Political Newcomers Vie for Seat on Flathead County Commission

Brad Abell, Kristen Larson seek to replace outgoing Phil Mitchell

By Micah Drew
Democrat Kristen Larson and Republican Brad Abell are running for a seat on the Flathead County Commission. Photos by Hunter D'Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Two newcomers to the political scene are vying for one of the most powerful governmental positions in the county: a seat on the Flathead County Commission.

The three-member commission is both the legislative and executive branch of county government and members are elected for staggered six-year terms.

Republican Phil Mitchell has held the position, which encompasses the northern portion of the county, since 2014 but is not seeking reelection.

Kristen Larson is pursuing the open seat to bring accessibility, transparency and a greater inclusion of public input to the county commission.

“It makes for stronger government to have both sides of every story,” Larson said. “As public servants of our county and people in power, we need to listen to the stakeholders of the community.”

Larson believes protecting Flathead Valley’s surface and groundwater should be paramount for anyone in a position of leadership.

“Water is so big to the Flathead for recreation, tourism, real estate and agriculture,” Larson said. “I think it’s imperative that we invest in that.”

In 2018, Larson worked on marketing and outreach for ballot Initiative 17-01, which passed by a 70% vote, expanding the Egan Slough Zoning District and restricting a water bottling plant in Creston.

She points to septic systems as one of the biggest pollutant threats to groundwater and has been supportive of the work by U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester on the Montana Water Rights Protection Act.

As a business owner, Larson knows the need to run a tight budget as well as invest for the future, and is prepared do so for the county.

In light of the current coronavirus pandemic, Larson believes support should be given to the Flathead City-County Health Department to ensure it can provide the necessary services to the county.

“It’s time for a change of leadership style where we lead by example,” Larson said. “We need public participation as we grow in order to have the county we want to live in, and want our children to live in.”

Brad Abell is concerned that the rapid growth and development of Flathead County is not being handled in a responsible manner.

“People say they don’t want growth sometimes, but prosperity comes with growth,” Abell said. “If you’re not growing, you’re going to be in some kind of recession.”

Ensuring that there is affordable housing for lower wage earners is one of the difficult issues facing the county, according to Abell. He believes that rapidly rising property taxes are detrimental to homeowners, and that there should be caps on property taxes for longtime residents of the valley, while new developments should pay for the infrastructure needed to accommodate them.

Abell believes the commissioners have done a good job running a fiscally conservative county and saving money for capital improvement projects down the line, including the new jail.

He also thinks there should be a greater investment in certain departments such as weeds and parks. Abell says the difference in how public sidewalks are managed between unincorporated communities and municipalities is a problem that has a better solution.

“I would like to see our trail system maintained and maybe expanded,” Abell said, acknowledging that the high cost of upkeep is a barrier to overcome. He plans to consider a combination of increased budget, grant money and volunteer work to accomplish that. “We should have some good paths for people to get to school, and keep open minds, get together and talk about it to find a solution.”

Protecting the county’s vulnerable elderly population of the county is important during a pandemic, but Abell also points to the effects of rising unemployment on suicide rates as a reason to push for keeping businesses open.

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