Republican commissioner-elect Jim Dupont and out-going commissioner Gary Hall may hail from the same political party, but local interest groups say they expect the commission to have a more conservative bent come January.
With only three commissioners, and several controversial issues set to carry over into next year, that could mean a significant rightward shift in county policy over the next six years.
“I think we’ll see that (Democratic Commissioner Joe) Brenneman won’t be able to budge him,” Denise Smith, director of the Flathead Business and Industry Association, said of Dupont. “I think Gary tried really hard to listen to everybody, and I’m not saying Jim won’t listen, but I think he’ll approach things from a consistently conservative, pro-business, pro-property rights approach.”
In his last year on the commission, Hall drew criticism from both sides of the ideological spectrum – those who said he was too conservative, especially on land-use regulations, and those who said he wasn’t conservative enough. A vote in late April to deny the North Shore Ranch subdivision sparked particular ire on the right – less than two months before the primary.
“One of the reasons I think I was defeated or ran into problems is that I didn’t always do what special interest groups wanted me to,” Hall said. “I have no regrets about that.”
Dupont beat Hall by a wide margin in the Republican primary – getting 69 percent of the vote to Hall’s 31 percent. Dupont’s campaign focused on property rights, road issues and public safety, where he often used a more hard-line conservative approach to differentiate himself from his opponent.
The same positions helped him win a decisive victory last week over Democrat Steve Qunell, garnering 64 percent of the vote.
“My concern for Jim (Dupont) is that he make decisions based on what’s the right thing to do for the county’s general population and not be swayed by special interest groups,” Hall, who campaigned for Dupont after the primary, said. “There is significant pressure there.”
Among the hot-button issues Dupont will inherit when he joins the commission are subdivision regulations, road dust problems, the “planning doughnut” surrounding Whitefish and other land-use issues. Brenneman and Commissioner Dale Lauman also pointed to the upcoming legislative session as being of particular importance.
Last week, a group of former county planning board members, including American Dream President Russ Crowder, developer Charles Lapp, engineer Jeff Larsen and Northwest Montana Realtors Association President Cal Scott, wrote a letter saying the county is on a “fast track” to adopt the regulations and asking the commission to postpone its vote on subdivision regulations until Dupont takes office.
“Through the recently demonstrated and overwhelming public support, Jim Dupont has earned the right to be an integral part of the present ongoing adoption process,” they wrote. Anything less, they added, would “call into question any confidence the public may have in the present process.”
The petition highlighted one of the county’s more controversial issues: Last August, after months of discussion, the county adopted their new regulations, but withheld about 15 of the most contentious regulations, namely streamside setbacks, for further review.
It’s also evidence of the faith right-leaning groups put in Dupont’s land-use decisions.
“Jim’s win and the Flathead County election results as a whole, including the conservation bond measure, were more a victory for private property owners than anything else,” George Culpepper, Jr., NMAR’s government affairs officer, said. “On issues like streamside setbacks, I think he’ll be the voice of reason.”
Not everyone sees the possible shift to the right as a good thing.
Detractors point out that Hall has been present for nearly two years of public meetings on the subdivision regulations, making him more qualified to decide on the issue. Bob Grimaldi, of the North Fork Road Coalition for Health and Safety, called Dupont’s election a setback for the county’s road dust problems.
“From his pronouncements, there’s no doubt it appears it’s going to get worse,” he said. “Hall was a good man who tried his best to do what he could given limitations. Dupont’s the one who said if we live on a dusty road and don’t like it, we could move.”
For his part, Dupont said he thought the streamside setback regulations still needed work because a blanket policy of 200 feet was too generic. In the case of the planning doughnut, he intends to carry on with Hall’s efforts to put it back under county jurisdiction.
He said he didn’t think he and Hall differed drastically, but that Hall may be more of a moderate Republican. “I might be a little more conservative, but the answer really depends on the subject,” he said. “In general, I am obviously a supporter of property rights and less government.”
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