Price of Ambition

It would be hard to argue these politicians are doing it for the money

By Kellyn Brown

When someone runs for local office in Montana, he or she deserves a little credit. Many of them get paid next to nothing and balance public service with their full-time jobs. And despite some recognition, many residents can’t name all their respective city councilors.

That, however, doesn’t make the politicking any less divisive. A look at what has unfolded in Libby the last few years is a good example of that. So is Troy. Or even Whitefish, to a lesser degree.

Libby Mayor Doug Roll resigned last week, saying he had had enough of fighting with his critics, some of whom had filed a petition to have him recalled, although a judge later ruled it invalid.

“These people don’t have a clue of how government works,” Roll said in an interview after his resignation.

To be sure, Roll’s detractors disagreed. They say he hired a temporary city attorney without consulting the full city council and that he failed to put an item on the agenda even though a council member asked him to. The Montana commissioner of political practices alleged that Roll’s claim that his 2013 opponent Allen Olsen wasn’t a resident of the city may have influenced the election. Roll won the race by 13 votes.

In fact, Roll acknowledged that he ran for city council last year in an attempt to play “spoiler” and unseat Olsen and other longtime critics.

Despite the public rancor, it would be hard to argue these politicians are doing it for the money. Roll took in about $660 a month and the councilors $330 a month. Nothing to scoff at, but no one is getting rich either.

Roll can now focus on his full-time job as a mechanic. While the effort to recall him failed in Libby, and Roll resigned on his own accord, in nearby Troy the late Donald Banning wasn’t so lucky. In 2012, critics leveled similar allegations against Banning that Roll would face a few years later.

Banning was also accused of making unilateral decisions without consulting the council. And in a special election in May of that year, he was recalled in a vote of 190 to 123.

The former mayor flirted with a political comeback the next year, saying, “I’m innocent of all the crap they accused me of and I can prove it. I’ve got to get back into the thrill of things.” He ultimately decided against it. Banning passed away earlier this year after a long battle with cancer.

Like Libby, Troy councilors don’t get paid much. But both towns offer more than Whitefish, where councilors are all volunteers. The city charter explicitly calls for it.

While elections for positions on Whitefish City Council have quieted a bit, in 2009 and 2011 the races were among the most contentious in the region. For their trouble, councilors there get reimbursed for mileage and lodging when traveling on official business, a stipend for cell phone use, and that’s about it.

And those volunteers, at least in previous years, have been caught up in campaigns costing tens of thousands of dollars (often in outside money) with voters receiving stacks of negative mailers and candidates bitter after brutal campaigns for “non-partisan” positions. In a story following the 2009 election, Myers Reece wrote in his postmortem for the Beacon, “The race is over. Let the healing begin.”

Whether you support your small town elected officials, and the last few years have proven many don’t, they often pay a price for their ambition. And they get little tangible in return.

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