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November 9, 2023

Last month, Capitolized and Montana Free Press, in collaboration with our friends at 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 resigned, 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. 

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.”

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

AG Responds to Ballot Measure Lawsuit 

The Montana attorney general’s office is defending its decision to block a ballot initiative that would create a system of top-four primary elections in Montana, maintaining in a response to a lawsuit brought by initiative backers that its initial determination that the proposal would violate the Montana Constitution’s prohibition on “logrolling” — bundling multiple issues into the same initiative — was correct. 

“In sum, although [the initiative’s] various provisions may be part and parcel of Petitioners’ preferred form of a top-four primary, this does not mean that they are closely related to the creation of a primary system that allows the top-four vote-getters to advance to the general election,” Attorney General Austin Knudsen and two other department lawyers wrote in a brief filed Tuesday. “The inclusion or adoption of the extra provisions at issue are simply separate choices to make, but [the initiative] deprives voters of the ability to make those choices independently.” 

Ballot Initiative 12, proposed by a committee called Montanans for Election Reform Action Fund, would, for most elected offices, replace Montana’s current system of partisan primaries with open primaries in which the top four vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of partisan affiliation. The initiative backers say the concept, recently adopted by voters in Alaska, would create a more responsive and less polarized government. The initiative also includes provisions that, for example, restrict the number of signatures required for candidates to qualify for ballot access and prevent partisan affiliation from being a requisite for ballot access. 

In the assessment of the attorney general’s office, which has the statutory authority to conduct legal reviews of proposed ballot initiatives, those provisions constitute separate decisions for the voters. As such, the AG’s office determined the initiative was legally insufficient because it violates the state Constitution’s separate-vote requirement for ballot initiatives. 

In October, Montanans for Election Reform challenged that finding in court, arguing that each provision in the initiative is essential for the success of the overall project. 

“In short, in proposing BI-12, [Montanans for Election Reform] specifically intends to present the voters with a clear, binary choice: adopt a workable, constitutional top-four primary system for the offices identified in the ballot title, or reject that system,” the lawsuit from the initiative backers reads. “BI-12 intentionally incorporates all elements necessary to create that system, and thus meets both objectives of the separate-vote requirement.”

Whether Montanans for Election Reform will have the opportunity to gather signatures to put the initiative on the ballot is now up to the Montana Supreme Court. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Heard in the Capitol 

“When I said I hoped we could do this all over again, I didn’t really mean it. But alright.” 

House Speaker Pro Tempore Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, speaking to fellow members of the Legislative Council Wednesday following a failed vote to adopt a long-range building plan for the state Capitol complex in Helena that includes recommendations for at least $100 million in renovations and a new building to the west of the Capitol. 

In 2023, the Legislature passed House Bill 856, a law that expanded legislative control of the physical infrastructure of the Capitol and set aside funds for the development of a long-range Capitol development plan. To lawmakers, the benefits of the legislation, sponsored by House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, were twofold: It would lay the foundation for a renovation and expansion of the aging Capitol building, and give the Legislature more control of its physical environment — a concrete expression of its desire to buttress its status as a co-equal branch of government. The executive branch previously controlled most of the Capitol’s physical space. 

On Tuesday, a contractor presented the Legislative Council with a plan that a work group developed in response to the bill, which recommended substantial renovations to the existing Capitol plus the addition of a western annex to house additional office space for lawmakers and staff. The plan provided an estimated cost of $95 million to $120 million, a figure that seemed to nauseate most members of the Legislative Council. “I love the Legislature just as much as everyone else in the room,” Senate Majority Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, told his fellow committee members. “I bring more bills, I work hard, there’s nothing that’s made me prouder, except getting married and having kids, than being a member of the Legislature. It’s what I wanted to do since I was a kid. But to build a building at this price, it’s too much.” 

The council ultimately voted the plan down 7-5. Members of the Senate on the committee, including Fitzpatrick and Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, were generally opposed to the proposal, while members of the House, including Regier, were generally supportive. The committee is obligated by law to develop a long-range plan for the Capitol, so back to the drawing board it goes. 

Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Other Elections Near and Far 

Several cities in Montana held municipal elections Tuesday. Elsewhere in the country, some politically divided states handed victories to Democrats, results that political observers on both sides of the aisle in Montana will likely remember as campaigns rev up for 2024. 

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

On Background

Trouble in the badlands: How Glendive’s government turned on itself: The full story of Glendive’s City Council saga is almost impossible to summarize. For all the gory details, see MTFP’s full report. 

Ohio Vote Continues a Winning Streak for Abortion Rights, per the New York Times. It’s worth noting that Montana’s right to abortion also resides, though not so explicitly as in Ohio, in the state’s Constitution.