Commissioner Nicole “Cola” Rowley is vacating her seat on the Missoula County Commission and moving to Gallatin County.
Rowley, who is the current chair and most senior county commissioner, announced Wednesday afternoon that she is taking a job as deputy county administrator with Gallatin County on July 1. Her term was set to expire in 2021.
Rowley, 35, said she doesn’t know when her last day will be with Missoula County. She noted that she wasn’t looking for a new job, but Gallatin County Administrator Jim Doar mentioned the position to her during a conference in February, and her interest grew from there.
“I’m very excited about the new job, but very sad to leave here,” Rowley said. “I love the people, I love the county, so this is definitely bittersweet. But I think the job is a perfect fit.”
Doar said he is impressed with Rowley's work for Missoula County residents, and after a lengthy search by their hiring committee, Rowley stood out as a "super star."
"A couple things stood out for me; her ability to handle conflicts productively, (and) her digging into policies to make … good, sound judgments not based on political pressures," Doan said. "And her experience with growth issues facing urban counties is really a win for us as we work on similar issues."
Missoula County has a slightly different government structure than Gallatin, which has the county administrator directly supervising all of the departments. Hers is a newly created position, meant to ease the county administrator’s burden by taking over some departments’ supervision.
The job description also calls for Rowley to collaborate with department heads, elected officials and staff “to ensure constructive relationships with other public and quasi-public agencies and private sector partners; and build and foster a culture of community engagement,” among other duties.
The position pays $118,000, which is up from the $88,150 she earned as a Missoula County commissioner.
Rowley, who is a Sidney native and holds a doctorate in pharmacology and toxicology, laughed as she called the move part of her “non-traditional career path.” But she said the new job will help her capitalize on her “strengths and interest in data, administration and collaborative innovation.”
“I bring to government an objective data-driven process that I get from science, while at the same time I have a passion for public service,” Rowley said. “I’m good at melding public service and doing research and problem solving, taking the methodical research approach.”
Rowley took office in 2015, using her data-informed solution attitude on topics including climate change, criminal justice reform, public health and land use planning. She said it’s been an honor to serve Missoula County, and is proud of the work she’s done including the redevelopment of the fairgrounds, improvements to the criminal justice system, resiliency planning and policy updates that address climate change, and efforts to enhance transparency and efficiency.
“In a few short years, Cola has left an indelible impression on Missoula County government,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said in a statement. “Among other things, her data-driven approach to criminal justice reform has put Missoula County on the map and will position us well for realizing jail diversion efforts and fostering healthy communities. She’s smart, motivated and passionate — all attributes that will serve Gallatin County well. I look forward to collaborating across county lines, and I wish Cola the very best in her new role.”
Rowley serves on several boards and authorities, including the Partnership Health Center, Western Montana Mental Health Center and Missoula Aging Services boards and the Housing Policy Steering Committee. She’s also the chair of the Urban Counties Coalition of the Montana Association of Counties and serves on the National Association of Counties Justice and Public Safety Steering Committee.
“Cola’s encyclopedic understanding of local government, focus on data-driven solutions and commitment to an equitable future have made her an effective elected official,” Commissioner Josh Slotnick said in a statement. “I have appreciated Cola's openness and willingness to pass on her knowledge, as she has been a great help to me as well as the county. Our loss is indeed Gallatin County's gain.”
The Missoula County Democratic Central Committee will provide a list of three names to Strohmaier and Slotnick, who will appoint someone to fill her term. The commissioners will decide on a process and timeline for selecting the candidate. The pay for a starting commissioner is $83,990.
The new commissioner can run for the open seat in the November 2020 election, with the winner then serving the standard six-year staggered term beginning Jan. 1, 2021.
Rowley said she expects to remain on the Missoula County Commission until the middle or end of June to try to ensure a smooth transition. Her exit leaves Missoula County with two commissioners with limited experience; Strohmaier has served since January 2017 and Slotnick has been with the county for four months.
“Really, I’m still new compared to the longevity of previous commissions; it’s kind of amazing that I’m the senior one,” Rowley said. “But they’re both very smart, passionate people and have a lot of support from a great staff. I have confidence that Dave and Josh will be just fine. They will get a third person in here and train them up.”
This is the first time since 1978 where Missoula County will have no female commissioner, after Barbara Evans replaced Lud Browman when he retired. She joined Wilfred “Fritz” Thibodeau and Jim Waltermire and served continuously until her resignation in 2007.
In 1985, Evans, Ann Mary Dussault and Janet Stevens made up the first all-female county commission in the nation. That remained the case for 10 years.
Rowley, who is married to a self-employed chemist and has two children age 4 and 7, is expecting her third child in October. She joked that she’s managing to hit on a lot of the top life-stressing issues, with the new job in a new city with a new baby on the way.
“It’s a lot on our plate, but it’s all good,” she said.
Reporter Kim Briggeman contributed to this story.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Nicole Rowley's name in two instances.