When Gary Hall was elected to the Flathead County commission six years ago, one of his biggest challenges was simply keeping up with the workload.
“I came on board as we were going through one of our biggest growth spurts, with thousands of subdivision lots and hundreds of subdivisions coming before the commission,” he said. “It was a straight vertical learning curve.”
Hall’s successor, former sheriff Jim Dupont will face a starkly different climate when he takes office this week. In the face of a declining local and national economy, growth has plummeted this past year and with it the county’s coffers.
Now, the commission’s biggest challenge, Hall says, will be balancing a dwindling budget while maintaining public services.
“Not that they expect us to be miracle workers, but the public has high expectations of county commissioners,” Hall said. “We’re just human and the budget is what it is; you learn quickly that you can’t make decisions to appease everyone.”
Born and raised in the Flathead, Hall and his wife, Jayne, moved to Columbia Falls in 1983 where they ran a restaurant and bed and breakfast. In 1997, Hall ran for mayor, defeating incumbent Lyle Christman by just 22 votes.
He was re-elected in 2001 but, encouraged by local residents, announced his bid for commissioner within a year. Hall defeated incumbent Republican Dale Williams in the primary, and again in the general election when Williams ran as an independent.
“I have a scrapbook of clippings from that campaign,” Hall said. “It was one of the ugliest and most horrible campaigns we’ve ever had in Flathead County.”
Hall credits his victory then to effective campaigning and the public’s discontent with Williams and the direction of the county. Six years later, though, he found himself in a similar position to Williams.
During last fall’s campaign, Hall attracted 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. And Dupont defeated him soundly in the Republican primary, getting 69 percent of the vote to Hall’s 31 percent.
Hall, though, says he leaves his six years on the commission with “no regrets,” and describes the time as “extremely rewarding” and “something I’m proud to have done.”
Among the accomplishments of his tenure, Hall says, are the county’s growth policy, intergovernmental work during several difficult forest fire seasons, and working with the Flathead On The Move organization to draft the “Principles Of Civil Dialogue” used in county meetings today. A devout Christian, he’s also proud to have raised money to keep the Ten Commandments monument on the old courthouse lawn.
In addition to the challenge of balancing the budget, Hall said his successor and the commission will face continuing troubles with county roads and grapple with the “rhetoric from the no-growth and anything-goes groups.”
Hall, meanwhile, will face his own new challenge: learning to take some time off before pursuing a new career. He said he currently has applications out to several businesses, including a German flooring company he hopes to convince to open a store in the Flathead.
While he plans to remain somewhat politically active and has been encouraged by some to run for the Legislature, he says he isn’t interested in that position right now.
“My wife says less stress, more money,” Hall said jokingly. “When you learn something, and really learn it in the trenches for six years, it’s hard to just leave it behind. But I’m excited for what’s next.”
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