Gary Hall is no stranger to controversy. Since beating fellow Republican Dale Williams in 2002 for the Flathead County Commission, Hall has presided over a time of intense change in the valley where he was born. At the start of his term, Hall was among the community leaders thrown into the struggle to reconcile violence and tension within the Flathead over clashes between environmentalists, economic interests and anti-government forces – a struggle that gained national notoriety in a PBS documentary.
In more recent years Hall and the commission has grappled with issues concerning land use, public safety, development and environmental protection that, while more civil, have been no less difficult.
Up for re-election this year, Hall now faces a similarly daunting challenge, in a primary opponent who also served on the front lines of maintaining order during that tumultuous era of valley history: former Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont. When voters choose between them June 3, they will be deciding which one gets the chance to guide the Flathead’s future, based on their leadership in the past, and face off against Democrat Steven Qunell in November.
The election season’s unofficial start happened last week, when Hall and Dupont spoke at a Republican Women’s luncheon. Several women wore pins supporting Dupont and were handing out Dupont bumper stickers. While Hall and Dupont didn’t directly debate each other, their remarks signaled the way in which the men will likely seek to differentiate themselves from each other in coming months.
Hall described his lifetime in the Flathead and emphasized the present complexity of serving on the commission and managing a $62-million budget. He rattled off his current concerns, including the end of federal funding from the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Act, which will decrease the county’s already meager budget for road maintenance.
Hall touted his management abilities, including his move to performance-based budgeting for county employees, the dozen committees he serves on, the establishment of the Long Range Planning Task Force, the implementation of a county growth policy, his belief that the Flathead will eventually need a mass transit system and his frustration with the lawsuits against the county.
“There are extremist groups trying to run the county,” Hall said, as the audience nodded. “They think litigation is the way to run the county.” He concluded by saying how difficult the job of county commissioner is, and underlined the necessity of experience. “We’ve got hard times ahead,” Hall added. “It’s been a vertical learning curve.”
Dupont, who served 16 years as Flathead County Sheriff and deputy sheriff and coroner for 19 years, began his remarks describing his upbringing in western Massachusetts, and how the freedom he experienced upon moving to Montana instilled in him a deep reverence for property rights – a subject that will be a cornerstone of the race.
“When I bought property, I was astounded that I could cut down a tree here without a permit,” Dupont said. “I never lost the ability to see how important that was.”
He went on to cite his own management experience, taking an antiquated sheriff’s department suffering from low morale and mismanagement, and guiding it into the 21st century, while managing a budget of about $6 million. His experience managing the biggest and most vital department in the county is ample preparation for the demands of the commission, Dupont said.
On the contentious issue of road maintenance, Dupont suggested the real problems were dust control and inconsistency by the current commission regarding paving. He called for a transparent schedule that shows when and where paving will occur, and exploring methods of dust control that are cheaper than paving with newly developed chemical compounds on roads that mitigate dust. Dupont concluded by noting that, while he is the challenger in this race, he is not exactly an unknown commodity.
“You all know the decision processes that I’ve been through,” he said, “with me running, you have a clear choice.”
Dupont, 61, currently manages Tinaa Services Inc., a native Alaskan corporation that manages security on federal properties including dams and U.S. Air Force Bases. In a later interview with the Beacon, Dupont said he only planned to run for one term. He is campaigning out of a love for the Flathead, Dupont added, but is also disappointed in what he sees as an inconsistency by the current commission in granting land use variances for things like paving requirements for subdivisions.
“It seems to be totally dependent on how you approach the commission and who you are,” Dupont said. He also leveled criticism at Hall for signing the agreement that created the controversial “planning doughnut” surrounding Whitefish, and the county’s recent move to rescind it. Dupont said he never would have signed the agreement in the first place.
“I’ll probably do things differently than Gary because I think differently than Gary,” Dupont added.
Hall, on the other hand, defended his original support for the doughnut.
“It really made a lot of sense to me at the time as a way to build bridges and work together,” Hall, 60, said. “Because the city of Whitefish chose to go the direction they did, they are the ones that disenfranchised the county and county residents.”
As for attacks on his property rights credentials, Hall simply shrugs, and asks where his critics were when he was seeking solutions.
“I think you’ll have a hard time finding anyone with proof of when I have acted against property rights,” Hall said, adding that if the current county commission is guilty of anything, it is of “holding developers to standards and regulations that we needed to implement to make this a better place to live.”
With the primaries two months out, and the general election looming in the distant autumn, this year will be a political title fight. And two old Flathead boys are already going toe-to-toe in the first round.
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