Brandon Dewey Looks at Growth and Change in the Bitterroot

“This organization — this institution — works for the public. I think sometimes government gets the attitude that we’re doing you a favor, that you work for us.”

So says Brandon Dewey, the new Stevensville, Montana mayor, elected last November and just 27 years old.

“That’s not what I’m into,” he continues. “It’s about customer service and taking care of the community. That’s what people want from government.”

Organization, institution, customer service — those aren’t typically the words that come to mind when people talk about government these days. But those are the words that Mayor Dewey, a Stevensville native who took office in January, used over and over again when speaking with Prairie Populist.

We Montanans are no strangers to the debate around the role that government should or shouldn’t play in our lives. Do you expect your city government to attract business to your community, to support your schools and to keep your parks clean? Do you have your mayor’s number on speed dial, or can you just walk into your town hall during business hours if you want to see them? How do you want your commissioners to communicate with you? Does your town have a website or Facebook page, and is it even helpful?

Dewey and his team are looking to transform the role that local government can play in their community. They’ll still take care of all the usual jobs: maintaining the water and sewer systems, providing a fire department and adequate policing, and taking care of pesky potholes. But his job goes beyond filling potholes; his job is to serve the public in whatever way he can and to make their organization as welcoming as possible.

“I’m a helper,” he says. “And I like the work.”

Mayor Brandon Dewey with wife Tasha and son Carter.

Dewey has practically spent his whole life in public service. He began volunteering with the Fire Department at 14, following in his dad’s footsteps.

“The Fire Department basically raised me,” he says.

It’s a big aspect of his life that continues to influence his ideas of service, commitment, leadership, and community. During college in Missoula, Dewey worked for Ravalli County Drug Free Communities Program before returning to Stevensville where he worked for the town in various departments before taking office in 2018.

“We want to present ourselves as an organization that has nothing to hide,” he says.

Since taking office, one of the mayor’s first tasks has been to improve the town’s website. Dewey helped build the site in 2012, but he wants to expand its functions and possibly add a Facebook page for the town. With the new website, folks will be able to submit an agenda item for an upcoming meeting, reserve a pavilion for an event, and find archived minutes and documents. The town will also use these tools to spread messages and send alerts to their customers. Thanks to the ongoing work of Internet companies across the valley, fiber optics are now installed across the entire town, so high-speed Internet is available.

Still, for Dewey, better communication and efficiency comes with leadership and teamwork. It helps that he has an experienced staff and a diverse town council.

“I work with an incredible group of people with an incredible group of skills,” he says.

In a way, Dewey runs Stevensville’s town government as if he were the CEO of a $2.2 million organization. It’s a tight budget for a town of 2,000 people, and there isn’t much wiggle room. It’s also hard to raise taxes on a community with a median income of $32,000 and with many retired folks on fixed incomes.

They’re turning to federal and state funding whenever possible, even though they don’t have a full-time grant writer on staff and many of those grants are drying up as budgets are cut. But they’re planning ahead by saving now for when they’ll inevitably need to replace and upgrade equipment.

For Dewey, providing some continuity to the office of mayor will help tremendously. He is the eighth mayor in Stevensville since 2008. There were three different mayors in 2017 alone. That makes it hard to build systems or trust. But Dewey’s in it for the long run.

“As long as they will have me, I’m willing to serve,” he says.

Being an elected official is not an easy job, and being the mayor of Stevensville comes with its fair share of challenges. The precedent was set years ago in Stevensville that the mayor wouldn’t work more than 20 hours a week and he would receive $10,000 a year for compensation. That may be fine for some mayors in some towns, but there’s a lot of work to do in Stevi.

It takes time and money to provide quality customer service, and Dewey isn’t going to clock-out after his 20 hours are up. The day we visited with him, he expected that he’d be wearing his “mayor hat” until at least 9 p.m. And that’s OK with Dewey, because he has a promising vision for the future: He wants Stevensville’s local government to be one that other towns look to as a model, and he wants Stevensville itself to be a memorable town.

And it is memorable. Stevensville has a vibrant Main Street with a range of local businesses from breweries to art galleries to a theater. They’ve got big events like the Scarecrow Festival which attracts thousands of people to Stevi each year. They’ve got museums, parks, beautiful historic neighborhoods, and accessible public land.

Main Street, StevensvilleHistoric St. Mary’s Mission, founded in 1841 by Jesuit priests. A modern church, dedicated in 1954, sits just a few feet south of the historic mission and serves the community to this day.

The Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge is just a couple miles north of town. It’s a great place to hunt, fish, picnic, hike, bird-watch, and learn about the plants and animals native to the Biterroot.

This sign hangs in Blacksmith Brewing Company, one of the popular watering holes in town. It speaks to Stevensville’s rich history as Montana’s first settlement.

But for years, Stevensville has rested upon the reputation of being Montana’s first town. Now’s the time for folks to decide what they want their town to look like going forward. As Hamilton and Missoula grow, will people blow by Stevensville driving 80 mph down Highway 93? Will big-box stores take over the valley, gobbling up Victor, Florence, and Stevi? Or will Stevensville maintain its small-town charm as it continues to support local businesses and provide quality services for the folks who call this place home?

Growth is coming no matter what. So, Dewey asks, does the town drive that growth and control the way it grows?

“We are just the right size,” he says. “We can still grow and we can keep that charm. We can still grow and make that growth beneficial.”

People want something to be proud of, and Stevensville is that something.

-Amanda Garant

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