A Change for the Commission

As the general election nears, both county commission candidates believe they can bring new momentum to the board

By Molly Priddy

C hange is coming to the Flathead County Commission.

Regardless of who wins the November general election, there will be a new personality with new goals on the board as voters will choose between Democrat Stacey Schnebel, a political newcomer boasting a fresh perspective, and Phil Mitchell, an experienced public servant with deep ties to the Flathead.

Both are vying for the District 1 seat on the commission, which covers the north section of the county and is currently held by Cal Scott, who lost the primary election to Mitchell and went on to cross party lines and endorse Schnebel.

The commission is the most powerful board in the county, serving as both the legislative and administrative branch. Commissioners are elected for six-year terms, and each one represents a different section of the county.

Being a commissioner means making many decisions for a large group of people, and both Mitchell and Schnebel believe they are the person to best serve county residents.

With the general election Nov. 4, and mail-in ballots to be sent out Oct. 6, here is a look at the candidates’ respective backgrounds, and their opinions on the issues facing Flathead County.


“I don’t look in the mirror and see a Democrat,” Stacey Schnebel said last week. “People are people to me.”

As a relative political newcomer, Schnebel has taken to the campaign trail with fervor, meeting with local groups and county officials to try and get her name out there and her message heard.

That message is that she has no agenda, and only wants to be a commissioner because she believes she could best serve the people of District 1 and the rest of the county by listening to what they believe are the most-pressing issues and then acting on those issues in accord with the public’s wishes.

So far, Schnebel has heard from constituents about issues such as trash collection and the county’s green box sites; the ongoing growth and expansion of the Agency on Aging; and the future of the county’s recycling program.

“I’m bringing back the active participation of the constituency,” she said. “Those are the things that don’t really have (political) party ties.”

Running for county commissioner is the first time Schnebel, 36, has approached public office, but her interest in public service was sparked during a trip to Washington, D.C. at age 17 for a National Young Leaders Conference, where she represented her home state of Illinois.

Schnebel grew up outside of Chicago on an eight-acre farm. She eventually went to four years of college at the University of Iowa, but didn’t graduate with a degree.

Instead, she ventured west in 2000 seeking adventure. She stopped to visit Glacier National Park, and fell in love with the area. She met her husband, Seth, that same year, and the two lived in Whitefish for seven years before moving to Coram and starting UnderCurrent Web in 2008.

The couple bought Stoner’s Inn in 2009 and turned it into the Stonefly Lounge, which Schnebel considered an act of investing in her community as well as owning a small business.

During this same time, she was the marketing director and event manager for the Belton Chalet in West Glacier, and in 2011 quit that job to give her full focus to their businesses and two children.

Schnebel is also the vice president of the Columbia Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and serves as the president of the Trapline Association, which is responsible for the annual Cabin Fever Days celebration.

Phil Mitchell is no stranger to elections or public service.

He served on the Whitefish City Council from 2010 to 2013, spent 2002 to 2007 on the Whitefish School Board, and has spent innumerable hours volunteering his time and talent for his church and other local organizations.

Elections can be draining, he said, but when he makes a decision to do something, he goes full steam ahead.

“Do it 100 percent or don’t do it,” he said last week.

Mitchell, 61, has started to ramp up his campaign for county commission, a job for which he believes his experience on city council and the connections he made there make him the best candidate.

Having lived in the Flathead with his wife Belinda for about 37 years, Mitchell said he knows the area and the area knows him. He grew up in San Diego, where his mother moved him and his three sisters when he was in sixth grade after she left a difficult marriage and pursued her master’s of education degree.

“That’s probably where I get my driving force from,” Mitchell said of his mother.

He met Belinda at San Diego State University, where he was taking a class, and they married their senior year of college, 39 years ago.

He graduated from Cal-Poly with a degree in park administration and horticulture, and started working as an assistant superintendent at a golf course in Los Angeles.

After a year of living in the city, he and Belinda decided to move to Whitefish, where Mitchell had spent summers as a kid with family friends.

Eventually, Mitchell joined up with a golf course construction company, where he would work for 20 years, consulting on golf course projects locally, such as Iron Horse Golf Club in Whitefish, and internationally, in the United Kingdom.

Working in such a large, successful company taught him the value of having the right people in the right jobs, and also impressed upon him the importance of surrounding himself with intelligent people, he said.

He carried that lesson with him to the city council, and had friends and mentors with varying expertise he could call upon when faced with a foreign issue.

“It’s a lot of work,” Mitchell said. “I’ve got a good team.”

Phil Mitchell, Flathead County Commission candidate. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Phil Mitchell, Flathead County Commission candidate. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The Doughnut

In July, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that Flathead County has jurisdictional control of the area surrounding the city of Whitefish known as the doughnut.

The commission recently put in place interim zoning as a precursor to a more permanent solution for an area that has been the subject of legal wrangling for years.

Mitchell said he agreed with the commission’s decision to enforce interim zoning in the doughnut, which during his time on the Whitefish City Council he dealt with in depth.

At that time, Mitchell said he was against engaging the county in a lawsuit, because “if it kept moving up the legal ladder, the city would 100 percent win or 100 percent lose,” he said.

