With three Republican contenders angling for incumbent Democratic Commissioner Joe Brenneman’s seat, the party ticket offers a range of experiences and goals as each hopes to put their own thumbprint on the three-person commission.
Howard Gipe entered the race with plenty of experience under his belt. He served three terms as county commissioner before retiring in 2004, but was drawn back into politics by recent events and concerns about the economy.
A former highway patrol officer, Gipe said one of his chief concerns for the valley is the state’s recent property value reappraisal. In an area already stretched thin financially, Gipe said working closely with the Flathead’s state representation could lead to solutions for struggling homeowners.
“We have to do something about that reappraisal,” Gipe said at a candidates’ forum in Bigfork. “We’re in trouble here.”
Gipe also said he has concerns for the future of the Flathead economy as many industrial companies close and good-paying jobs disappear. Part of the valley’s recovery will come from tourism, Gipe said, but current travel infrastructure is not optimal.
“I just think we have a major problem in getting to Montana,” Gipe said.
To help solve this problem, Gipe said the Flathead should work with the state to fix problem highway areas and perhaps improve small landing strips for airplanes throughout the valley.
Gipe has voiced stringent disapproval of several recent commission decisions, including the vote to deny the North Shore Ranch Subdivision, which led to the county settling a lawsuit, and the vote to pay a private investigator $10,000 to look into allegations against the county planning and zoning office.
The lawsuit could have been avoided if the commission stuck to the subdivision regulations, Gipe said. And the commission should know if there is a problem in one of the county offices without having to hire a third party to investigate, he said.
Gipe said his experience with the various county departments would help bring a sense of unity within the county government that he currently feels is lacking. His familiarity with the office also comes with an established relationship with the Montana Association of Counties and connections with state lawmakers, Gipe said.
The former county commissioner noted he could take action from the first day in office, which, Gipe noted, is a necessity in the current economy.
Another Republican challenger for the District 2 seat, Pam Holmquist believes she brings a unique set of skills to the commissioner’s race as a business owner in the private sector for 32 years.
She and her husband Wes have owned Rocky Mountain Marine for more than three decades, something that would not be possible if she had not been conservative during the good times to cover for the bad times, Holmquist said. This outlook could benefit the commission, she added.
“I’ve always been a penny pincher,” Holmquist said.
Though she hasn’t given the county budget a thorough look yet, Holmquist said she is confident the commission could find and fix inefficiencies in spending.
Being a businesswoman has also given her appreciation for employment, Holmquist said, which is one of the biggest points of her candidacy.
To help boost job numbers in the county, Holmquist said she would work to implement the “Flathead County Coalition,” which would be comprised of commissioners, mayors and state legislators to focus on employment solutions.
As a conservative, Holmquist said she believes in small government and makes property rights a priority. And while she feels the county should keep the growth policy, if a current movement to repeal it is voted in by county residents, Holmquist said she would support the will of the voters.
Neighborhood plans are also on her radar. Holmquist believes neighbors should be talking face to face about plans before approaching the planning office for help, which could help diffuse potentially tense situations in the future.
Holmquist also thinks the Legislature needs to take another look at the latest property reappraisal and feels she could represent the county’s interests when dealing with lawmakers.
Another skill Holmquist said she would bring from the private sector is the ability to handle upset residents and look for productive solutions.
“I think I have something to offer the commission,” Holmquist said. “I think I’m ready for it.”
When the third Republican candidate for commissioner, Patrick Nickol, considers solutions to the Flathead’s current economic quandary, he immediately discounts any notion of sawmills or aluminum plants as financial saviors.
“The industrial age is over, we’re going to have to move on,” Nickol said. “That isn’t going to be the thing that saves us.”
Instead, Nickol envisions the valley as a center for medical treatment and a retirement destination, a solution that takes advantage of the stunning scenery and would promote development, he said.
He moved to the Flathead in 1979 and has been living in Creston since 1985. During that time, Nickol said he noticed the cyclical boom-and-bust nature of construction in the valley.
The current economy is the worst bust he’s ever seen, Nickol said at a May 4 candidate’s forum in Bigfork. However, with its good soil, a nice climate and beautiful vistas, the Flathead has opportunity to rebound, he said.
“A bright star on the horizon is this is one of the most beautiful places in the world to live,” Nickol said.
But he also believes any further subdivision development needs to be closer to town to save cities and the county money.
A self-described fiscal and moral conservative, Nickol said if elected he would concentrate his efforts on the basic needs of Flathead County, such as making sure the roads are drivable and plowed in the winter. Nickol has worked for paving and construction companies and is now a licensed general contractor.
Nickol also thinks bringing the county back to simpler times could be beneficial. Any efforts to maintain local cash flow would boost the economy, he said.
Any action to restore Flathead County must come from an idea and someone willing to take action on that idea, and Nickol said he believes he has the drive and perspective to be that person.
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