This story is excerpted from Capitolized, a weekly newsletter with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Want to see Capitolized in your inbox every Thursday? Sign up here.
Last month, Montana Free Press, in collaboration with the Glendive Ranger-Review, told the story of the eastern Montana city of Glendive’s roughly 18-month struggle with civic dysfunction and mistrust. A new mayor came, found herself in immediate conflict with the City Council, and went; a new police chief was hired, fired and provisionally rehired; members of the community accused members of the City Council of violating the law; and the city’s very legal standing came into question.
Mayor Teresea Olson eventually quit, citing sabotage by the council. The council appointed an interim mayor, but the debacle highlighted a deep divide in the community about the city’s direction and the transparency of its government.
There were, loosely, two camps: those aligned with Olson, and those who backed the City Council, whose members included several long-serving incumbents who generally viewed Olson as a political novice trying to rock the boat without justification.
On Tuesday, Election Day in many Montana cities, the former camp dealt a non-fatal blow to the latter. Kevin Thompson, a former member of the local school board and a self-described friend of Olson’s, defeated decades-long council incumbent Leon Baker, the body’s president, 158 votes to 79. Baker, a staunch critic of Olson and an ally of her predecessor, was a key figure in the city government saga. In a locally notorious incident, Olson once accused Baker, after a particularly intense dispute, of showing symptoms of dementia.
Glendive Mayor Teresea Olson says she just wanted to grow Glendive. Instead, ego, miscommunication and inexperience turned the city’s government against itself.
Two other allies of the former mayor, Vaughn Jenkins and Carrie Skartved, lost their races to join the council.
“I threw a monkey wrench into the ‘good ol’ boys club,’” Thompson said, using the term Olson’s supporters adopted to describe the city’s entrenched political establishment.
He added that “there was a lot of mistrust built up over the whole Teresea deal, and I think people know I’m not scared to voice my opinion.”
Baker could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
“The reason why I keep running, you know, is I’m not a quitter,” he told MTFP last month. “I don’t like to see people quit things. I’m from the old school. Until I get unelected, I’m going to keep doing what I can.”
Thompson expressed a vision for economic development in Glendive, which hasn’t experienced the growth seen by many other Montana cities.
“Glendive, we’re 200 miles from Bismarck, 200 from Billings, 200 from Rapid City, 200 from Regina,” he said. “We have a major interstate, the [Yellowstone] river, the largest state park in Montana, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be a thriving community.”
Part of the friction between Olson and the Glendive City Council stemmed from confusion about the city’s proper form of government. Early in Olson’s term, she learned during training at the Montana State University Local Government Center that, for reasons lost to time, Glendive had for years been operating under a governmental configuration other than the one voters approved in 1976, and the city’s code book was out of compliance.
As MTFP wrote last month: “Glendive, as far as anyone could remember, had never held partisan elections, despite that being a component of the city’s ratified form of government.”
As of last week, the city should be able to put at least one part of that dispute to bed. As reported by the Ranger-Review, the director of the Local Government Center, Dan Clark, discovered a record of a resolution the city passed in the 1980s providing that it would hold nonpartisan elections in the future, even though the form of government the city ratified a decade earlier had provided for partisan elections.
Clark made the discovery following a request from Dawson County resident Gary Francis, one of a handful of figures who began publicly agitating against the council during its conflict with Olson, for more information on the city’s form of government.
“I live in Glendive and have started a grassroots campaign to push for Glendive to start operating under its adopted charter, which from what I understand includes holding partisan elections. I’ve been repeatedly told Glendive does not have to have partisan elections because ‘we haven’t done it that way in over 30-plus years’ or something to that effect,” Francis wrote to Clark, per Ranger-Review reporter Hunter Herbaugh.
Clark responded that under a state law passed in 1987, “municipalities that historically held nonpartisan elections prior to the adoption of MCA 7-3-113 in 1977 — the law that governs municipalities’ form of government — could change their government from partisan to nonpartisan via resolution if done within a certain window of time,” Herbaugh wrote.
Glendive, indeed, took that step.
“The City of Glendive has been operating legally and appropriately with nonpartisan elections since the late 1980s,” Clark wrote. “There is no need for the city council or voters to take action on the question of nonpartisan elections.”
Deb Dion, the city’s interim mayor, told the Ranger-Review she hopes “this helps put the matter to rest.”
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