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September 21, 2023

I headed east to Glendive this week with a simple goal in mind. 

Assigned to work at the Glendive Ranger Review as part of Montana Free Press’ reporters-in-residence program, my plan was to explore a new (to me) part of the state and ask people their thoughts on Matt Rosendale, the Republican Montana congressman who declares a residence in Dawson County. 

Rosendale, a former state legislator and Montana commissioner of securities and insurance, is widely expected to launch a 2024 run for U.S. Senate, a campaign in which he would attempt to defeat early-bird Republican candidate Tim Sheehy and topple three-term Democratic incumbent Jon Tester. I thought I would ask around about Rosendale, Sheehy and Tester, maybe pitch in on some fire reporting or agricultural coverage, write something about how a week in rural Montana had expanded my horizons, and get back to Helena by Friday afternoon. 

How naïve the Arren of four days ago was. 

Glendive, I learned Monday, is a small city with a big crisis on its hands. The city currently has no mayor, no director of operations — a position akin to city manager — and no police chief. It’s a ship without a rudder or sail, adrift in a sea of political confusion. 

Of course, Glendive isn’t designed that way. In November 2021, Teresea Olson, a physician assistant and medical massage therapist, won the city’s mayorship, unseating multi-decade incumbent Jerry Jimison. Olson ran on a standard platform — increasing trail access, supporting small businesses, pro law enforcement and the like — and ended up destabilizing the city’s multigenerational power structure. Olson said she wasn’t running to become some kind of change agent. She just wanted to give people an option. 

“I didn’t think I would win. I’m a female in Glendive, and this man has been a generational mayor,” she told me this week. 

But Glendive voters seemed ready for a change. The eight-member city council, on the other hand, was not. 

Acrimony engulfed essentially all of Olson’s term, which began in January 2022 and ended, prematurely, with her resignation earlier this month. She was in near-constant conflict with the city council, which had established, in conjunction with the previous mayor, a decades-long way of doing things that had been consistent, if not always 100% proper, she and others said. The mayor and the council shared power on most decisions. City council meetings were quiet affairs. 

But shortly after the start of Olson’s administration, she learned that under the Montana Constitution and the city’s code, the mayor has more authority to make personnel decisions than her predecessor had exercised. What ensued was a still-ongoing conflict over the city’s proper form of government. Operations Director Kitty Schmid, who preceded Olson but nevertheless became an ally, resigned in July, citing harassment by members of the council. Olson and the council hired a new police chief to turn around an understaffed and struggling department, but Olson terminated him less than a year later, citing still-undisclosed complaints about his leadership and discord with the local police union. It was as if the sky opened and gasoline rained down on a city hall in flames. 

Insults and insinuations flew in both directions, a restraining order was invoked, and the mayor, frustrated by what she perceived as unending disrespect from the council, accused one of the body’s members of having dementia. Citizen allies of Olson began to attend council meetings to defend — sometimes aggressively — their mayor.

Olson’s citizen coalition is discussing recall petitions targeting members of the council, an initiative to implement term limits, and other measures it says are necessary to improve transparency and accountability.

On the other side, the council says Schmid’s abrupt resignation left them with an incomplete budget and a city in organizational chaos only days before the beginning of a new fiscal year. Olson, they contend, left them in the dark on key decisions, and didn’t know how to handle the complexities of the job. And with her resignation — in a Facebook post, she described feeling sabotaged from the beginning — they’re left to pick up the pieces. 

These are all nonpartisan positions, though the disagreement over the proper form of city government has raised questions about whether they should be. The disputes are conflicts between neighbors amplified by civic responsibility. Everybody seems to want the same thing: a growing, prosperous Glendive. 

But after researching the last year and a half of disarray — which has been extensively covered by the Ranger Review — it’s hard to see how that might be achieved, and I’m still not sure who deserves blame. Glendive is not the Legislature. But it’s getting a taste of the tribalism and acrimony that too often characterizes business in Helena. Olson, who describes herself as a religious person, said she started to drink vodka and curse. 

That’s politics. There is trouble in the flatlands. We’ll have more to report next week. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Speaking of Dawson County

Glendive’s own Ric Holden, a farmer and state senator who last served in the 2002 special session, last week became the latest Republican to announce an interest in running to represent Montana’s eastern U.S. House district if Matt Rosendale indeed vacates the position to run for Senate. 

“Early reports indicate that the eastern half of Montana is ready to send a representative back to Washington, D.C., who is active in livestock and farming agriculture,” he told the Ranger Review via press release. (Rosendale, who originally hails from Maryland, has a ranch in Dawson County that he’s leased out.) 

The race already looks crowded. An assortment of state officials — outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, state Sen. Ken Bogner, R-Miles City, Public Service Commission member Randy Pinocci and others — have all announced interest in the district. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

On Background

Glendive Mayor Olson steps down at Tuesday’s Glendive City Council meeting: It’s hard to know where to start the story of Glendive’s recent dysfunction. But it led to the resignation of mayor Teresea Olson this month, the Ranger Review reported. 

Dawson County resident Ric Holden announces plans to enter 2024 Eastern Montana congressional race, again, per the Ranger Review.

Montana delegation split on increasingly likely government shutdownIn other news, the looming government shutdown and federal budget crisis have divided even the Republican members of Montana’s federal delegation, the Lee newspapers report.