By Alan Sorensen
CHINOOK The Blaine County Commissioners say that their opposition to the U.S. Department of Justice's attempts to compel them to end their at-large commission elections has nothing to do with race.
"I'm really concerned about the federal government telling the state that its laws are no good," Commissioner Art Kleinjan said. "I don't think there are any racial concerns here as far as the commissioners are concerned. We just believe that if we have to vote the commissioners in by district, the whole state should. And if the whole state were to do it, so be it."
Kleinjan, commissioner from Blaine County Commission District Three, lives in the northern part of the county that includes Chinook.
State law requires that commissioners reside in the part of the county that is encompassed by their district boundaries, he said. It also requires that every elector in a county be allowed to vote in each commission race.
Commissioner Vic Miller lives in Harlem, which is part of Commission District One that includes Harlem, Fort Belknap Agency and the New Town area, Turner and Hogeland. It extends pretty much from the Three Butte area north to the Canadian border and east to the Phillips County line, Kleinjan said.
Commissioner Don Swenson lives south of Chinook in District Two the largest in area of the three districts. District Two pretty much runs north and south between the Milk and Missouri Rivers and east and west between Hill and Phillips counties. It includes Hays, Lodgepole, Zurich, Cleveland and Lloyd.
A federal government lawsuit against the county claims that only those people who live in a commission district should vote for the candidates from that district.
The federal government brought the suit against the county after receiving complaints that the votes of Gros Ventre Assiniboine Indian Community members are diluted by votes from the whites in the rest of the county. Some residents of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation say the at-large method of voting has kept Native Americans off the commission.
The government brought the suit under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Hill County, which also has a large Indian population, many of whom live on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, could also find itself in federal court over the at-large voting as mandated by state law.
Kleinjan said that the Justice Department's lawsuit calls for redrawing the district lines and holding a special election for all three seats in 2001. Turner and Hogeland would be moved into District Three with Chinook.
"Commission District Two changes, also, but it is impossible to explain over the telephone, because they have some really funny lines," Kleinjan said about the federal redistricting plan. "(District lines) factored in area and people, and now the federal government is looking at just people."
Kleinjan said that commissioners look out for the best interests of the entire county on a daily basis so everyone in the county should have a say who sits on the commission.
"Now, when you're elected at large, you have to live in the district that you really represent. The only thing we do is our road work in our own districts, everything else is for the whole county."
That road work, Kleinjan said, amounts o overseeing road maintenance in good weather seasons and snow removal from the district's roads in the winter.
"We actually take care of (road work) in our own districts and as a courtesy, we just stay out of the other commissioners' districts when it comes to roads."
As for county-wide projects that Kleinjan said represent most of the commissioners' workload, Kleinjan considers them important enough that everyone in the county should have a vote in the commissioners' races. He also doubts that any commissioner would intentionally slight his own district.
"My personal feeling is if a commissioner is elected within a district, why wouldn't that commissioner work real hard to put the lion's share of the money into his district," Kleinjan said. "Say you have a commissioner who has been in there a long time and two who were new, that individual would know more and be able to swing the money into his district.
"Your tax dollars are not split out by district, therefore, you're spending everybody's tax dollars when you spend money, and then why not represent everyone in the county. And besides, it's a state law that we're elected this way."
Kleinjan said the only county in the state that elects its commissioners by district is Big Horn County.
"They were ordered to do that in 1986," he said. "And since that decision was made, there have been three supreme court decisions that you cannot redistrict for minority reasons only."
Three counties in the state operate differently from the rest. Butte/Silverbow and Anaconda/Deer Lodge are city-county forms of government. The third operates under a totally different type of governmental arrangement, Kleinjan said.
All three of those counties changed their governmental arrangements during the 10-year cycle of government review that the state has adopted. Each city and county reviews its governmental system each 10 years and opts for change or the status quo, whether through the review process or a public vote.
Right now, the Blaine County Commissioners are united against the federal proposal to redistrict and re-elect the commission in 2001. The trial on the Department of Justices' lawsuit is scheduled for April 30, 2001.
"At that time, we hope to do some negotiating and see what we can do," Kleinjan said.
Kleinjan's Commission District Three seat is up for election this year. He said that federal officials have hinted that they may let the winner of that race fill an entire three-year term if he garners enough votes from Turner, Hogeland and Chinook. They've also hinted, he said, that they may not force an election for the commissioner whose term is up in 2002 until that term expires.
"You know, these special elections are very costly," he said.