Cascade County Commission candidate questionnaire: Jane Weber
Name: Jane Weber
Age: 64 years
Occupation: Cascade County Commissioner
Party Affiliation: Democrat
Experience relevant to position sought: I have served as Cascade County Commissioner for nearly eight years. The county commissioner position requires attention to detail, budget experience, objectivity, and the ability to listen and respond to constituent concerns.While I continue to learn something new every day from neighboring county and city/town colleagues, county staff, and citizens, I have gained tremendous understanding about the complexity and vast responsibility that comes with serving as a commissioner. Prior to becoming a county commissioner, I spent 31 years in various positions with the USDA, Forest Service – marking timber for harvest; as public information officer conducting public meetings on controversial oil and gas issues and during wildfire crises; and managing the nation’s premier Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center where I prepared and implemented budgets, hired and trained employees and volunteers, and collaborated on countless public-private partnerships, creating innovative programming and generating national and international tourism.
Q: Why are you running for county commissioner?
A: I would like to complete several important projects that I initiated as commissioner or which I have strongly supported. I am healthy, active and have the energy to continue to see the following projects and new ideas implemented in our county communities.
- EPA’s removal of heavy metals in Black Eagle residential yards caused by the Anaconda Company’s past smelter and refining operations.
- Cleanup and transformation of the former Anaconda refinery complex into the recreation management scheme developed by Black Eagle and Great Falls residents for bicycling, Frisbee golf, walking, and commemoration/interpretation of our industrial heritage.
- Completion of a county-wide Capital Improvement Reserve policy to methodically plan and budget for county infrastructure improvements and correct longstanding deferred maintenance issues.
- Review and revise county zoning to ensure future light and heavy industrial development opportunities are appropriately located in the county.
- Re-purposing the historic jail building located downtown (taking advantage of historic tax credit) into a justice center with courtroom space for Justice Courts and office space for CASA-CAN and Youth Probation. Preliminary investigations indicate this building is structurally sound and remodeling would enable the courthouse to be fully utilized by the growing District Court needs.
- Continue the road maintenance and reconstruction program to bring the county onto a 10-year road maintenance schedule.
- Continue to advocate for live streaming of county commission meetings to ensure county decisions are transparent and readily accessible to constituents.
Q: What do you believe is the role of a county commissioner?
A: Providing for the public safety and public health of the citizens within Cascade County is the first and foremost responsibility of a county commissioner. That said, the County Commission is fiscally responsible for taxpayer funds; and must annually establish and manage a balanced budget to meet those safety duties and a plethora of other critical needs in the county. With over 15 county departments, decisions of how and where to apportion limited funds generated by relatively stable property tax and fee revenues is challenging. Competing demands for increased law enforcement, overcrowding in the Adult Detention Center, ensuring safe drinking water, maintaining 1,000+ miles of road, preventing infectious disease spread, and providing for our justice system paint only a small part of the overall county picture.
Q: What do you believe are the top three challenges facing Cascade County?
A: Developing a financial strategy to meet the annual operational needs of the county while also remedying the longstanding and growing deferred maintenance of county infrastructure – buildings, roads, bridges.
Rebuilding trust with county constituents on zoning and subdivision regulations and processes established by Montana law and county policy.
Attracting and retaining competent, professional employees in the face of competing higher wages offered in the private sector and other larger Montana counties and cities.
Q: If elected, what would be your initial priorities and how would you accomplish those goals?
- What: Refine the zoning regulations to appropriately identify light and heavy industrial building development sites in Cascade County. How: Working with the County Planning Office, city and town officials and planning departments, developers and economic development entities to identify business needs and compatible land uses and locations. Encourage and participate in community town hall sessions to help initiate citizen-participation in changes to county zoning.
- What: Complete and implement the capital improvement reserve policy and begin to repair and/or replace the prioritized backlog of deferred maintenance projects in the county. How: continue working with department heads, public works director, and budget officer to implement an evolving policy that I have initiated and overseen since March 2018. A process is needed to plan for projects like the recently completed Courthouse roof, a long overdue major capital expense. The costs were funded through a combination of strategic low-interest loans and bridged over multiple fiscal years. This project was accomplished without impacting taxpayers. Our Cascade County Courthouse is the finest in Montana, and we have an obligation to invest in the necessary capital improvements to ensure it serves our community for another 100 years.
