County Commissioners at odds over chair selection process

Cascade County Commissioners voted 2-1 to accept on first reading a proposed ordinance to change the way their chair is selected.

The chair runs the meetings and serves on the policy coordinating committee of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is a regional transportation planning group.

The chair does not have any authority or powers beyond that of the other commissioners.

Commissioner Jim Larson brought the proposal to change the process so that they can elect the chair amongst themselves. If adopted, commissioners would elect the chair during the first meeting following the effective date of the ordinance and thereafter, during the first commissioner meeting of each new calendar year for a one-year term.

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The proposed ordinance would replace the existing ordinance, under which a commissioner serves as chair during the fifth and sixth year of their six-year commission term.

State law allows the chair to be selected by election among themselves, by a process set by ordinance or by election by the voters for a term set by ordinance.

The current ordinance was adopted in 2021, when Jane Weber was resigning her term. That change was approved 2-1 with Weber dissenting.

At the time, commissioners were operating under an ordinance that had been adopted in 2012 and established a pattern of the chair’s term being one year and that the position of chair was rotated every January with the commissioner serving in the third and sixth year of their term be the chair.

That ordinance replaced a 2009 ordinance that had commissioners electing a presiding officer at its first meeting in odd numbered years and the chair’s term was two years.

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Under the rotation established with the 2012 ordinance, Weber’s appointed replacement would have served as chair after being appointed, according to Commissioner Joe Briggs’ staff report at the time.

In 2021, Briggs wrote in his staff report that, “this annual turnover creates confusion with our granting and other governmental partners as documents created by these partners often cite the wrong presiding officer. Additionally, since the presiding officer is also deemed to be the certifying environmental officer, the annual turnover causes many projects to require a change of environmental certifying officer to occur in mid project when the presiding officer is changed in January. This is of particular importance given the resignation of Commissioner Weber. Her replacement would, under a strict interpretation of the existing ordinance immediately become presiding officer following their appointment to the commission. The change in ordinance would even under this midterm resignation scenario allow the new commissioner two years of experience prior to becoming the presiding officer.”

Larson wrote in his staff report for the Nov. 14 meeting that the current rotation “unnecessarily limits the flexibility and authority of the commission in their ability to make annual decisions regarding the determination of which commissioner may serve as presiding officer.”

Don Ryan was appointed to fill Weber’s vacancy in 2021 but had to run again in 2022. He lost to Commissioner Rae Grulkowki, who is serving as the chair under the current rotation as she’s filling the end of Weber’s original term from when she was elected in 2018. Grulkowski has to run again next year to reset the district three seat cycle.

Grulkowski said she wasn’t part of the discussion in bringing the proposed ordinance forward.

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Several members of the public said during the meeting that they would have preferred commissioners to have discussed the matter before bringing it before the public.

Since there’s three commissioners, any two together constitutes a quorum and if they’re discussing public business, it’s typically considered a public meeting under Montana open meeting laws and would need to be noticed and open to the public.

Grulkowski asked why the change was being proposed.

“Now we are again in disagreement that this is the way to go for some reason,” she said. “When there is contention among commissioners like there is now, representation will be suppressed.”

Grulkowski said that they are elected from one of three districts and selecting a chair amongst themselves will “unduly suppress representation” of the districts.

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Carey Ann Haight, deputy county attorney, said that all commissioners are equal in representation. They have to live in one of the three districts to run for a commission seat for that district, but once elected, they represented the entirety of cascade county, not just the district they live in.

County officials said the districts were in place to ensure commissioners didn’t all come from the same part of the county, but otherwise did not impact representation.

Haight said that serving as the chair has no legal impact whatsoever on representation nor does it carry any additional authority or voting power.

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Briggs said that in the past he’d wanted the chairmanship in the last two years of a commission term since the chair also serves on the policy coordinating committee of the Metropolitan Planning Organization and he preferred that to be a commissioner with more time in office and thereby with more local government experience.

Briggs said the presiding officer runs meetings and has to exhibit leadership.

He said Grulkowski serving has chair was by nature of the current ordinance and “she does not have the experience of running the meetings and the leadership experience.”

Briggs said that “has shown in her ability to manage the commission. We are not getting things done in a timely fashion. We have a problem right now.”

The proposed ordinance gives commissioners flexibility to choose chair, Briggs and Larson said.

In response to Briggs, she said, “I don’t know what I haven’t done in a timely fashion.”

She said she took it as an insult regarding him saying she lacked leadership experience.

Grulkowski said she wanted to amend the motion, but Larson, who made the original motion, said he wouldn’t entertain an amendment.

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Members of the public offered comment for about an hour, some in favor of the change, some in opposition.

Mark Winters said he didn’t think it was appropriate for other commissioners to call out Grulkowski in a public forum and thought it was a good ole’ boys club who couldn’t stand to have a woman in charge.

Jasmine Taylor said she was in favor of the change and said that Grulkowki has shown a pattern of presenting false information to the public, which is not demonstrating leadership and that gender had nothing to do with the proposed change.

Jane Weber, former county commissioner, who’s term Grulkowski is completing, said she she was appointed in 2010 to fill the remainder of a term and came into office in 2011.

Based on the rotation at the time, she would have been the chair but said she didn’t have the experience to do so, despite her background working for the federal government and other professional experience.

Weber said that she and then commissioner Bill Salina swapped chairman terms so she could gain the local government experience.

She said the presiding officer has the same level of power as the other commissioners and does not change representation.

Weber said she was offended by Grulkowski’s comments about representation being suppressed in relation to which commissioner serves as the chair and that “this isn’t a gender issue.”

Leslie Knowles of Cascade said that they shouldn’t change the process midstream and that they need to give people a chance to grow into their roles, encouraging commissioners to work together.”

Sandra Merchant, the current Cascade County clerk and recorder, said that the rotation is good and that she’s gotten to know Grulkowski during their time in office this year.

Grulkowski has routinely defended Merchant against criticism of election management this year during public meetings.

Merchant said she believes Grulkowski has good character, wants to do the right thing and represent the people.

Merchant suggested letting Grulkowski finish her term as chair under the existing ordinance, see how it goes then consider a change if necessary.

Several spoke in support of Grulkowski and their concerns about electing someone to do the job and having the other commissioners take that power away.

The public does not vote on who serves as chair, but votes for all commissioners equally.

Several said they would have liked commissioners to have discussed the proposal together before bringing it to a public meeting.

That would have been illegal under Montana open government laws since two commissioners constitutes a quorum and any such meeting would have to be noticed and open to the public.

Grulkowski said she wanted to table the item for further discussion, but Larson and Briggs said that wouldn’t accomplish anything since the change still needed a second reading and wouldn’t be effective until 30 days after that if it was approved.

Grulkowski said she wanted to become part of the commission and would entertain additional meetings outside of the commission format to discuss issues.

Commissioners held meeting every other week after the election to brief Grulkowski on pending items and long-term projects that had started before her election, but those have since been discontinued.