It’s election season, and one of the most powerful governmental positions in the county is on the line: the District 1 seat on the Flathead County Commission.
The three-member county commission operates as both the legislative and executive branches of county government. Commissioners are elected for six-year terms and these elections are staggered.
The District 1 seat – encompassing the northern section of the county – has had an irregular set of changes in the last two years; though scheduled for election this year, the current commissioner, Cal Scott, was appointed in April 2012 after the death of Jim Dupont.
Scott was formally elected for the position during the November 2012 election, and now faces another series of challengers for the seat he’s held for two years.
The primary elections are scheduled for June 3, and absentee voting through mail-in ballots begins May 5. During primary elections, voters choose who will represent each party – Republican, Democrat, and Independent – in the following general election, which will be held this year on Nov. 4.
The commission seat has garnered four candidates – two Republicans and two Democrats – which will determine the future makeup of the currently all-Republican commission.
Republicans: Cal Scott v. Phil Mitchell
As the incumbent in this race, Cal Scott said he wants to run again for the District 1 seat because of everything he’s learned in his two years on the job.
“The one thing I’ve gotten in the last two years is stronger, however, more reserved in the way I approach what needs to be done,” Scott said.
Scott, 70, said he has learned plenty about how the county government works, or doesn’t work as well as it should. It took about two years to understand all components and moving parts of the job, he said, and he’s looking forward to having a six-year term to focus on goals for the county.
Those goals include finding a workable solution for the water compact treaty between the state and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which he said he does not fully agree with in its current form.
Scott also hopes to focus on the relationship between the public and the U.S. Forest Service, including the issue of the state taking back federal lands. Many members of the public feel the Forest Service isn’t listening to their input, Scott said, and he hopes to help facilitate that relationship.
Another main issue for Scott concerns the aging community in the Flathead, and, by extension, throughout the country. The county’s Agency on Aging program, which has faced controversy in recent years regarding its current facilities, needs centralized services that would help the aging population with independent living, he said.
“We need to support this population after they age out of the mainstream activities,” Scott said.
Not only would these services support local residents, but a facility that accommodates this population could have long-term economic potential for the valley, he said.
As for the current county budget, Scott said he feels the county is “in very, very good shape,” with cash reserves around $3.3 million, though the county will have to maintain fiscal responsibility when it comes to budgeting for federal dollars from the Payment In Lieu of Taxes and Secure Rural Schools programs, since they are typically awarded one year at a time.
Scott also said the Flathead economy could benefit from more high-tech businesses.
“We need to be part of the emerging world or we’ll be left behind,” he said.
As the Republican challenger for the District 1 seat, Phil Mitchell said he decided to run after a group of people asked him to do so.
“I have no agenda,” Mitchell said. “I would like to see the county run conservatively.”
Mitchell, 61, has a considerable political history in the Flathead, having spent six years on the Whitefish School Board followed by four years as a member of the Whitefish City Council, from 2009 to 2013.
He spent his professional life building and developing golf courses, here and around the world.
While Mitchell, a self-described numbers fan, said the county is doing well budget-wise, he believes the reserves should be about 15 percent.
Otherwise, it’s just taxpayer money not being used when it could be back in residents’ pockets, he said.
When he started as a councilor in Whitefish, Mitchell said the city’s reserves were about 0.5 percent. When he left, they were at 12 percent. It was a group effort on the council, he said, but it forced him to make hard decisions.
“It was tough, negotiations were tough,” Mitchell said. “We had to say, ‘What can we do?’ It was a challenge.”
Despite being in a down economy, the council was able to raise the reserves without raising taxes, and keeping layoffs to a minimum.
If elected, Mitchell said he would focus on permanent funding for the 911 center, instead of having to figure it out on a year-to-year basis.
He said he would also host more meetings for public input regarding the water compact, which he said the current commission has not done.
“I think that is horrendous,” Mitchell said of the lack of meetings.
Though he is against the water compact as it is currently written, Mitchell said the public’s voice on the issue deserves to be heard.
Another major issue is the Whitefish doughnut, the two-mile radius around the city that is in contention between the county and the city as far as representation and planning rights go.
