Near the end of a Flathead County commissioner forum last week, the three candidates appeared temporarily stumped when asked to name the county’s bright spots. After almost an hour of giving detailed answers on everything from conservation bond referendums to impact fees, they offered vague praises of the people and environment that make up the county – even tossing in a few more things they’d like to change.
Given that the office they’re seeking is no stranger to controversy, it wasn’t surprising their focus was firmly on future challenges, rather than current successes.
Since taking office in 2002, incumbent Gary Hall and the commission have grappled with issues ranging from the sometimes-violent clashes over environmental and government controls to ongoing struggles over property rights, development, dusty roads and budgetary woes.
It’s been an ongoing tutorial, Hall, 60, says, that has made him the most qualified and experienced candidate for the commissioner job.
“I feel like I’ve been to school over the past few years,” Hall, who also previously served as the mayor of Columbia Falls for five years, said. “It’s been an uphill learning curve, but it’s an education that’s invaluable for this job.”
In the June 3 primary, however, Hall will face an opponent who – while without experience as a commissioner – is a recognizable personality who is intimately familiar with many of the challenges the valley has faced in recent history: former Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont. Dupont, 61, served 16 years as Flathead County sheriff and a deputy sheriff and coroner for 19 years.
The Republican primary winner will face off against Democrat Steve Qunell, who is unopposed in the primary election, in November.
About 200 people attended the forum last week at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell, where the three candidates responded to questions from a panel of Daily Inter Lake employees and the audience. The two Republican candidates repeated many of the talking points they have used to differentiate themselves from each other in the closing weeks of campaigning.
Hall and Dupont’s opinions diverged the most when they were questioned about planning control over Whitefish’s land “doughnut,” impact fees and road maintenance.
Dupont chastised Hall when asked if Whitefish should have planning control over the two-mile zone, or doughnut, surrounding the town, saying, “I’m not sure why that agreement was signed in the first place. I think if someone actually read and analyzed it that most people wouldn’t have signed it. It’s caused so many complex issues.”
Hall, on the other hand, defended his original support for the doughnut, saying it was an attempt to work with the city’s government that soured only when Whitefish disenfranchised the county and county residents.
Dupont said he was for “reasonable” impact fees – one-time charges for new houses and businesses to help pay for public services – while Hall said he opposed such fees, because developers would be forced to pass the costs on to homeowners, hampering efforts for affordable housing.
The Republican candidates also took differing approaches to controversial road paving issues within the county, with Dupont downplaying the negative health effects of road dust and saying commissioners needed to make a prioritized list of roads to pave and stick to it. Hall said those efforts were already under way, and championed the work of a current roads committee as being a positive step toward a solution.
With the primary fast approaching, the race between Hall and Dupont may be the most visible and most important local contest. Commissioners serve six-year terms and, with only three positions on the commission, hold considerable sway over wide-ranging issues. And, with both Republican candidates boasting broad name recognition and significant experience, whoever wins the primary seems poised to be the favorite come November.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.