Flathead County

County at a Crossroads

With no general election challenger, four Republican candidates square off in a primary for a seat as the highest elected official in Flathead County

By Micah Drew
Flathead County Courthouse on Main Street in Kalispell pictured May 4, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist spends most of the day in her office on the third floor of the old Flathead County courthouse. The office takes up the northwest corner of the building, has windows along two walls and a view straight down Main Street with Big Mountain in the distance. It’s arguably the best office of the three county commissioners. Holmquist got it after a good-natured sparring match with a fellow commissioner when the offices were relocated from the old annex building a decade ago. 

This spring, the twice-elected Holmquist is once again fighting for her office space, but not against a fellow commissioner — instead she’s looking to fend off three challengers in the Republican primary race on June 7. 

Throwing their hats into the primary ring for a six-year commissioner term are Jack Fallon, a longtime member of several local boards, Jason Parce, a former member of the Kalispell Police Department, and Brian Friess, a small business owner and part-time teacher in the area.

Holmquist was first elected to the commission in 2010 by a 2-1 margin over then-incumbent Democrat Joe Brenneman, turning the commission into an all-GOP board. She won her re-election bid in 2016 after edging out a primary opponent by a 10-point margin, then beating a Democratic opponent in the general election by 16,000 votes. 

“My run for re-election goes back to my original motivation for this seat, that is I love serving my community,” Holmquist said. “All my family’s here, my kids, my grandkids are here so I’m really invested in the community, and I think I still have a lot to offer.”

A resident of Evergreen, Holmquist worked for 32 years at her family’s business, Rocky Mountain Marine, before she was elected to the commission representing District 2 encompassing the southeast corner of the county, including Evergreen.

If there’s a single goal Holmquist plans to focus on in a third term, it’s making moves on a new county detention facility — something she’s been a proponent of for the last decade. Through the years she’s pushed the county to save for the new facility and identified several potential properties.  

“I want to get the site established and get the process started. That’s been my top priority for 10 years,” Holmquist said. “You know timing is everything for projects like this, but I have 100% confidence it’ll get done in my next term. I know if a vote was taken today I’d have the support to do it.”

Funding the new detention facility would require a bond from county residents, which Holmquist estimates could be in the realm of $70 million, but she doesn’t anticipate any issues selling voters on such an expense. “People know there’s a need, the sheriff’s department is struggling, and we can’t just put a Band-Aid over it.”

Asked about why it’s taken so long to get to this point in the process, Holmquist said that government is set up to not rush through a big project like this. “Government is slow, but government is slow for a reason. You want to make sure you’ve got all your ducks in a row.” 

Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist pictured in Kalispell on May 5, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Jack Fallon has been serving on community boards since he joined the Evergreen Water and Sewer board in 1987. He’s also served on the Evergreen Fire District board since 2007, and is a decade into his second stint as a Kalispell Public Schools trustee. 

“I’ve done a lot of things during that period of time that involved most county departments as well as different statewide agencies,” Fallon said. “I’m not an expert on real estate law, but I’ve become familiar with easements, I’ve learned 

about contract law and real estate law, really anything I’ve needed to know along the way because of people I’ve been involved with.”

Fallon is running on the motto of “pipes, plows and public safety,” with the idea that local government should be limited to addressing infrastructure and public safety over pet projects. 

“The sheriff’s department has had the same number of deputies on patrol each year for the last 10, 12 years. Look at what’s happening to the population in the county — that tells me we need more deputies,” Fallon said. “In order to do that, we might have to raise property taxes. You have to pay for what you need.”

In addition to the sheriff’s department funding, Fallon said that he’s taken issue with other stances of the current county commissioners in recent years, including the decision not to collect taxes on recreational marijuana. Flathead County can collect a 3% tax on recreational marijuana, of which 50% goes to the county’s coffers. He says the user tax will not deter people from purchasing legal marijuana, and the funding would be essential to carrying out some county directives, specifically to cover marijuana shop inspections which are carried out at the expense of fire district tax payers.

Another priority Fallon has is one of which is ensuring protection of Flathead’s open space, clean air and clean water, specifically by focusing on the local watershed.

“We’ve got great water in this valley, it’s old and clean and there’s nothing wrong with it, but we have to be concerned about the future,” Fallon said, pointing to his experience facilitating sewer projects in Evergreen and coordinating with local and statewide agencies. “I know the importance of addressing sewage collection systems and water systems. We need be having these conversations.”

Candidate for Flathead County Commissioner Jack Fallon pictured in Kalispell on May 6, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Brian Friess has been a small business owner in the valley for 14 years and is also a certified secondary science teacher. His candidacy emerged after seeing the county reach a crossroads he worries could steer the Flathead away from its conservatives values. 

“We’ve seen a real abdicating of authority of what local government can and should do: having a clear vision for future growth and expansion of the valley while still protecting property rights, civil and natural order, and freedom from federal encroachment and overreach,” Friess said. “As a country I think it’s important that we renew our trust in God to help lead us where we need to go as a community.”

