Q and A with new Commissioner Juanita Vero

Juanita Vero

Commissioner Juanita Vero started her new job in July after Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick appointed her to fill the remainder of Nicole Rowley’s term, which runs through the end of 2020. Vero, a fourth-generation partner of the E Bar L Ranch in Greenough, plans to run for the open seat in the November 2020 election.

“Juan,” as she’s known around the office, took a break from her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her experience so far and what she hopes to accomplish in the future.

Why did you want to serve as a commissioner?

I don’t think many folks say, “I want to be a county commissioner.” I’m from a rural part of the county and there’s not always a lot of trust in government. In fact, I can think of numerous times I’ve told people, “Man, there’s no way I’d want to be a county commissioner … they just get chaffed coming and going, trying to serve unsatisfied citizens with limited resources. No one is ever pleased with you.”

The reason I changed my attitude is that I was asked to consider the position by some folks I respect. I had a contemplative birthday weekend in Recluse, Wyoming, and took stock of the years I’d spent serving on various nonprofit boards and committees focused on natural resource, community-based conservation. I have a deep love for Missoula County, its complexities and contradictions, and realized I had the capacity to have a positive impact so I shouldn’t squander it. My high school motto is Not ut sibi ministretur sed ut ministret or “Not to be served but to serve.”

What does a typical day look like for you so far?

We take an impressive number of back to back meetings, both standing and scheduled, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., with some evening obligations, such as community events or public meetings. Generally, the day is a whirlwind of staff reports or presentations from various county departments or organizations from across the county, field tours, and, of course, public hearings. I joke that one could get a concussion merely sitting through a day of meetings — one minute we’re discussing paving rollers and pavement recipes, the next it’s early detection of autism for children under 5, a building in this department has boiler or HVAC issues, this riparian corridor should be protected, that building needs a new roof, and oh, there’s illegal camping going on in a right-of-way and what are we to do about folks who are working but forced to live in their cars, and this developer needs a variance on fire code because of new building design, someone vandalized Fort Missoula Historical Museum, this staff member is retiring or promoted and it will take two new hires to do the job, Seeley Lake needs a sewer, and, yes, we need to figure out a budget for 118,000 people living across 2,618 square miles. I usually find myself back in the office in the evening when it’s quiet and I have a chance to process what happened that day and catch up on email.

 What do you think are the most pressing issues facing Missoula County?

This isn’t very sexy, but it’s our taxing structure — that we rely so heavily on property taxes to fund all the important and necessary services that make Missoula County a great place to live is problematic. It’s also a blow that revenue from other sources has steadily declined, whether it’s due to state and federal cuts to social services, decreases in PILT money (payment in lieu of taxes we receive for government-owned property in the county) or insufficient reimbursement for housing state inmates at our county jail.

Another challenge is balancing growth while preserving our collective senses of place. Change is hard, and everyone in Missoula County − urban, rural and in the “doughnut” − identify with the ground, the landscape and the people around them in their corner of the county. Adding 20,000 people over the next couple of decades and seeing new things pop up in our old haunts can feel disorienting. County leadership can help set the tone in how we navigate that and how people might feel about it at the end of the day.

What are some of your goals for your first year in office?

I don’t consider myself a politician, and I find it rather presumptuous to roll into a new position, a new culture and start making grand gestures. I’m reminded of a wilderness first responder maxim, “before doing anything, survey the scene.” I had an instructor who recommended taking the time to eat a Snickers bar — and observe what was going on — before administering aid. My goal for the coming year is to eat that Snickers bar, to listen, learn and absorb as much as possible and ultimately create the space or conditions for staff to feel empowered to do their best work and for citizens to feel heard and able to create the community in which they want to live. I’m honored to be part of this commission. We won’t always agree, but I’m very excited to be working alongside Commissioners Strohmaier and Slotnick.

What has surprised you most since starting your new job?

I’ve never worked indoors in an air-conditioned office before. It takes a bit of getting used to. In all seriousness, I wasn’t expecting to fall in love every day with the people (citizens and staff) of Missoula County. Even those who are upset with us impress me with how much they care and are trying to do what’s right for their families and their community. We are incredibly fortunate to live here, and if any place can grapple with sticky issues, Missoula County can.

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Q and A with new Commissioner Josh Slotnick

Josh Slotnick hit the ground running as Missoula County’s newest commissioner at the beginning of the year. He took a break from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his experience so far and what he hopes to accomplish in the future.

Josh Slotnick headshot
Josh Slotnick

Why did you want to run for public office?

I came here 30 odd years ago, to go to college and quickly fell for Missoula. Every time I left, I ended up coming back, and I came back because of Missoula’s special combination of landscape and culture. We’re straight up not like everywhere else, we’re better. Eventually, the greater world found that out, and with our popularity has come ever more vexing challenges. We’ve seen mad growth and a concurrent rise in housing costs and development pressure, and an intensifying of use of some of our most fragile and loved places. While we’re busy wrestling with all that, our climate has become ever more volatile, and smoke, fire and floods are now nearly seasons unto themselves. In the face of these challenges we must be tremendously thoughtful in how we set the stage for the future. I want to help make sure the next wave of people who come here have the same opportunity I did to fall for this place and build a life. Given my deep commitment to Missoula, the position my last workplace afforded me, and the skills I’ve picked up from decades of community work, I feel a sense of obligation to service.  I also have one more big chapter’s worth of energy to give. I added all that up and it equaled running for office and working with the county.

What does a typical day look like for you so far?

I listen a lot. The BCC meets with staff to do the peoples’ business, and often this means talking through thorny, complicated issues and making decisions, and sometimes it’s the perfunctory workings of local government. The diversity of issues before us reflects the diversity of concerns in life here, and that makes for interesting, if not sometimes information-stuffed, days.

What do you think are the most pressing issues facing Missoula County?

Planning for future development – that means considering affordable housing, preservation of natural resources, transportation and resiliency in the face of climate change in how we make all planning decisions. The growth I mentioned earlier has not brought everyone along; we must care for those left behind and work to make sure we all have a solid chance. We must also continue to protect and enhance the cultural amenities that make this place what it is. Our economic development depends up on our character and landscape. In this way economics, job creation and our general vibrancy are knit tightly to how well we care for this place and each other.

What are some of your goals for your first year in office?

I would like to be part of the following:

  • Real, tangible and practical steps towards remedying our housing crisis.
  • Bringing zoning and subdivision regulations in line with the land use map we’re in the process of updating and making possible conservation development where we construct needed housing while protecting our best ag soils and most vulnerable landscapes.
  • Real efforts to make decentralized renewable energy production a possibility for residents of Missoula County.
  • New approaches to property taxes and revenue generation for the county.

What has surprised you most since you started your new job?

The great diversity of issues, the size and scope of the work of the county and the tremendous depth of experience and knowledge of staff.