Stevensville Town Council member Paul Ludington is facing a challenge from Stacie Barker for his Ward 1 seat. Ludington, who is council president, was appointed to the council at the end of last year when Robin Holcomb resigned. But he’s no newcomer to town government. He has been involved with one aspect or another of town government since 1997 when he was first on the planning board. In 2000, he was appointed to the town council and served eight years. He also served for two years on the airport board. And he also had a short stint as mayor.
A native Montanan, born in Billings, Ludington has lived in Stevensville for 29 years. He’s been working at the school for 18 years as transportation supervisor. “I’m in town every day,” says Ludington. “I don’t commute. We are never moving from here.”
Of special interest to Ludington is the growth that Stevensville is experiencing and the need to carefully control it.
“Mainly because of the recent large-scale subdivision that was approved, we have seen that we need to stay up on our subdivision regulations and development code,” says Ludington, who is currently the council representative on the planning board. “I have had the experience of doing this before. Now we have just spent a couple of months on new subdivision regulations that will be presented to the council by the end of the year. We’re also going to put out a Request for Proposals soon to find a consultant to help with updating the Growth Policy, which was last done in 2016.”
Ludington said that regarding the council’s approval of the preliminary plat for the Burnt Fork Estates major subdivision, the public misunderstood that the council had to approve the subdivision if it met the legal requirements. “The conditions that were put in place will be what the developers have to satisfy before the subdivision is ever built,” said Ludington. “Those are significant.”
With two council seats being contested, and a heated mayoral race, Ludington said he’s concerned about the town employees under a new administration. “We are in a very unique place right now,” he said, “with the public works director and the chief of police being very highly experienced individuals. We have a stable office staff right now. If the administration changes too much, it’s going to have a big effect on the town. I’m not sure if the people with the town right now will stay. I wouldn’t.”
Ludington said the council “went out on a big limb this year” by giving the town staff a significant raise. “We’re trying to stabilize our staff,” he said, because people can easily move on to better-paying jobs in the current market. “The reality is that everyone is calling it ‘the great resignation.’ People are finding different jobs. If we aren’t able to keep the people we need then we won’t be able to provide the services we have. All the town departments struggle with that, even the fire department. The people we have right now want to stay here but to be able to stay here they need to get paid something more in keeping with what they’re worth.”
The council has faced some criticism recently for raising user fees and authorizing the mayor to put a former gravel pit up for sale, to cover the budget shortfall created by the pay raises.
“That’s what unbalanced the budget,” said Ludington. “But if we underspend in other areas, raise fees, sell or annex property, we can balance it. We just can’t keep the status quo.” He said trying to float a bond is not on anybody’s radar right now. “I don’t think that’s something the town needs to try to do.”
He noted that the mayor and the council did not get a raise.
Transparency has also been brought up by critics who say the administration is doing things without the public’s knowledge. “I think there are some things that we could do,” said Ludington. “But if you look at what is happening in other places as far as transparency goes, everything we talk about at council meetings is published ahead of time.”
Noting the vitriol that has occurred at recent council meetings, Ludington said, “If the things that have been said by the public to the town council and mayor were said to some other board in some other town, there would be more consequences. We have put up with a lot.” He said there probably are people in the town who would like to get involved but “because of some of the things that have been done and said, it has caused those people to shy away.”
“Right now, we have some people on the council who will listen and are trying to get things done,” said Ludington. “It’s a learning curve for everyone, including the mayor. We need to be able to get over the idea of ‘getting our way.’ There’s only compromise and mutual understanding. Everything is a compromise to someone.”
“Stevensville is a great little town,” said Ludington. “We have a lot of traditions that we’re trying to keep alive. I don’t compare us to anyone else. I don’t want to compare us to Missoula. I consider myself a fiscal conservative. We try to do the best we can with the budget that is set for us. I think we all have a responsibility to where we live. My grandfather told me that owning property allows you the ability to assist in the civic life of the town. You have a civic responsibility to participate in government or some civic organization. You have a responsibility to be involved.”