Now that the county has jurisdictional control of the area, Mitchell said the interim zoning would keep it as close to the status quo as the county can manage while more concrete plans are developed.

Those plans should include many public meetings, he said, with special attention paid to the opinion of doughnut residents.

“They’ve spent six years in limbo,” he said. “We need to hear from them.”

Schnebel, however, disagreed with the commission’s recent decision to put interim planning in place. After listening to multiple doughnut residents speak about how they prefer keeping the Whitefish regulations in place, she said she would have looked into different solutions, perhaps contracting with a Whitefish planner to help administer those zones while the county goes through the planning process.

“It’s not a black-and-white issue,” she said.

She also believes the county will be under plenty of scrutiny now that the state Supreme Court has decided the county has jurisdiction over the area surrounding the city of Whitefish.

Such pressure will allow for a better solution as far as zoning and future planning are concerned, she said.

County Green Boxes

This summer, the Solid Waste District Board presented Bigfork residents with a plan to build a new site like the residents requested, which would be paid for with a special fee district, instead of closing the current green box site like the county originally intended.

Schnebel said the board’s change of plans is proof the county can make good decisions when it listens to residents, though she remains unconvinced a new fee is necessary.

“I think that we should be looking to be more creative for funding because I’m not convinced that an additional fee needs to be assessed,” she said.

Mitchell also said he was impressed with the board’s ability to work with the Bigfork area residents on the issue, and he believes the proposed fee district is a fair way to go about the new system.

“The residents came up with the solution,” Mitchell said.

Water Compact

Throughout the summer, Mitchell said he spent considerable time with residents and officials talking about the county’s involvement with the contested water compact between the state and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and though he believes a compact is necessary, the current version needs work.

He doesn’t agree that the tribes should have ownership over any of the Hungry Horse Dam water, and doubts that the Legislature will come to any productive conclusions during the 2015 session.

“I think we need a water compact, but it is full of holes right now,” Mitchell said.

Schnebel said she has faith in the system when it comes to the water compact, and that the state has entered successfully into water compacts with all of the other tribes.

“As a candidate for county commissioner, I do not see it as being my place to use that as a campaign platform,” she said. “If I specifically wanted to change the compact, I would be running for the Legislature.”

Interlocal Communication

Both candidates have expressed a desire to improve communication between the county and the local municipalities.

“There’s a whole lot of space there where we could work to reconnect,” Schnebel said.

Mitchell agreed, saying the lawsuit between the county and Whitefish did neither party any favors when it comes to building relationships.

Columbia Falls and Whitefish are the municipalities within the District 1 boundaries, and Columbia Falls city manager Susan Nicosia said she has heard from both candidates, and she believes Mitchell and Schnebel would work well with her city.

“We have an excellent working relationship with the county,” Nicosia said. “Whomever is in that seat, we want to continue that relationship.”

In Whitefish, city manager Chuck Stearns said the recent doughnut lawsuit will likely make land use issues “sensitive” between the city and county for some time, but he thinks improving communication will be an important part of the future relationship between the two.

“There’s a lot more opportunities for us to work together and work well together. A lot of that starts with communication,” Stearns said. “We’ll just have to see who’s elected and try to work with both them individually and the commission as a board.”

Stacey Schnebel, Flathead County Commission candidate. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
Stacey Schnebel, Flathead County Commission candidate. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon


One of the biggest issues to arise in the campaign for the District 1 seat is that of debates. Mitchell has said he doesn’t need to debate Schnebel because voters know him and where he stands, and during his interview with the Beacon, he said he refused to debate with Schnebel because he didn’t know where she stood on issues.

Her assertion that she doesn’t see a Democrat or a Republican when she looks in the mirror isn’t reassuring, he said.

“That’s not a stance for anything,” Mitchell said. “I’m a Republican. I stand for those issues.”

Schnebel said Mitchell’s reticence to debate her is unfortunate, but that won’t stop her from scheduling more debates. If her opponent decides not to show up, the event will be a chance for voters to speak with her and ask questions, she said.

“I think he’s under the impression that because he said no, there will be silence,” Schnebel said.

Schnebel has scheduled several events for October: Oct. 1 at Columbia Falls High School; Oct. 10 at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center; and one more in Kalispell.

There will also be an event at Bigfork Elementary School on Oct. 6.

Mitchell said his decision not to debate Schnebel was one of the harder choices he’s made in his campaign, but asserted that he wants to know where someone stands on the issues before debating them.

He doesn’t believe he needs a debate to let voters know where he sits with the issues.

“I am known, I’ve done my job,” Mitchell said. “My voting record and what I stand for are out there.”

Closing Arguments

Even though he shares the same political party as the sitting commissioners, Mitchell said he would be a new voice on the board, and wouldn’t automatically rubber stamp any decisions.

“If we agree on everything we might as well just have one commissioner,” he said. “We’re not going to agree on everything.”

He also said he knows what it takes to be an elected official, and that he is ready to move forward and work for the county 100 percent.

As a Democrat, Schnebel said she would like to provide a new perspective and thoughtful ear on the board.

She said she would like to represent a broad cross-section of voters, despite having a “D” behind her name in the election.

“I want to affect positive change and do my best work for the county,” Schnebel said.

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