In journalistic circles it’s generally considered bad form for a reporter to become part of the story, but we’re inclined to cut some slack for one local journalist. After 18 years of shining the harsh light of public scrutiny on the political shenanigans of Ravalli County officials, former Ravalli Republic editor and current Missoula Independent staff writer Ruth Thorning this week filed as a candidate for Ravalli County commissioner for the county’s southern district seat.
Thorning, a self-described “compassionate conservative” who is running on the Democratic ticket, will take on Republican incumbent Devin “Smut” Warren and two other Republican challengers: incumbent county clerk and recorder Betty Lund, and Bob Gray, who currently serves on the Hamilton school board.
The muckraking Thorning, who says she spent eight years as a county government reporter just trying to get the commissioners to post a copy of their weekly agenda, says she is running on a platform of “open, accountable and decisive government,” three traits that have been woefully lacking in Ravalli County politics.
“Accountability? There is none,” says Thorning. “The county got a $96,000 grant and nobody knows who had even applied for it or where it was coming from, and the only people who have the right to apply for the grant are the county commissioners. Then there’s this fiasco with the computer system, where now the county is responsible for $200,000 worth of rewiring because no one was accountable to make sure that the job was done properly in the first place.”
Thorning contends that for too long, county commissioners have gotten away with conducting public business behind closed doors, closing public meetings, taking controversial issues “under advisement” when it was apparent that a roomful of citizens didn’t agree with them, and deliberating for weeks (if not months) on issues that demanded more urgent decision-making.
“The county is a $16-million-a-year business,” says Thorning. “The good ol’ boy way of doing things just won’t work anymore.”
Few would argue that Thorning, a 34-year resident of Conner and a lifelong resident of the Bitterroot Valley, will not be a formidable challenger in the November election. With 18 years of newspaper experience covering the Bitterroot Valley from virtually every angle—reporting on sports, the environment, “cops and courts,” county government and finally, as managing editor of the Ravalli Republic until it was sold to Lee Enterprises in May 1999—Thorning says she probably knows the inner workings of county government better than anyone except the employees themselves.
If elected, she says, one of her first priorities will be to draft a growth management plan for the county. During the 1970s and 1980s, Thorning served nine years on the Ravalli County Planning Board, where she helped pass the first comprehensive plan, a hotly debated document that was supposed to include regulations to be drafted later that would help implement its overall mission. Those regulations were never adopted.
“If that had been done in the ’80s, we wouldn’t be facing the problems that we are now in the 21st century,” says Thorning.
Admittedly, any growth plan will be a Herculean task in this staunchly conservative county, and Thorning recognizes that it will demand strong consensus-building skills.
“You have to have something that people can live with,” says Thorning. “I don’t believe that a growth plan can ever be passed by a popular vote. I think what you have to do is go out, work with each of the communities, establish some sort of consensus, and then take it to the commissioners and have the commissioners pass it.”
She cites the community focus groups established during the debate over the U.S. Highway 93 widening project as an example of how Bitterroot residents can come together to make their voices heard, even if not all those voices are heeded.
Economic development will also be one of Thorning’s high priorities. As the valley continues to grow at its rapid pace, and becomes what she calls “a transfer payment valley,” county government must work not only to keep its current jobs, but build a strong economic base by attracting clean industry dollars.
Thorning also wants to ensure that the valley’s voices will be heard on such vital issues as water diversion from the Bitterroot River and the recent decision to reintroduce grizzly bears in the Selway-Bitterroot. Thorning says she will push hard for a county commissioner’s seat on the citizens’ advisory committee that will manage the bears’ reintroduction.
“That’s a place where the federal government is dictating a policy that is definitely going to impact the lives of farmers, ranchers and recreationists in the valley,” says Thorning. “So I hope the commissioners can take a real forward role there, so that the valley’s voice will be heard.”
Thorning, mother of two, foster parent of three and grandmother of nine, says she will continue writing for the Independent barring any conflicts of interest, as well as operating her advertising company, called Write Now, and her substitute teaching 3-5 days a week. Still, she is strongly committed to her first countywide race.
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think that I could win and I had something I could give the county,” says Thorning. “It gives me the opportunity to give something back to the community that I’ve lived in all my life. I think I can do that as a commissioner.”