Closing Range

Our ‘Nonpartisan’ Elections

Mail and absentee ballots heading to voters in advance of Flathead municipal elections on Nov. 2

By Dave Skinner

Here it comes! Oct. 13 will see mail and absentee ballots sent out for the Flathead municipal elections on Nov. 2. Yeah, I know you’re just quivering with anticipation, especially in Columbia Falls, where every incumbent is unopposed. Satisfaction, or apathy? Hopefully, it’s the former.

Kalispell is a bit more exciting. Mayor Mark Johnson is being challenged by Ward 4 councilor Sid Daoud; Ward 2 has Chad Graham challenged by Gabe Dillon; Ward 3 has Rod Kuntz (voted off Council in 2019) vying with Jessica Dahlman for departing Kyle Waterman’s slot. Ward 4 has Jed Fisher and Angela Kennedy after Tim Kluesner’s open seat. Plus there’s municipal judge Lori Adams unchallenged for another four years, although she needs 50 percent plus one of all ballots cast to win (same for incumbent unopposed Whitefish muni judge William Hileman, Jr.).

Speaking of Whitefish, Council members Ben Davis and Andy Feury will vie with SEVEN challengers (the highest vote totals in an at-large pool get the nod) for a total of three seats, because Ryan Hennen is leaving Council. They are Kristen Riter, Terry Petersen, Mark E. Owens, Judy Hessellund, Vincent Dell’Omo, Giuseppe Caltabiano and Phil Boland. 

Who are, pray tell, these upstanding citizens, really? 

Don’t worry, some useful clues have already come your way from my Beacon frenemy Mike Jopek. He outlined his favorites for both Kalispell and Whitefish in his first September column. Please read that, then you’ll know which candidates at least one Flathead Valley progressive Democrat (and a former legislator, to boot), finds worthy, even if you might disagree.

What about the others? Well, one candidate who ranks at an international credit-payment processing firm, also endorsed Ms. Riter, hinting there’s a stealthy “team challenge” to Whitefish’s status quo. Riter has the only campaign website I could find, but it was pretty opaque. Another candidate is a “hemp cultivator” so I don’t think he’s on Riter’s “team.”

In Kalispell, Jed Fisher was Flathead County parks and rec director for decades, but my point is, after dredging around a little (which is still much more dredging than normal voters ever do), the complete lack of secondary, non-campaign information available on the vast majority of the Whitefish and Kalispell candidates. These folks are running for office, but for all practical purposes are still hidden in the political woodwork. I couldn’t find a single R, D, L, G hint anywhere, not without dragging through campaign finance databases. I won’t. Why should anyone?

Municipalities involve the basics of ground-level governance, matters that should be utterly nonpartisan. We all want our towns, and our county, to efficiently take care of the basics: Water, sewer, potholes, schools, trash, parks, petty crooks, cats in trees, that sort of stuff — and in my view, the more prudent oversight and less social engineering involved, the better.

As for judges, again, we’re dealing with jurisprudential basics, which nonetheless affect community identity, again, nonpartisan. So, while the pertinent elections theoretically should be “nonpartisan,” let’s get real: Neither the long-running jurisdictional war Whitefish fought with the county, nor the grand visions Kalispell has for a three-lane, angle-parking downtown, are “nonpartisan.” Nor can voters seriously expect any of these candidates to put their foot down and express their true feelings on either before Election Day.

When it comes to voting, I give lots of weight to recommendations from those I know and trust AND from those I don’t trust, but know. Barring that, sometimes the only hope for a good guess is, yep, party affiliation on every ballot, even if it’s a choice between a fascist and Communist. 

Bottom line, “nonpartisan” elections are unfair to voters. Only insiders have a snowflake’s chance of choosing wisely. 

If you can’t vote who you know, then please, don’t flip a coin or mark a name you’ve “heard of.” I’d like to humbly suggest you instead write-in “Spot the Cat” — every vote you give the kitty will be one fewer wasted in our city nonpartisan elections.

Editor’s Note: Dave Skinner will be leaving us at the end of the year and we’re looking for his replacement. Interested? Send a query email to with the subject line “Send Dave Packing” for specifics.

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