With the increased growth in the valley in recent year, Friess said he’s heard a lot of negative attitudes surrounding incoming residents. Instead, he feels that the county can do a better job building bridges with new residents, especially if they’re bringing new businesses and will be contributing to building out much needed infrastructure. 

Friess believes that while the county is run with a fiscally conservative hand, he believes there is more opportunity to do more with less. 

“I don’t want to accuse anyone of wasting money, but when you spend millions, there’s a potential for waste,” he said, bringing up a ballot initiative that could curtail property taxes and force local governments to reexamine their budgets. “I would want the leaders of each agency to scrutinize their budget and really justify their expansion to make sure there isn’t any waste there.”

Two areas Friess would not look at cutting funding from are the sheriff’s department and 911 Emergency Communications Center. He would instead look to increase spending on public safety if possible. 

Candidate for Flathead County Commission Brian Friess in Kalispell on May 5, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Jason Parce has been a public presence in the community as the main member of the Kalispell Police Department’s Canine Unit with his four-legged partner Cairo, as well as his work with Special Olympics Montana. During his tenure with KPD, Parce served as a patrolman and school resource officer, a non-traditional schedule he says had readied him for a commissioner’s position he would plan to spend entrenched with his constituents. 

Parce chose to run for the county seat after hearing from locals that they perceived a lack of community engagement by the current commission. 

“I’ve never seen the county commissioners as a proactive entity, I’ve never seen them out in the community,” Parce said. “That doesn’t mean they’re not doing their job, but I think they need to be in the community gathering input and finding solutions that way. I’m young, I’m energetic, I’m motivated and I want to hear from people.” 

With his law enforcement background, Parce believes in a strong focus on public safety, not only in ensuring full staffing for the sheriff’s department, but looking at the county jail and re-examining incarceration practices to ensure attention and recourses are focused on people who are an immediate threat to society, rather than short-term nonviolent offenders. 

Parce also wants greater transparency in all levels of county decisions, especially when it comes to budgeting. 

“You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re making a decision from an executive level and the people in the community don’t understand why. I think if you went out into the community, had advisory boards set up and listen to the people and let them speak, they’ll understand the positions you take better,” he said. “Nobody wants new taxes, nobody wants increased taxes. The reality of it is the money is there, but people need to understand what the money’s being spent on.”

Parce’s departure from KPD in March was due to allegations involving internal department policy violations. The alleged violations are currently under investigation by the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards and Training (POST) Bureau, which is standard procedure when an officer is let go.

“The departure was obviously not on the terms I wanted it to be, and I have a lot of respect for the police department,” Parce said, adding that if he isn’t elected as commissioner, he would hope to return to law enforcement. 

The POST case status committee will review the allegations in a May 24 public meeting. 

Candidate for Flathead County Commission Jason Parce. Courtesy photo.

All the candidates commented on the commissioners’ duty of appointing people to the many advisory boards in the county. In recent years, several boards have become contentious, including the local health board in 2020 following the appointment of Dr. Annie Bukacek, who became best known for her criticism of the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic and for her anti-vaccine activism.

“She was the right person at the right time,” Holmquist said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, certainly she was good on the board because it made us have good discussions. I don’t want a board to be a rubber stamp organization, it’s good to have discussions and the board certainly became alive with those.”

Fallon said he wants to see more transparency in board appointments and would push for the commission to hold public interviews with candidates on some of the highest profile boards, rather than just having private phone calls, which is how he characterized the current practice.  

“In my mind that process should be public and happen in the commission chambers,” Fallon said. “Whether you’re talking the health board, library board, fair board, parks and rec, those have to have a public vetting process.”

For Friess, he would seek community representatives without personal agendas who “promote the natural and civil order,” which he defines as being grounded in social and moral guidelines and God given rights. 

“I would encourage people who are willing to protect and uphold the constitution, the natural and civil order, and really help the community continue to be a wholesome atmosphere.”

Addressing the recently controversial nature of the health board, Parce said that controversy shouldn’t be considered a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t disrupt operations. 

“Having controversial people, especially ones that are experts in a field, is not a bad thing,” Parce said. “Often people outside the status quo are shut down, and they oftentimes bring a phenomenal perspective to a board. I think you need to be challenged on your thinking — and one of the great things about government is getting people in there to offer different insights and points of view.”

Without a Democratic challenger having filed for the general election, the June 7 primary means that Holmquist will know in less than a month whether she will retain her third-floor view of the county seat. 

“The institutional knowledge and the relationships I’ve built over the years are huge, that’s very beneficial to the county,” Holmquist said. “I came on and it was a huge learning curve — it is for anybody. It’s definitely a full-time position.”

laFlathead County Courthouse on Main Street in Kalispell pictured May 4, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

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