An election and a resignation have shaken up Lincoln County’s three-member commission.
On June 3, incumbent commissioner and former Libby Mayor Tony Berget lost in the primary to Mark Peck and Russell Bache, who will compete in November’s general election to represent Libby. The day after the election, Commissioner Ron Downey announced he would be stepping down from his post on Aug. 1 for personal reasons.
The departure of the county’s two longest-serving commissioners means Mike Cole, who was elected in 2012 to represent Eureka, will become chairman in January. The chairmanship rotates every two years.
Berget has served on the commission for six years and before that was mayor of Libby for 11 years. He said he knew this year’s primary would be a struggle, especially after some unpopular decisions he has made in recent years. Most recently, Berget led the county government through a series of deep budget cuts, which only got deeper with the discovery that the county had overtaxed its citizens by $2.2 million over the last three years.
“I did what I thought was right for Lincoln County,” he said. “We had to cut a lot of money and even entire departments and some people didn’t like those decisions … In this position you sometimes have to make some unpopular choices, but I have no regrets.”
On June 3, Berget received just 21 percent of the vote — 915 — to finish third in the non-partisan primary. Peck, who is currently unit manager in Libby for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, received 55 percent of the vote with 2,397 ballots cast in his name. Bache, who retired from the Navy in 1998, earned 24 percent of the vote with 1,039 ballots.
The morning after the primary election, Downey made a surprise announcement that he would be stepping back from his position on Aug. 1. Downey began working for the county in 1988 and became Troy Road Foremen in 2002. In 2010, he was elected to the commission to represent Troy.
“I regret having to do this, but due to personal reasons that are requiring more of my time, I do not feel I can continue to fulfill the numerous duties required of this position,” Downey said in a press release. “It has been a great honor to serve the citizens of Lincoln County the past three and a half years. But right now, Lincoln County needs a commissioner who can commit an extra effort for the difficult times the county is facing.”
Berget said the commission would look at appointing someone to finish the rest of Downey’s six-year term.
“Downey stood up to the pressures of the job,” Berget said. “He brought a real common sense approach to his county commissioner position.”
With Berget and Downey stepping aside, the county commission will have two new faces on its board in the coming months.
“We’re basically going to be a brand new commission starting in January,” Cole said. “I’m sure we’ll look at some things differently.”
Voters also had their voices heard on a gamut of other issues facing Lincoln County on June 3. The residents of Troy overwhelmingly supported keeping the Troy Area Dispatch open, 616 for it and 364 votes against it. The dispatch center was at the center of the county’s over taxation mistake earlier this year and county officials said it should be shut down and emergency services dispatched from the sheriff’s office in Libby.
In the sheriff’s race, incumbent Roby Bowe won 43 percent of the vote and will face local newcomer William Clark, who received 35 percent of the vote. Incumbents Jay Sheffield and Stormy Langston both made it through the Justice of the Peace primary to battle for one open bench seat in November – the Eureka office was merged into the Libby office earlier this year. Voters also supported a county government review, 52 percent for and 48 percent against, which will force the commission to appoint a board to review the structure of local government.
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