GOP Primary: Flathead County Commission

Four Republicans, including an incumbent, battle to be the candidate running for the seat in November

By Molly Priddy
Republican County Commission candidates from left to right: Ronalee Skees, Jay Scott, Gary Krueger, and Randy Brodehl. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

On June 5, or well before if they vote by mail, county residents will determine which Republican candidate for county commissioner will move on to the general elections in November.

The seat for District 3 on the Flathead County Commission has attracted four GOP candidates who each believe they are the person to lead the valley into the future.

The one Democrat candidate – Tom Clark – faces no intra-party challengers, and will move on to the November showdown unless a write-in candidate sneaks out a win.

What Is This?

The Flathead County Commission is arguably the most powerful board in county government. The three-person board is both the legislative and executive branch of the county; the commission controls the county budget and all the capital-improvement projects in the county.

Each commissioner serves a six-year term and represents one-third of the county.

The commission has the final say-so on subdivision developments, road budgets, awarding bids for county projects and work, representing the county in state and federal matters, and much more.

Why Should I Care?

If you pay taxes or use public services in Flathead County, this is a race you should care about. County commissioners serve on many county boards and have input on issues across the spectrum.

From public health care to public safety to public development, the commission helps shape and determines the county’s future. Essentially, the commission has the final word on which taxes are implemented, and how to spend the money from those taxes.

Who Are the Candidates?

Commissioner Gary Krueger currently holds the seat for District 3, which represents the western part of the county. Challenging Krueger is a stable of experienced, familiar Republicans: Gerald “Jay” Scott, Randy Brodehl, and Ronalee Skees.

Krueger has been in the District 3 seat since 2012. He’s particularly proud of helping shepherd the county through the recession years, believing all the while that it would bounce back, but being prudent in the budget and making sure to save up for major projects.

Scott was the Flathead County Fairgrounds manager for 14 years before his contract with the county wasn’t renewed in 2012. Scott challenged Krueger for the District 3 seat in 2012 and lost by a razor-thin margin of 18 votes.

Brodehl is a veteran politician in the Flathead, having served as the representative for House District 9 in Evergreen since 2011. He termed out of the state House in 2017, and decided to run for the commission.

Skees is also not a stranger to politics, having run for Kalispell’s House District 7 in 2014, and losing to Frank Garner. Her husband, Derek Skees, represents House District 11 in the Legislature. Skees serves on the Kalispell Planning Board, the Flathead City-County Board of Health, and was the past chair of the Flathead County Republican Central Committee.

The Jail

The future of Flathead County’s jail is one of many questions facing the commission as the county continues to grow.

Krueger: “I’ve been working on funding for the jail for five years.” While on the commission, Krueger helped direct funds into savings for a future jail. Krueger said he believes the state dropped the ball when it came to changing sentencing requirements at the last Legislature, because it has created a revolving door of recidivism.

Scott: “The way building and labor costs are, I don’t think [the county] can save enough, fast enough.” The county is growing, and while Scott said a new jail will likely be necessary in the future, he is wary of adding new taxes to pay for it.

Brodehl: “I worked very closely with the commission on sentencing and we changed who goes to jail; we reduced the numbers.” During the 2017 Legislature, Brodehl worked on the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on the Judicial Branch, Law Enforcement and Justice, and he worked with the sentencing commission as it revised sentencing laws.

Skees: “The recent expansion helped address immediate needs.” The addition of 40 beds last year gave the county breathing room, Skees said, though a larger jail will likely be necessary in the future. Skees would like to bring juvenile detention services back to the Flathead to keep those kids local and help them blend back into their community.

The 911 Center

After the community voted for its creation in 2009, there has been perennial debate about how to adequately and fairly fund the county-wide emergency services dispatch center.

Krueger: “When we’re talking about the people managing it and the employees, they’re doing a good job,” he said. “It’s working, we have a great 911 system.” The county as well as the three municipalities within its borders all pay for the system, and Krueger said the payments even out given the amount of services the cities require.

Scott: “We need to work with the cities for equal taxation.” The 911 center needs a steady budget for proper equipment and training, he said, and though it’s operating well now, Scott believes a better financing solution can be found.

Brodehl: “I do believe we have some budget issues but we can’t identify what those are until we have a structure in place that can be successful.” A firefighter for 38 years and 22 spent managing, Brodehl said all the players and pieces are in place for the 911 center, and that it just needs some internal reorganization to create efficiencies.

Skees: “They have a committee working on future funding.” Potential state funding sources could come into play to help shore up the budget, Skees said, because the community has already spoken about not wanting more taxes.

 

The Budget

Krueger: “My goal is to have the people who come after I have gone say, ‘That was a good choice back then.”‘ Krueger said his focus while serving on the commission for the last six years has been to look ahead at least 20 years, apply a conservative lens, and think about what the county will and won’t need.

Scott: “You have to be a good team player.” Scott said a commissioner needs to be accessible to the community, appearing at public events and talking to folks, in order to know what the people want. Planning ahead will protect the valley wherein we all work, live and play, he said.

Brodehl: “I am committed to no new programs, and no new taxes to add programs.” Brodehl said the county needs to be aware of the wages in the county, and to make sure the taxes aren’t increasing faster than the local household budgets. He’s also opposed to bonding.

Skees: “We really can look at some efficiencies.” There needs to be more transparency and accountability in the budgeting process, Skees said before proposing a public workshop to crowd-source money-saving ideas. There should also be more emphasis on listening to the committees already in place, she said.

Property Rights

Krueger: “My job as a commissioner is to follow the laws that we have.” Krueger said the commission can’t pick winners and losers in development projects or land-planning matters, but rather at the framework laid out to guide these decisions. “The code is what balances it for us.”

Scott: “Sometimes the other guy will be right and you’ll be wrong.” Effective leadership on property and growth comes from open communication, Scott said. The valley needs to plan for the future, but it can’t come at the expense of people’s rights. The commission should be approachable and creative in its solutions, Scott said.

Brodehl: “If they’re within the law and rule of the land, they have the right to continue that project.” Brodehl called property rights “the toughest issue in our county today,” and that it is a constant balancing act between people being able to do what they want with their land while not encroaching on the rights of their neighbors.

Skees: “You have the right to use your property in a productive and healthy manner so long as you don’t encroach on your neighbor’s same rights.” Skees said the commission’s job is to listen to the public, ensure criteria are met, and leave their own egos at the door when making these decisions. “We have been reacting to growth and allowing growth to define who we are.”

 

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