Juanita Vero makes up in enthusiasm what she lacks in experience in elected office in her bid to become Missoula County’s next commissioner.
A partner in the E Bar L guest ranch near Greenough, Vero almost bounces out of her chair as she explains her love of the “complex and contradictory” county where she grew up. Vero is one of three candidates selected by the Missoula County Democratic Central Committee seeking appointment to the District 1 seat being vacated by Nicole “Cola” Rowley, who took a job in Gallatin County.
“I feel like we are on the cusp of something big and exciting, whether it’s clean electricity by 2030 or zero waste or the jail diversion plan. And people are really concerned about housing,” Vero recently told the Missoulian. “There is energy right now, so I want to help with that and share it with others, because I have received so much from others.
“People come to our ranch for the state of mind that is Montana, and I want to preserve that — the mountains, rivers and plains. You say the word ‘Montana’ and it conjures up images of freedoms, opportunity, clean air, water and space. I want to be part of making sure that state of mind is true.”
Vero said the commission needs “an authentic rural voice” to provide better communication between city and county residents. She notes that while commissioners Josh Slotnick and Dave Strohmaier reach out to all of their constituents, as do county staff, most live either within or near the city limits.
What that means is they don’t have the first-hand knowledge of what life is like for rural Missoula County residents, many of whom may be miles from services that make them self-reliant or aided mainly by their neighbors.
“But we’re contradictory, too, (with an attitude of) leave me alone out here but I want my services,” Vero said. “That’s a common rural tension. We want to have internet and roads, great services from the sheriff and emergency responders, but want to be left alone. That’s the tension we get.”
Vero readily admits she doesn’t have the answers to many of the issues facing Missoula County, which include housing, land management, recreation pressure and wildlife conflicts. But she’s willing to learn more about potential solutions, and bridge the rural/urban divide whenever possible to help each other feel heard, understood and ultimately empowered.
“It’s hard for an elected official to learn the ropes in public because it takes a significant amount of authenticity and vulnerability that we don’t always grant our public officials,” Vero said. “Addressing the dissatisfaction people have in their government, promoting a culture of transparency, and hitting benchmarks for accountability — those can be mushy, human things that are really important but we sometimes don’t emphasize.”
Another contradiction is that county residents also are fiercely protective of private property rights, yet often bemoan subdivisions in places where farms or ranches once existed, or in areas close to the wildland/urban interface or in floodplains. That’s one reason Vero is supportive of the recent county land use map, which was updated after 40 years based in part on county residents’ responses.
It includes 15 land use designations like agriculture, rural residential and commercial center, and is meant to drive decisions as the population increases from about 117,000 people now to an anticipated 140,000 by 2040.
“When the community food and agriculture coalition agrees with the Missoula Organization of Realtors, you know it has to be good,” Vero said. “I’m excited county staff is being nimble and responsive and creative and really working hard to get everyone’s ides and bring them together. This plan went around all the planning areas in Missoula County for two years, and now we have to implement it.”
She particularly likes the live/work designation for East Missoula, which allows small businesses to operate out of people’s homes, which is something that already takes place.
Vero is quick to add that there’s no slick answer to balancing the needs of individuals with those of a community. However, resources like the Blackfoot Challenge are out there, helping to forge creative and collaborative working partnerships that can help move the discussions forward. From her work on boards ranging from the Montana Conservation Voters to the Missoula County Open Land Committee and with organizations including the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Department of Environmental Quality, she knows that positive relationships and compromises are possible.
“It will not be neat and tidy. It will be a long slog, and that’s what the commission is there for,” Vero said.
On economic development
Vero believes there are no easy answers either when it comes to promoting economic development in Missoula County. Running a ranch, she knows the struggles for small businesses to operate under what can be confusing regulations.
Vero quotes Edward Abbey that “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” But adds that for small communities like Bonner and Seeley Lake, who hit economic hard times when the timber industry collapsed, new or expanded economic development is a lifeline.
“We need to make sure that people are at the table from the beginning, and there are no surprises. The same with developers,” Vero said. “They need to understand our values and what kind of economic development we want. If they bring in only minimum-wage jobs, they’re not providing any service to the community.”
Economic development incentives also should be based on science, law and the budget, Vero added.
“We don’t want to be so business friendly that we lose the reason why people want to live here,” Vero said. “Yes, you want to encourage companies to come here if it’s the right fit for them, but we don’t want to get to the point of saying only certain companies can come here. We need to leave room for creativity while being true to the values of the community.”
With state financial cuts to services provided at the local level, Vero said sales, gas or resort taxes are worth exploring instead of retaining the current system of providing county services mainly through property taxes.
“We need to give everyone the opportunity to contribute to Missoula County, whether they passing through or live here,” Vero said.
Vero is concerned about the impacts from state budget cuts to local programs for people seeking mental health care or other needed services. Too often, that can translate to more people filling local jails and hospitals instead of getting treatment proactively, she said.
“There is a consensus that public health issues such as generational poverty, mental health, and substance abuse can’t be address in jail or the emergency room,” Vero wrote in response to questions from the Democratic Central Committee, and called for implementation of the county’s Jail Diversion Master Plan. “Diverse funding sources should be called upon to ensure community-based behavior services, including emergency detention beds and social detoxification services can be maintained.”
She’s heard from people who complain that they pay taxes for services they don’t use, like the voter-approved bonds for open space, even though some of those dollars helped pay for conservation easements on rural properties; the Fort Missoula sports complex; and the Missoula County library, complaining that they’re “land rich, cash poor.” But she’s impressed with the county’s outreach and the staff’s commitment to explaining residents’ taxes.
On climate change
The world is in the midst of a “climate crisis,” Vero said. As the climate changes, people may flock to the West as a climate refuge, and Missoula County needs to figure out how to handle that influx.
“We must decide how to grow together and welcome those who join us while protecting our special places and rural character,” Vero wrote in her commission application questionnaire.
She supports ecologically sound and robust energy efficiency and conservation programs — like incentivizing better windows and insulation — that target low-income residents, which Vero said ultimately helps everyone. She also seeks continued investments in public transit and pedestrian- and bike-friendly communities.
“Purchasing carbon offsets, increasing the renewable energy standard, and green electricity tariffs may also be part of the program,” she wrote. “We will need to have the business and industry communities fully engaged to accomplish this lift.”
While Vero is a life-long Democrat, she said those types of political tags don’t mean much for rural Missoula County residents.
“Someone with a Make American Great Again sticker on their truck will pull you out of the ditch one day or vice versa,” Vero said. “Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, we don’t make that distinction because all of us have shared concerns.”