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.

Why can’t commissioners ban fireworks? The difference between county and city government

Fireworks

One of the most common requests constituents ask of commissioners is if they will consider enacting various ordinances addressing issues throughout the county.

A frequent example tends to pop up this time of year, when commissioners start fielding requests to implement an ordinance banning residents from lighting fireworks on private property in the county, like the city does.

While commissioners themselves may support the idea behind suggested ordinances, here’s the catch: Unlike municipalities, such as the City of Missoula, county government is a general powers government. This means commissioners cannot enact specific ordinances or laws unless the state has explicitly granted them the power to do so.

On the other hand, a municipality with a self-governing charter, like Missoula and most other cities in Montana, can enact ordinances as long as doing so is “not expressly prohibited by the Montana constitution, state law or its charter.”

For Missoula County to ban fireworks, the Montana Legislature would need to pass, and the governor would need to sign, a bill granting counties the authority to ban fireworks. But since it has a charter providing for self-governing powers, the City of Missoula can ban fireworks all it wants, unless the Legislature passes a bill barring municipalities from prohibiting fireworks. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and the county can prohibit lighting fireworks on private property when the risk of forest fires warrants it. The county also can prohibit lighting off fireworks on county property, including county parks and recreation areas.

Counties in Montana were originally established as an extension of state government, when distance and geography significantly hindered the state’s ability to conduct business effectively. Today, counties still administer many roles on behalf of the state (think vehicle titling and registration, elections, criminal prosecution, etc.). For their role in this, commissioners essentially serve as the executive branch of the state, enforcing state laws and providing the system of check and balances enshrined in our bedrock governing documents.

What can county commissioners do, then?

Per MCA 7-3-401, “all legislative, executive and administrative powers and duties of the local government not specifically reserved by law or ordinance to other elected officials reside in the commission.”

In Missoula County, this means commissioners can:

  • Approve county contracts, employee agreements and grants
  • Review, adjust and approve all department budgets to fund county priorities. The approved budget is a major factor in determining the amount of tax revenue the county will need to fund operations.
  • Vote to put citizen-driven initiatives on the ballot
  • Pass resolutions that set county priorities and direct staff efforts, such as the resolution to attain carbon neutrality in county operations by 2035. Resolutions can also address imminent threats to public safety or health, such as those declaring a state of emergency amid flooding, wildfires or other natural disasters.
  • Direct staff to develop and implement county guidance documents, such as the Jail Diversion Master Plan and the Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Commissioners also must vote to adopt these plans before they can be implemented.
  • Create and enforce zoning regulations dictating what sort of development can occur in an area
  • Create separate taxing districts to encourage development or fund public infrastructure and services in a specific area of the county. These most often occur in the form of Tax Increment Finance Districts (TIFs), Targeted Economic Development Districts (TEDDs) and Rural Special Improvement Districts (RSIDs).
  • Advise the City-County Health Board on creating and enforcing health codes that protect public health and the natural environment
  • Create and enforce subdivision regulations
  • Appoint community members to serve on advisory and governing boards

What is a constituent to do then if they see a need for a law or ordinance outside city limits? Your best bet is to take it up with your state representative and senator. They can pursue legislation in Helena granting counties the power to create and enforce a specific ordinance.

Or, you can vote in favor of a conducting a local government study, which could include consideration of a charter granting the county self-governing powers. This constitutionally mandated resolution appears on the ballot every 10 years to provide flexibility and accountability for local government in Montana. (You can read more about the last time Missoula County conducted a local government study, in the mid-2000s, in the Missoulian archives.)

If you want to go that route though, you’ll have to be patient – residents voted down the measure in 2014, and it won’t appear on the ballot again until 2024.

What other questions do you have about county government? Comment here, and we’ll answer them in future posts.

Commissioner Rowley leaving office for position with Gallatin County

Rowley headshotCommissioner Nicole “Cola” Rowley announced today that she will step down from the Missoula County Commission to take a position as deputy county administrator with Gallatin County. Rowley, whose term expires at the end of 2020, will assume her new role on July 1.

“This is an amazing opportunity to further my dedication to public service for years to come,” Rowley said. “It will allow me to capitalize on my strengths and interest in data, administration and collaborative innovation. I’m excited for a new challenge and the accompanying personal and professional growth.”

Rowley is the current chair of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners. Since taking office in 2015, she has worked to bring data to the forefront of local government and is passionate about finding data-informed solutions to address issues like climate change, criminal justice reform, public health and land use planning.

“In a few short years, Cola has left an indelible impression on Missoula County government,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “Among other things, her data-driven approach to criminal justice reform has put Missoula County on the map and will position us well for realizing jail diversion efforts and fostering healthy communities. She’s smart, motivated and passionate — all attributes that will serve Gallatin County well. I look forward to collaborating across county lines, and I wish Cola the very best in her new role.”

Rowley currently serves on several boards and authorities, including the Partnership Health Center, Western Montana Mental Health Center and Missoula Aging Services boards and the Housing Policy Steering Committee. She’s also the elected chair of the Urban Counties Coalition of the Montana Association of Counties and serves on the National Association of Counties Justice and Public Safety Steering Committee.

“Cola’s encyclopedic understanding of local government, focus on data-driven solutions and commitment to an equitable future have made her an effective elected official,” Commissioner Josh Slotnick said. “I have appreciated Cola’s openness and willingness to pass on her knowledge, as she has been a great help to me as well as the county. Our loss is indeed Gallatin County’s gain.”

With Rowley leaving before her term expires, an appointee will fill her seat upon her departure. Pursuant to Montana Code Annotated 7-4-2106(2), the Missoula County Democratic Central Committee will provide a list of three names to Strohmaier and Slotnick. The commissioners will decide on a process and timeline for selecting the candidate and issue an announcement when finalized.

The newly selected commissioner will carry out the remaining year and half of Rowley’s term and have the opportunity to run for the open seat in the November 2020 election. The winner of the election will then serve the standard six-year staggered term beginning Jan. 1, 2021.

“It’s been an honor to serve Missoula County and to work with such amazing people every day, within the organization and in the community,” Rowley said. “I’m proud of the work I’ve done forwarding the redevelopment of the fairgrounds, justice system improvement, addressing climate change and resiliency planning, policy and regulatory updates and development, transparency and efficiency. Missoula County has been recognized nationally for the work we do on many fronts, and I look forward to its continued success.”