The three seats on the Missoula County Board of Commissioners are held by candidates affiliated with the Democratic Party. So too are the Missoula County sheriff, county attorney and even the district court clerk. Candidates for these and other local offices declare a party when they file to run for office.
But not the 12 members of the Missoula City Council. Justices of the peace, district judges and city government positions are supposed to be nonpartisan, but candidates for these offices often receive endorsements from local representatives of the Democratic or Republican parties.
In reality, political parties have long played a thinly veiled role in local races. This year, however, the curtain of nonpartisanship was pulled back in a big way.
The scene for the current partisan match-up in each of Missoula's six City Council wards began taking shape earlier this year when Jesse Ramos, who represents Ward 4 and is often the lone voice of dissent on an otherwise unified City Council, began recruiting candidates “tired of rising taxes and reckless spending.” A self-described libertarian whose term will not be up for election until 2021, Ramos says he was not looking to recruit Republicans specifically but rather candidates who would join his conservative efforts.
Ramos urged those who are unhappy with Missoula’s direction — especially its handling of taxes — to consider running. And run they did. After a primary in September to whittle down the choice of candidates from three to two in Wards 1, 3 and 4, Missoula is left with two candidates running in each of its six wards.
In each ward, one candidate has been endorsed by local Democrats and the other is supported by local Republicans, although one Republican-endorsed candidate, Ward 1’s Amber Shaffer, describes herself as a Democrat. Each of the Republican-backed candidates are members of Ramos’ “Team Liberty,” except for Ward 3’s Drew Iverson, who split from the group over policy differences.
Otherwise, these endorsements made for an unusually stark partisan choice for Missoula voters.
The partisan divide was further highlighted by a recent mailer, financed by a political action committee named Missoulians for Missoula, that endorsed three “Team Liberty” candidates by name and attacked their opponents in Wards 2, 5 and 6.
Last week’s Opinion pages were filled with columns and letters from groups and individuals decrying both the content of the mailers and the PAC that paid for them, as well as from those defending the mailers and the prominent Missoulians who contributed to the PAC.
The mailers in each of the wards contained nearly identical language and covered three main categories: sales tax, property taxes and traffic. The contributors to the PAC as well as the amount of their contributions is public information and readily available on the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices website.
As they review their choices of City Council representation this election cycle, Missoula voters of all political persuasions ought to appreciate the transparency that allows them to look up who is financially backing which local candidates.
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And Missoula should also use the recent controversy to return to the question of whether Missoula municipal races should continue to pretend to be nonpartisan.
It’s a question Missoula has studied before — and rejected. A 2006 final report from the Missoula City Local Government Study Commission suggested holding partisan races for mayor and City Council among its short list of recommendations, but voters did not adopt that measure.
Perhaps now that Missoulians have seen how money and politics play an inescapable — and likely increasing — part in local elections, they will want to reconsider.
Some other communities in Montana are weighing the merits of partisan versus nonpartisan elections right now. Thanks to a law passed by the 2019 Legislature, county commissions are permitted to ask voters directly if they want to switch to partisan county positions or the other way around. Gallatin and Lewis and Clark counties both seized the opportunity.
Like a majority of Montana counties, both have long held partisan elections for county commission posts and other county seats. At last count, only 15 counties in Montana had nonpartisan county commissions.
Nonpartisan positions were established or adopted with the understandable belief that local government officials should work for all their constituents, not just the members of one political party. And that’s an ideal elected officials ought to strive to uphold, regardless of their political affiliation.
But it is naïve to insist, and at this point impossible to expect, that political ideology not play a part on elected boards and commissions that deal with important policy matters every day. Indeed, in the interest of transparency, voters deserve to know where their elected officials stand on these matters.
Political views should have a lesser influence, if any, on county sheriffs and district judges. But city councilors and county commissioners alike are more likely to exercise their politics as part of their regular duties.
Providing party information to voters would only make clear what is currently opaque.
Ballots were mailed to registered voters last month and are due back to the Missoula County Elections Office on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
Following this election, Missoulians should take another look at the value of including party affiliation in future elections.