By Rhonda Petersen
In a rematch of the June primary, a retired Montana Highway Patrol officer will face a substitute teacher in the nonpartisian race for Hill County justice of the peace.
In the June primary, retired Highway Patrol officer Terry Stoppa received 2,042 votes while his opponent, substitute teacher Ramon "Ray" Bergh, received 683 votes. Both men advanced to the November general election as the top two vote-getters.
Stoppa, 56, was born and raised in Alpena, Mich. He graduated from Alpena High School and studied for two years at Alpena Community College.
Stoppa can thank the U.S. Air Force for bringing him to Montana. Shortly after marrying in 1967, Stoppa received an Army draft notice. Rather than be drafted and likely shipped to Vietnam and away from his new bride, Kay, Stoppa enlisted in the Air Force. He was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls where he served four years as a security police officer.
After leaving the Air Force in 1971, Stoppa moved to Chester, where he worked first as a deputy sheriff and then briefly as sheriff of Liberty County. Stoppa left that position to pursue his lifelong dream of being a highway patrolman. Stoppa graduated from the Montana Highway Patrol Academy and began his career as a highway patrolman in 1973. He retired in the spring of 2000 after serving 26 years, including eight years as a supervisor. He now works as a materials lab technician with the Montana Department of Transportation.
Stoppa and his wife, an office manager for Havre Optometric Clinic, have lived in Havre for 29 years. They have three grown children, Tim, Tara, and Troy.
Stoppa decided to run for the position when longtime Justice of the Peace Carol Chagnon retired.
He said his 32 years of experience in law enforcement makes him well-qualified for the position.
"I've spent thousands of hours in court for civil and criminal cases," he said."I know how the justice system works."
If elected, he said, he would take full advantage of the training offered to new justices of the peace by the state of Montana.
Stoppa said he views the justice of the peace as the "first base" of the legal system; the justice can attempt to reach first- time offenders before they become hardened criminals.
He said he would work within the state guidelines for minimum and maximum sentences for each case as well as examining the individual circumstances.
"I would judge each individual case on its own merits before I would render a judgment," he said.
Stoppa identified several areas in which the justice of the peace could make an impact on the community. For instance, he would work closely with school, health, county, city and law enforcement officials to pool their resources and ideas to see what could be done to cut down on alcohol and drug violations. Stoppa said another problem area is the large number of people who violate the motor vehicle liability insurance law. A third area Stoppa said people have brought to his attention since he started his campaign is bad checks.
Stoppa's opponent, Ray Bergh, also thinks that alcohol and drugs are a problem in Hill County.
Bergh noted that the minimum jail sentence for a first-time DUI offense is 24 hours in jail. Bergh said he would be willing to consider harsher sentences for first-time drunken drivers.
Bergh, 57, was born in Seattle and grew up in Plentywood. He graduated from Plentywood High School and has two degrees from Montana State University-Northern, an associate's degree in business and a bachelor's degree in education for teaching U.S. history and government. Bergh is married and the father of two grown sons, Jere and Terry. Bergh's wife, Lorrene, works as a teller at Stockman Bank.
Bergh worked for 24 years as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
"I would assess people's skills and abilities, and assist them in returning to work within their abilities," he said.
During his 24 years, Bergh managed the offices in Havre and Glasgow and was responsible for clients from Chester to the North Dakota border, including residents of three Indian reservations.
Bergh said it was very rewarding to help people find work that matched their individidual abilities.
After he left his job as a counselor in 1995, Bergh went to work as a teacher. He taught history, government and English at Box Elder for two years and now works as a substitute teacher for Havre and Box Elder schools. Bergh also works as a tour guide and performs exhibit maintenance and repair at Havre Beneath the Streets.
Bergh is a published author. He wrote a book titled "The Forgotten Squadron." The book is about the Navy patrol that provided air cover during President Franklin Roosevelt's tour of the Aleutian Islands during World War II.
Bergh said that when he worked as a vocational counselor he was encouraged by the justices of the peace he worked with to run for the position. He said his background as a counselor makes him well-suited for the position.
"I am impartial, fair and have the ability as demonstrated by working as a counselor for 24 years to be able to sort out the facts," he said.
Bergh routinely dealt with the justice system while working as a vocational counselor. Many of the clients he assisted were referred to him by the courts.
If elected, he said, he will work within the confines of the law to determine sentences.
"If a person is found guilty, the sentence will be within established guidelines by law," he said. "The sentence will be one that will give them incentive to obey the laws."
Since the June primary, Bergh has been working on becoming better known to voters. He said he has been trying to meet people one-on-one.
The winner of the rematch in the justice of the peace race will serve a four-year term and earn an annual salary of $32,423.68.