- What: Identify an array of solutions to resolve the overcrowding issues in the Adult Detention Center. How: create a public-private task force of government law enforcement officials and citizens to help define the problem and engage the voters in identifying options to rectify the situation. Explore pre-trial supervision solutions enacted in other Montana counties to reduce the number of people incarcerated while keeping our communities safe. Other solutions may involve a network of connected issues including finding innovative ways of aiding citizens struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues; as well as expanding treatment courts; and/or upgrades to the 20+ yearold Adult Detention Center.
Q: If elected, how would you approach the decision-making process on items before the commission?
A: I will continue to thoroughly read materials prepared by county staff; ask questions to ensure my knowledge of an issue is accurate and complete; consult with community constituents if further exploration is warranted; then follow the open meeting policy by discussing and deliberating on a decision in a commission meeting. It is important and mandated by law, that county commission decisions be transparent and open to the public. To become more knowledgeable about county government, I would attend any training offered by the Montana Association of County Officials (MACo), the Local Government Center at MSU-Bozeman, and any meetings or trainings held by local organizations affiliated with county business – for example, the Extension Service, Montana Disaster and Emergency Coordination, Rural Fire, Regional Fair Associations, Great Falls Development Authority, Cascade Conservation District, Board of Health, and more.
Q: How would you conduct public outreach on controversial matters before the county, or to promote a general understanding of the county’s public process?
A: I have been an advocate for community outreach, and some county employees and officials would assert that my suggestions regarding public outreach go above and beyond requirements for public engagement. I often experience resistance to my suggestions, but I will continue to push forward to keep citizens informed of the facts and involved in the decision-making process, because it is the right thing to do. There is a fine line between providing information to a group of constituents and having inappropriate exparte communications that could affect the legitimacy of the decision-making process. As a county commissioner, it is my responsibility to ensure proper process is followed, no matter how controversial the project.
In the case of the recent controversy over the Madison Food Park special use permit application, many have asked for my opinion on the project. Certainly, there are considerations to be explored with any project of the scale originally proposed. Do I have questions or any reservations? Certainly, but I have purposefully refrained from expressing an opinion (pro or con) on the project for two main reasons. First, the application has been on hold since December 2017, at the request of the applicant who intends to amend the original application. How that application is modified and re-submitted to the County planning office is anyone’s guess. It would be ill-timed to comment on a proposal that has not been fully evolved or vetted. Secondly, and more importantly, it would be inappropriate to take a stance on a proposal when it could be perceived as influencing the decision ultimately resting with the Zoning Board of Adjustments, an independent decision-making body appointed by the Board of County Commissioners. Influencing their decision would taint the process which county commissioners are entrusted to ensure is properly followed. I take my responsibility of safeguarding proper process seriously. I am happy to explain the extensive process that a project of this scale would be required to follow but have refrained from expressing an opinion for the above-stated reasons.
Q: How would you approach working with the City of Great Falls staff and the City Commission to address broader community needs and goals?
A: From the onset of my term as county commissioner, I initiated joint city-county commission meetings to collaborate on mutual issues affecting our respective constituents. I strongly believe, “The residents of Great Falls are within Cascade County and deserve to be heard.” Prior to the start of the legislative session, I have led the efforts with fellow city commissioners and other partners (school district, university system and business development) to assemble elected legislative officials and discuss issues that matter in central Montana. I have assembled joint handouts summarizing those issues and the rationale for our specific positions, enabling our legislators to effectively represent us in Helena. After all, city and county governments are often tasked with implementing the processes and policies resulting from their legislative actions. I supported the joint 911-Center and helped facilitate the joint agreement between the city and county for greater efficiencies and improved safety for our deputies and citizens. I am a member of the Board of Health, a community-based, decision-making body tasked with protecting the health and welfare of all residents, including safe drinking water, proper sanitation and prevention of communicable disease spread within the county. My management style is facilitative, and I make every attempt to engage in meaningful dialogue and find collaborative solutions to problems facing our local governments. I represent the county on the Policy Coordinating Committee of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, responsible for prioritizing urban transportation planning within the city and county. You will often find me attending city meetings – the monthly Historic Preservation Advisory Council meetings, or public meetings on highway connections, or recent park district meetings.
