Kalispell Appoints Councilors to Fill Seat Vacancies Until Re-Election

Councilors Sam Nunnally and Kari Gabriel will temporarily reclaim the seats they surrendered until a new municipal election is held; council also set a hearing to consider the state-mandated Montana Land Use Planning Act

By Maggie Dresser
Kalispell City Council Chambers on March 16, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Kalispell City Council on Monday unanimously appointed city councilors Sam Nunnally and Kari Gabriel to fill vacant seats in wards 1 and 2 until a new election is held after a Flathead County judge’s order nullified municipal election results last month.

Nunnally and Gabriel stepped down from council in February after Flathead County District Court Judge Robert B. Allison issued an order annulling the election results after Flathead County Election Administrator Debbie Pierson filed a petition seeking a redo. In the petition, Pierson explained that a clerical error in her office caused the incorrect ballots to be sent to roughly 8% of the city’s voters, and that an election redo was the best course forward.

In order to fill the seats pending the new election, the council unanimously approved a resolution that declared the seats vacant before they could appoint individuals to fill the seats temporarily.

“A couple of weeks ago, we received an order related to the November election and the concerns related to the wards and the operation and certification of those results based on a failure of the county to update the wards as passed by city council,” City Manager Doug Russell said. “A judge issued those election results be set aside for wards 1 and 2.”

The council approved a second resolution and chose to appoint Nunnally and Gabriel to temporarily fill the roles they had previously resigned as a matter of procedure.

“With the workload we have coming up – especially the budget – I think it would be good to have experience on the council with that role until we have that election,” Councilor Chad Graham said.

According to county election manager Adrienne Chmelik, the logistics of administering a new election will push the redo into mid-May at the earliest.

In other city developments, the council approved a resolution of intent to hold a public hearing for the Montana Land Use Planning Act, a new state law designed to limit public input that impacts a handful of cities, including Kalispell. The act was created after the 2023 Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 382, with which the city of Kalispell is required to comply.

Under the act, the current growth policy, subdivision regulations and zoning regulations are replaced with a new land use planning paradigm that will be administrative rather than be conducted through a public hearing process.

To ensure there is “sufficient public input,” the city is required to adopt a new public participation plan.

According to the resolution, it is intended to streamline the development of projects by front-loading public comment in the land use plan and then allowing projects to move forward when they are in compliance – without additional public process.

The city council expressed frustration with the new law, saying that it disrupted the public process and describing it as government overreach. Mayor Mark Johnson proposed potentially filing an amicus brief in the future in hopes of striking down the law, which he called a “disgusting abuse of power.”

“It’s an incredible overreach, the fact that we are stripping the public’s voice at the local level – the government closest to the people,” Johnson said.

“We elect people to the state legislature, we elect a governor to the state of Montana who have never served on city councils. They don’t understand the process of incorporating public comment into our neighborhoods. We have made modifications to zoning (and) conditional use permit applications based on public comment. It’s a collaborative process that is politics,” he added.

Mayre Flowers of Citizens for a Better Flathead, too, was disappointed with the new law limiting public comment.

“I think this is a very important issue for the public to take note of,” Flowers said. “We think that the legislature has really done a disservice to our communities by reducing public comment,” Flowers said. “We think local control is a really important function of city government … Over the last 30 years, I can’t tell you how many planning board meetings I’ve sat through with cities or the county hearings and there is always good comment that results in a better plan.”

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