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Juanita Vero hugs Anne Hughes after the current Missoula County Commissioners announced Vero will serve as Nicole “Cola” Rowley’s replacement on Thursday morning. 

Two Missoula County Commissioners selected Greenough resident and ranch co-owner Juanita Vero as their third new member, citing the importance of gender diversity and representation of rural communities on the board.

Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick made the selection Thursday after their brief deliberation and a show of public support for Vero. Following the decision, Vero said she was honored and couldn’t wait to be held accountable to people of the county.

“You get to a time in your life when you feel that you have the capacity to serve, the tools, the partnerships and the relationships,” she said. “When you feel ready and people have asked you to step up, it’s the right thing to do.”

Vero, a conservationist and fourth-generation rancher and partner in the E Bar L guest ranch, will replace outgoing Commissioner Nicole “Cola” Rowley.

A rural voice

Prior to the decision, the board of commissioners heard comments from residents of Missoula County.

Six people spoke before the board, some who lived within the city and others coming from ranches. All voiced support for Vero, lauding her as a competent leader based on her experience in civic and conservation organizations and committees, as well as a vital voice for the rural communities spread across the county.

“Where is our representation of the rural area, if we do not choose a rural leader to assist us, and give us our input on this commission?” said Addrien Marx of Seeley Lake. “If the city council is made up of city residents, and the entire county commission is filled with city residents, I would like to ask who will cover our issues? You have one proven rural candidate: Juanita Vero.”

The needs of Missoula’s rural and urban communities overlap more often than they diverge, according to Vero. Before deciding to become a candidate, she said she wanted more than anything to just be heard by her commissioners.

“I know as a rural person, I can’t vote for mayor or a member of city council, so commissioners are all I have,” Vero said after commissioners made their decision.

“So what’s important going forward is how are we going to help rural folks get the services that are important to them: health care, infrastructure, technology. It’s a very human element just to be heard,” she said.

Along with rural representation, Vero’s appointment will also continue four decades of female representation on the county’s board of commissioners, which began in 1979 with Barbara Evans. 

Ability to learn

Strohmaier and Slotnick gave their own comments before announcing their pick. 

Since the decision to choose a candidate who will represent an entire county rests on two people, Strohmaier said he has taken the selection process seriously. Although he takes exception to the idea that “we’ve absolutely got to have someone living in a specific geographic area to adequately represent others,” he respects the importance of the experience and social connections that come from being rooted in the county’s rural area.

Slotnick said what he wants most from a commissioner is a person who would not be afraid of learning in public, would be comfortable with making mistakes and could “disagree without being disagreeable.” He agreed with Strohmaier that Vero is that person.

Although Rowley took her seat between the two other commissioners, she did not participate in the selection.

With the exit of Rowley, Strohmaier will become the board’s senior member, having been elected in 2016. With Slotnick starting his term as commissioner in January 2019, that will leave the board with just a few years of collective experience.

What's next

The process for choosing a new county commissioner began in April, when Rowley announced that she would be taking a position in Gallatin County as the deputy county administrator. The Missoula Democratic Central Committee accepted 11 applications throughout May before narrowing the candidates down to three for commissioners Slotnick and Strohmaier to review.

Along with Vero, commissioners interviewed Denver Henderson, a political organizer, and Stacie Anderson, a representative of Ward 5 on the Missoula City Council.   

In previous interviews, Vero said she supported the updated county land use map, which helped to designate farming, residential and commercial areas. She also said the work/live designation, which allows residents to run their businesses from their homes, has been a great help to East Missoula.

She served for eight years as chairwoman of the board of directors for the Montana Conservation Voters, a political organization that works to help elect state politicians who embrace protecting the environment and combating climate change.

Vero will spend the next two weeks communicating with commissioners and staff before she is sworn in July 1. She will serve for the rest of Rowley’s term, which ends Dec. 31, 2020. She said she intends to run for election in November of that year.

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