By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
For the first time in 10 years, primary election ballots next Tuesday will ask voters if they want to form a team of citizens to assess their local governments.
Called local government study commissions, the teams review the form and efficiency of government. Over the course of two years, the commissions are required to hold meetings to garner public input and publish reports of their findings. If the commissions recommend any changes, the proposals must appear on the next election ballot for voter approval.
Ken Weaver, a senior political research scientist at Montana State University's Local Government Center and a former mayor of Bozeman, said some communities benefit from forming study commissions.
"Notably, it's an opportunity to re-establish confidence in local government through the voter review process, and make any adjustments that might be necessary or appropriate, and also gives the voters a chance to hold their elected leaders to a higher standard of accountability," he said.
Weaver, who has analyzed hundreds of study commission reports from the last three decades, said some of the recommendations a commission could make include changing the way services are administered, moving to a new form of government, incorporating an area as a city, or consolidating two or more existing governments.
The recommendations are enacted if a majority of voters approve the changes.
Local governments must place the study commission issue on ballots once a decade, though commissions can also be formed at the prompting of local governing bodies or by a petition from local voters. If the study commission is approved during the primary election, voters will elect commission members at the general election in November.
The study commission issue first appeared on ballots statewide in 1974, and every 10 years since then as required by the Montana Constitution.
On Tuesday, voters in Hill County will decide whether to form a commission to analyze county government, and the residents of the incorporated cities of Havre and Hingham will also be asked whether they want to establish study commissions for those municipalities.
In a separate ballot question, voters will be asked whether they want to finance the commissions through a 1-mill levy. Study commission members are not paid, but commissions often incur travel expenses and postage and publishing costs.
The value of 1 mill in Hill County is about $27,000, while those in Havre and Hingham are $7,600 and $154, respectively.
The actual taxes assessed could be less than those amounts, but voters will be asked to authorize a maximum of 1 mill. For the owner of a home worth $100,000, 1 mill equates to a tax increase of $7.03 for a Havre resident, $2.34 for a county resident, and $3.30 for a resident of Hingham.
It is possible to approve forming a study commission and reject the funding measure, meaning the commission would operate without the assistance of tax dollars.
There are a number of issues that study commissions look at, Weaver said.
"The study commission could recommend that they amend the existing plan of government, (or) adopt a self-government charter or city-county consolidation," he said, adding that the latter recommendation has been enacted in two communities in Montana. Voters in Butte-Silver Bow and Anaconda-Deer Lodge approved consolidating governments during the 1974-76 study commission cycle.
Weaver said a peripheral effect of establishing study commissions is the rebirth of people's interest in serving in local government. It is not uncommon for those who serve on study commissions to seek public office, he said.
Two current Hill County commissioners - Doug Kaercher and Pat Conway - served on the county's 1994 study commission.
Kaercher said his experience on the study commission "definitely" played a role in his decision to run for county commissioner in 1996. Kaercher had previously served for five years on the Havre City Council, a position he was required to abandon when he moved outside the city limits.
He said he was "intrigued with the differences between the city and county governments" during his tenure on the study commission, and decided to seek public office again, this time in county government. His bid was successful, and he took office in 1997.
Conway, a former teacher and Havre High School principal, actually had to resign from the county's study commission when he was appointed a county commissioner in 1995.
Weaver said the majority of people who vote against forming a study commission often do so because they see no apparent problems with their local government.
"The obvious train of thought is, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' and my response to that typically is, 'How would you know?'" he said.
When the study commission issue appeared on ballots in 1994, 56 percent of voters statewide voted in favor of establishing the commissions, Weaver said. That resulted in the formation of 79 municipal study commissions, as well as 33 county study commissions, he said.
Those commissions generated 262 ballot proposals, 68 of which were ultimately approved by voters, Weaver said.
In 1994, voters in Havre and Hill County approved forming study commissions, while those in Hingham did not. The two commissions made a number of recommendations, and several generated by the city study commission ultimately made it to the ballot.
They included measures that would have established a city charter, required city employees to live within the city limits, and made the election system nonpartisan, said City Clerk Lowell Swenson. The charter included a proposal that would have created the position of city manager, Swenson said.
Under a city manager system, the mayor position still exists, but most of the day-to-day decisions are made by the city manager.
Voters rejected the charter proposal, and though they approved several of the separate ballot measures, the measures were tied to the charter and could not be enacted, Swenson said.
In addition to the proposals that appeared on the ballot, the city's study commission also looked at changing precinct boundaries and reducing the number of city council positions from eight to seven, said Havre firefighter Bob Keeler, who served on the commission with Havre residents Gail Rader and Jim O'Leary.
One issue that both the city and county study commissions looked at was the consolidation of law enforcement services. According to former members, the two commissions held numerous meetings on the issue.
"You have a county of about 17,000 people, and a city of 11,000 people, so basically you have two full-service law enforcement agencies serving many of the same people," Kaercher said. "The idea behind the consolidation was that you could have the same number of officers on duty with less administration."
A number of government officials opposed the consolidation, and the issue was abandoned after commission members rejected it in a split vote.
"There were some concerns that outlying areas would not receive the attention that they need, (that) most of the services would be directed to Havre," Kaercher said. "It's a bigger project than initially you would think it would be. It's still something I think over a period of time may be feasible."