On the morning after her Election Day defeat, Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss listened to a Clark Fork River flood update, discussed potential contracts and appointed a couple of board members during the county's regular administrative meeting.
It was a typical morning in an atypical day, but Curtiss said she’ll continue to focus on running the county during the next six months before handing over the reins to Josh Slotnick, who defeated her 11,065 to 7,866 votes Tuesday night.
In the other high-profile countywide race, Missoula Sheriff T.J. McDermott easily defeated challenger Josh Clark, with 64 percent of the vote to Clark's 36 percent, in a primary that was a repeat of their 2014 contest.
On Wednesday, Curtiss fought at times to contain her emotions as she spoke of her years on the commission, and of the tasks that remain.
“I have some great work to do, finishing projects that I have going and handing some off,” Curtiss said. “The planning office has been working with the community on a land use map … that I hope will be adopted this fall. Also, there’s some zoning stuff in the works; that probably won’t be done this fall.”
It was a tough defeat for the three-term Democrat, who served on the commission for 17 years, and a somber air permeated the county office area as the rest of the staff also tried to maintain a business-as-usual attitude. But Curtiss is forging ahead, noting the many tasks still on her plate.
She’ll continue to serve as the chair for the Western Montana Mental Health Center board as they deal with state budget cuts and hire a new chief executive officer. Curtiss plans to maintain her work as the chair of the Resolutions & Legislative Committee for the Montana Association of Counties, and she’s thrilled with the upcoming ribbon-cuttings for both the Milltown State Park and phase two of the Fort Missoula Regional Park, which was one of the projects she’s been working on since her initial election in 2000.
“The vision of the park will be pretty close to what we came up with, so that’s really awesome,” Curtiss said. “Of course, keeping Missoula Economic Partnership going is important; I’ve served on that board since the beginning and we will be making decisions later this month on how to go forward with the new CEO.”
Slotnick said he’s excited, buoyed and enthusiastic about his new role, and readily acknowledged that he has a lot to learn from Curtiss.
“Commissioner Curtiss has put in almost 20 years of service and she should get many pats on the back,” Slotnick said. “She has poured her heart, soul, sweat and love into Missoula County, and that needs to be recognized. I’m glad she has six months to cement the legacy she deserves.
"She’s been nothing but fair and kind to me, and I hope I can look to her for guidance and knowledge on how county government operates. Her knowledge is encyclopedic.”
The two Democrats had no Republican challenger and Independent candidate Jeffrey Halvorson didn't get enough signatures to get on the ballot, so the commission race won't be included in the general election in November.
Slotnick thanked area residents for their votes, and said he didn’t see the victory as a rebuke for Curtiss; instead, he thinks his message of moving the county in a new direction, with more collaboration and responsiveness, resonated with voters.
“There will be a lot more active listening, and thinking of the future in a new way,” Slotnick said. “The county is at crossroads in terms of growth and development, and I think people felt that with what’s happening here.
"They want the amenities that make this place wonderful continue to happen here, and we can’t do just as we were doing for the last 20 years. We need to plan for growth and development to reflect those values, to reflect where people want to live and build affordable housing.”
Slotnick plans to attend commission meetings as often as possible, but added that he does need to finish his work at the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program. On Wednesday, he was planting tomatoes in the Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society — or PEAS — garden with students.
“Over the next six months or so I will go to commission meetings as I can, chat with existing commissioners and other folks on county boards, and ask them who I should talk to,” Slotnick said. “I know there’s a lot to learn.”
Curtiss plans to stay involved in the community, but isn’t exactly sure what she’ll do when her term is finished Dec. 31.
“I might actually finish a quilt,” she said. “And garden and play with my grandkids.”