Whether it's Jerrell Ballas or William Carey, the candidate who wins the race for Missoula County Commissioner may find himself yanked around in a tug-o-war game between the remaining commissioners, Republican Barbara Evans and Democrat Michael Kennedy.
Issues such as growth management have sparked major disagreements between Evans and Kennedy so intense that there was talk of bringing in a mediator. With Democratic Commissioner Fern Hart stepping down, in part, because of such tensions, Ballas and Carey must know how to build strong bridges-yet voters will be counting on them to keep campaign promises.
Ballas, a Republican, and Carey, a Democrat, are vying for the county commissioner spot abandoned by Hart. The county is divided into three districts, with Hart representing the northeast, which includes the University of Montana. All county residents will have a chance to vote in the election.
The Republican Ballas, a first-time political candidate, has owned his small architecture business for 25 years and performed pro bono work for several major projects in the community, including the Vietnam War memorial in Rose Park. The cantankerous Evans, in a written statement to the Independent, has endorsed Ballas, because he is "pro-business and therefore pro-jobs."
"He is very pleasant and easy to get along with and would help ease the tensions in our office," Evans adds. "He considers all sides of an issue and is able to make firm, sensible, common sense decisions."
Carey is finishing his second term in the state legislature and has been the director of the Missoula Food Bank for the past 10 years. Kennedy is pulling for his fellow Democrat. Kennedy says he values Carey's experience in the legislature, as well as his even demeanor.
"Because of his calm manner, he can examine issues as objectively as possible and make decisions in the very best way," Kennedy says.
Once the election comes to an end, the new commissioner will be faced with another difficult race once in office-the race against uncontrolled growth.
Both candidates cite growth management as one of the most important issues facing Missoula. City and county officials have been dealing with the high growth rate-the county is expected to have 100,000 residents by the year 2000-which has contributed to serious problems, such as a lack of affordable housing.
Even though the Missoula Urban Comprehensive Plan (MUCP), a plan used by officials to guide growth, was adopted this July, county commissioners still need to establish the rules for zoning and subdivisions. Based on MUCP guidelines, the commissioners have been left to zone areas as residential, industrial or commercial.
Prompted by increased growth, Ballas says he became involved in county politics because of "affordability" issues. "I have paid attention to the cost of housing and I'm concerned about affordability," he says. "but there are conflicts in trying to manage growth and still maintain affordability."
If elected, Ballas says that he plans to allow MUCP to be his guide, but adds that "there is a group of citizens that would like to put the plan up for a vote. I am in favor of that." Commissioner Evans would also like to see the plan put to a vote.
Carey has adopted a stance that aims to prevent urban sprawl, and criticizes those who would allow growth to happen without constraint. "Are we going to proactively guide growth or are we just going to let it happen?" he says. "We have a responsibility to guide it."
Carey claims that a public vote would effectively kill MUCP, and notes that the plan has already had plenty of discussion and public involvement. "We've already been through public hearings," he says. "The process involved key parties and interests."
Kennedy agrees, "There has been public involvement and the plan has been in front of as many people as possible.... It would be a disservice to the community for us, as elected officials, to place this plan on the ballot."
Budget discussions also loom as the commissioners will try to decide which services can be provided and which ones will get the ax. Relationships between the county and the city, and the county and the state-all of which effect the county's fiscal health-also top the list of priorities.
Carey says, "In the last two terms, it wasn't unusual for local governments to ask to take over a responsibility from the state and the legislature saying, 'No, we will hang onto that.' Because of my legislative experience, I know a lot of the players [in Helena] and I'll be able to work with those people."
By contrast, Ballas points to the broad constituency he hopes to represent. "I've tried to keep in mind that the county commissioners have to represent a much wider area than the city," he says. "We have to represent all of those people and coordinate people in Missoula also-it's very difficult."
With critical issues facing the county, Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas hopes first and foremost that the commission will find a way to come together. Kadas, who supports Carey, says, "The most important thing for the next commissioner to be is independent. We really need someone in there who is going to listen to the facts and steer the course and not be in the Michael camp or the Barbara camp."
Hart, who is leaving the toil of county commissioner for "some down time," says that there needs to be a change in the commission office, but not a change in philosophies. "This position needs to be centrist. I don't regret my decisions-I believe I played the role that was given to me."
Hart adds that she supports Carey because he "will fill the position in a way that I did and a way that is best for Missoula County."
Both candidates say they understand that they must find common ground. But, establishing a truce may be difficult, as Missoula City Administrator Janet Stevens, a former county commissioner herself, says, "I'm not sure the tension is issue-oriented as much as it might be personality-oriented."
Democrat Bill Carey
Photo by Beth Wohlberg
Republican Jerry Ballas
Photo by Beth Wohlberg