
Commission Chairman Jeff Burrows said that the biggest part of the change will probably be how it affects working on things and making policy and such matters as writing official letters. He said with five commissioners, two could meet and help sift ideas and come up with a draft to be taken before the whole board. With two commissioners now establishing a quorum, this won’t be possible. Every draft and every letter will have to start from scratch at a public meeting or be developed by an individual commissioner for consideration and presented. He sees a value in having more than one person coming up with a draft proposal for consideration by all at a public meeting.
“I think it will make our meetings a little longer and maybe a little less efficient, but, I guess, maybe more transparent,” he said. “There are some benefits to it and some downfalls to it, but I think overall I’m looking forward to it.” He said it looked it like a good model and saved money with two less commissioners.
He said he thought the decision-making process will be more efficient with three commissioners rather than five, “but I think the actual process of getting to the point you can make a decision will be less efficient inherently,” said Burrows, “because you will have to go into a meeting not having ever discussed [an issue] before.”
Burrows said that board members divide up the workload that consists, in part, service on a number of boards and committees or serving as liaison on boards, committees and organizations. He said every member of the board was going to have an increase in workload, but that he felt they could absorb it.
On January 2, the new Board of Commissioners will select a chairman, and divvy up all the various tasks related to serving on the various boards and committees and other duties.
The Commissioners will also have to make a decision about staggering the terms. One commissioner will serve a two-year term and two commissioners will serve four-year terms. He said that state law refers to drawing lots for those terms. Burrows said that he wasn’t sure, but it was his understanding that after the board elected a chairman, they would have a discussion about the terms and make some decision about it.
Burrows said that the enlargement of each district that was required by the reduction from five to three commissioners was not very significant and that they appeared to be balanced in terms of population.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott is the only commissioner to have served on the board when it was a three-member board prior to being expanded to five.
“I definitely think we have a team of commissioners that are ready, willing and able to work together and be successful at it,” said Chilcott.
Chilcott said that things were not going to be that different.
“We have always made our decisions in public,” he said. He said the commission had the opportunity for a couple of them to get together and draft a letter or some other response to something. “Now that won’t be possible and it may be a little less efficient because of that,” he said, “but we will still continue to make all our decisions in public.”
Chilcott agreed that redistricting the county to match the three-commissioner board would not make a big difference. “We have always elected commissioners to represent the people ‘at-large’ to represent the whole community and we will continue to do that.” He said that issues that come in from a particular district are generally taken up by the commissioner in that district because they are generally more familiar with the geography of the district, but that the decisions are always made with an eye on what is best for the whole county.
Commissioner Chris Hoffman said that it was going to be a little bit of transition to have two people being a quorum. “But I think it’s a good thing if for no other reason than that we are saving money,” he said. He said a three-person commission is the standard for almost every county in Montana except for a few that are consolidated city/county settings, like Butte-Silverbow, Toole and Powell counties. He said every other county, including some big ones like Gallatin, Yellowstone and Flathead counties, has a three-member board of commissioners. He called going to five commissioners “an aberration” and said that going back was “certainly the wish of the people” and he believes it is a good thing.
He agreed that going to a three-member board was going to mean a heavier workload for the three individual commissioners who will have to take on the work that was being done by the other two commissioners but he said it was “a doable thing that is done in most every other county in the state.
Hoffman also saw the redistricting as not changing much about the job of commissioner.
“We may be elected by district, but we are elected to serve the whole county,” he said.