“We have treated the people in the doughnut with disrespect in terms of representation,” Mitchell said, adding that he believes the area needs to revert back to county control.
As for the Agency on Aging, Mitchell believes the county should own a building for the services, not rent one as it currently does. He also wants to hold off on figuring out where such a building should go until a needs study is completed.
“We need to figure out what we’re looking at and what we are doing it for,” Mitchell said.
Democrats: Stacey Schnebel v. John “Jack” Garlitz
The desire to get into public service started for Stacey Schnebel when she was 17, during a visit to Washington D.C. as one of six representatives at the Illinois for the National Young Leaders Conference.
“I think it’s very important to give back, especially if you have the skills and the ability to devote your time to a political race,” Schnebel said.
This is her first foray into politics, but as the owner of two businesses with her husband, Seth – UnderCurrent Web and the Stonefly Lounge – Schnebel, 36, said what she may lack in political history, she makes up for in business know-how.
“I have the ability to manage multiple things at most times,” she said. “I have modern skills, I’m familiar with today’s technology and what it is capable to do for us.”
Schnebel is also the president of the Trapline Association, which most notably hosts Cabin Fever Days in Badrock Canyon each year. The event nearly doubled its fundraising efforts since she took over, Schnebel said.
Along with being vice president of the Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce, Schnebel helped organize the centennial celebration at Glacier National Park, and said she is very familiar with the business needs of the county.
Schnebel said she views her lack of political history in the valley as a benefit in the commission race.
“I’m completely unencumbered. I have skills to bring to the office, I don’t have political history, I don’t have special interests, and I’m not in anyone’s pocket,” she said. “I am an individual first. I don’t feel like the office of county commissioner should be partisan. I don’t think if you go into it with a partisan mentality that you can properly represent every person in Flathead County.”
If elected, Schnebel said she would do all the research and ask all the necessary questions, while listening to opposing viewpoints.
“I really welcome that discourse; that’s the best way to get to making sound decisions,” she said.
Her goals would include figuring out a solution for the Agency on Aging, as well as bringing the county up to speed on technological advances.
When it comes to property rights, Schnebel said she’s more conservative than other Democrats might be, and believes property owners should do what they want as long as it doesn’t affect what’s going on across the property line.
As a commissioner, Schnebel said she would be dedicated to making the right decision the first time, and sticking with it. When the commission commits to something and then changes its mind, it only wastes time and money, she said.
“I am really big into collaborative planning and streamlining processes,” Schnebel said. “I’m a big picture person.”
For more information on Schnebel, visit www.electstaceyschnebel.com.
As the other Democrat running for the commission seat, John “Jack” Garlitz decided to file after learning that not many people had thrown their hats into the ring.
“I was looking at the paper and nobody had filed,” he said. “That’s not right.”
His friends asked if he was “going to do anything or just talk,” Garlitz said, and after chatting with his wife of nearly 50 years, Phyllis, about it, he decided to run.
Garlitz, 73, has lived in Haskill Basin northeast of Whitefish for 42 years, and worked as a railroad conductor for Great Northern Railway and BNSF for 40 years before retiring in 2002.
He has no prior political history, and if elected, Garlitz said one of his main goals would be improving road conditions in outlying areas of the county. He also said he would like to devote time to looking into getting more federal grants for various projects in Flathead County, because that taxpayer money will eventually get used somewhere, and it might as well be here.
Where the Whitefish doughnut is concerned, Garlitz said he believes the county should have jurisdiction in the contested area.
“You’re in the county or you’re in the city,” he said. “The city wants it just for revenue. It’s hogwash.”
If Whitefish wants to annex the contested land, they should have to grandfather in any existing land uses, he said.
Garlitz also said he is concerned with how the state is managing lake trout. As an avid outdoorsman, Garlitz said he is a lifetime member of both
the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the National Rifle Association.
He’s been a Democrat his whole life, Garlitz said, though he describes himself as a fiscally conservative one. He also said he would represent District 1 with integrity, honesty, and believes that one term on the county commission is plenty.
“I would try to get things done,” Garlitz said.
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