Q: What do you believe is the role of county commissioners in economic development?
A: Everyone living in Cascade County has a role in economic development. We are all ambassadors for our community and should project a positive outlook to entice business and encourage business growth. Specifically, the County Commission should support viable economic growth that complies with state regulation and county policies. Cascade county works with the Great Falls Chamber of Commerce and Great Falls Development Authority to retain and attract new business to our communities. The county planning office works with prospective developers to guide them through the permitting processes with the intent of minimizing government bureaucracy. We should be inviting to prospective businesses, as Cascade County has much to offer.
Q: What do you believe are the core services a county should provide to residents?
A: As stated earlier, public safety whether with road maintenance and repair, assisting law-abiding citizens or protecting citizens from those who do not follow the law; with youth who have made poor choices and deserve a second chance; or providing environmental health guidance to ensure the safety of our drinking water or inspecting businesses to protect our health, or prevention of communicable disease spread through immunizations and education. All of these services are essential to the citizens of Cascade County and fall within the purview of the county commission.
Q: How would you approach the budget process to ensure the county is making the best use of taxpayer dollars?
A: Budgeting for the county is like budgeting for your household, only on a much larger scale and with many more voices coming to the table. In my experience, it works best when every Department prepares and presents a preliminary budget and the commission reviews those expenditure requests carefully. Budget preparation requires attention to detail, the ability to prioritize needs, and the objectivity to view all aspects of the county (whether roads or horseracing) and make an informed decision based on the projected property tax revenues from the Department of Revenue. When large utilities or business owners appeal their property taxes, or the value of a mill declines, commissioners are faced with very difficult choices. Sometimes, those choices require the county to borrow low interest loans from the state, as was done to complete the courthouse roof project or may be done to replace the aging grandstands at Expo Park. Fortunately, Cascade County has very little debt for a large county, but borrowing funds always requires careful consideration.
Q: How would you work with the sheriff’s office to ensure public safety?
A: My relationship with the sheriff’s office is direct and honest. For several years, I have advocated for an animal control officer in the county, but the sheriff prefers having sworn officers on patrol and available for public protection. I respect his priority and have postponed funding an animal control officer with good reason. The sheriff and I have also had frank discussions about overcrowding in the jail and how the county can divert individuals with mental health issues to the proper services, rather than incarceration. Through discussions with the Center for Mental Health, the county has targeted funding for a Crisis Intervention Team to assess individual situations and prevent citizens who are in crises from being incarcerated. Deputies are trained to recognize citizens in crisis and call for help. A better solution has been in stabilizing them through the crisis and finding them the appropriate medical care needed. This is a step in the right direction. I have worked collaboratively with the sheriff’s office to establish the 24/7 program, allowing DUI offenders an opportunity to correct their behavior while continuing to work and provide for their families. This is a very successful program, and the county is pursuing the opportunity for the twice-daily breathalyzer testing to be relocated to a downtown location for the convenience of our citizens.
Q: What do you envision your working relationship with county staff to look like?
A: I view Cascade County as a team working for the common good of the citizenry. In the best world, elected officials and employees work together to arrive at solutions to maximize the ability to serve citizens. I expect three things from those I have the privilege of working with – to be honest in all things, to be respectful of the citizens we serve, and to put in an honest day’s work. I take a collaborative approach to relationships, if we work together for the mutual benefit of the citizens, everyone wins – the citizens and the county.
Q: Any additional comments on your plans if elected?
A: My entire adult life has been spent serving the public. I enjoy the satisfaction of solving constituent problems and helping make our community a better place to live and raise a family. I hope the voters will support my commitment to efficient, honest governing by providing me the opportunity to continue to serve them in coming years.