Who Will Fix Your Potholes in 2018?

While Washington dithers and Helena readies for a possible special legislative session to address Montana’s budget shortfall, our local governments are plowing streets (so we’re told), issuing construction permits, approving budgets for police and fire services, and trying to promote economic growth in our communities.

2017, they say, is not an election year. But this Tuesday, Montanans will elect dozens of our neighbors to positions as city commissioners, council members and mayors.  We’ll vote on jail levies and elect city judges. For Montanans,  Tuesday’s results could have a far greater and immediate impact on our communities and daily lives than even Jon Tester, Steve Daines and Donald Trump.

So here at Prairie Populist, we hope you’ll get out and vote Tuesday. If you haven’t registered, you can do so right up to the close of voting (8 p.m.) on Election Day. You can find more information on registration at the website of the Montana Secretary of State or at your local county elections office.

We also want to salute and thank everyone running — even those we’re voting against. Local elected officials work hard for little pay. They make enemies easily. They don’t travel with an entourage of handlers and public-opinion pollsters. A trip to the grocery store can quickly turn into a discussion of a constituent’s grievances right there in the produce section.

And so far as we know, there’s been almost no Russian meddling in these elections. Our local daily and weekly newspapers have been busy profiling the candidates, and most of the wannabes have been campaigning door-to-door and letting it all hang out on their Facebook pages. So for the voters, there’s a lot of good information and relatively little #fakenews.

What’s more, these elections are nonpartisan. People run on their own records and promises, unencumbered by a “D” or “R” next to their names.

With that, here are a few of the local elections around the state.


Jeff Essmann has been one of the most important players in Montana Republican politics for the last decade. He served in the Montana Senate for four sessions, rising to Senate president in 2013. Since moving to the House in 2015, he’s continued to wield significant influence from his seat at the back of the chamber.

He’s best known around the state for carrying a bill to reel back Montana’s medical marijuana program back in 2011 and then for fighting against all-mail voting in the special election earlier this year for U.S. Congress, a race won by Republican Greg Gianforte.

Essmann hopes to bring some of that magic back home to the Magic City; he’s running for mayor against Bill Cole, an attorney and chair of the Billings Chamber of Commerce board of directors. Cole got the most votes of any candidate in the six-way mayoral primary in September.

This is a big race, with a lot of money pouring into it for a city election. Combined, both candidates have raised almost $100,000.

Also on the ballot: Five city commission seats, and a public safety levy.


Some have called him America’s mayor: Jim Smith has been at Helena’s helm for FOUR TERMS — 16 years — since his first election in 2001. In 2013, he didn’t even have an opponent.

Now, the longtime legislative lobbyist faces a challenge from Wilmot Collins. He’s a child protection specialist with the Department of Health and Human Services, a member of the U. S. Naval Reserves, and an adjunct instructor at Helena College-University of Montana.

Collins is a native of the African nation of Liberia, and came to Helena as a refugee in 1994, after family members were killed by government forces following the collapse of a ceasefire in that nation’s civil war.

He’s running on a progressive slate along with two City Commission candidates, among six candidates competing for two at-large commission seats. One of them, former Blue Cross executive Mark Burzynski, has lent his campaign more than $12,000.

Both mayoral candidates are trying to keep the focus on nuts-and-bolts issues of city governance, but social media chatter has given a lot of attention to the city’s recent removal of its memorial fountain honoring Confederate soldiers.

Also on the ballot for Helena and Lewis and Clark County — a jail levy. A more ambitious public safety bond failed in 2015.


Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson ran unopposed for the position in 2013. Four years later, he again has no opponent.

Two city council members and a the city’s municipal judge are also running unopposed for re-election. Five candidates are battling for a pair of other council seats.

The Flathead Beacon has details and candidates’ answers to a questionnaire here.

Columbia Falls:

The spotlight is on C-Falls this election season. For the first time in 16 years, there is a contested mayoral election. Don Barnhart, who is looking to win his third term as mayor, is running against John Rallis, who is hoping to attract more manufacturing jobs to Columbia Falls.

There are also four folks running for three vacant city council seats. For more information read here.


The big election in Whitefish this year is for Municipal Court Judge. Choose wisely — this person will be the the one you’ll have to deal with if you have any traffic offenses or have violated any city ordinances.  

Deputy City Attorney Kristi Curtis, who has more than 30 years of law experience including 11 years as a prosecutor, is running against attorney William Hileman Jr., whose diverse law career ranges from contracted city prosecutor to substitute judge for the Columbia Falls City Court.

Tom Turnow’s name is on the ballot, but he has withdrawn from the race. “Winning this race will cost more money than I am willing to ask people to pay,” he told the Whitefish Pilot.

The mayor isn’t up for election until 2019, and there are three people running for three open city council seats (so their odds are looking good). Andy Feury is seeking another term, and two new folks are running: Melissa Hartman, who owns a private mental health counseling practice, and Ryan Gregory Hennen, an attorney for the Office of the State Public Defender.

The Pilot has done a great job covering all of these candidates throughout their campaigns.  


Missoula is keeping it weird alright. John Engen is Missoula’s longest-serving mayor ever, first elected in 2005. He’s so far weathered alcoholism, recovery and a multi-year legal battle over ownership of the city’s water utility.

Standing between Engen and a fourth term is Lisa Triepke, whose make-Missoula-affordable message has taken some detours, including some tough words from a key supporter against bicyclists, immigrants, transients and other perceived freeloaders.

In the campaign’s waning weeks, well… just read this account of Triepke’s allegations of some sinister goings-on. Really, if you read one piece of Montana political reporting read this. Really, read it. We can’t do it justice here.

Ravalli County:

There are local elections happening for the City of Hamilton, the Town of Darby, and the Town of Stevensville.

The Ravalli Republic published profiles on both Councilman Travis Martinez and Dominic Farrenkopf who are running for mayor of Hamilton. In Darby, Mayor JC McDowell is running against Willard “Buck” Titus. And in Stevensville, Brandon Dewey and Mark Adams are taking on Mayor Jim Crews for mayor.

To see a complete list of city council candidates, click here.

Corvallis School District also has a proposed levy up for election this year. They’re looking for money to purchase land from Ravalli Electric Co-op that is adjacent to the school. If any funds are left over, they’ll use them to improve and maintain buildings throughout the district.

Missoula again:

Did we mention that the final weeks of the race for Missoula have gotten really weird? Well, if you missed it earlier in this roundup, here it is again.

Havre and Vicinity;

On the Hi-Line, several races are single-person affairs.  

Election night could be quiet in Harlem, where there are no contested races. In Chinook, Mayor Keith Hansen is running unopposed. In Havre, Mayor Tim Solomon and three council members are running unopposed, leaving two contested council seats with a total of five entrants. Big Sandy and Chester will also confirm its candidates — including incumbent Bug Sandy Mayor Stephen Stiles — by acclamation due to the lack of participants.

The Havre Daily News has the rundown.

Great Falls and Cascade County:

In Great Falls, incumbent Mayor Bob Kelly faces a challenger half his age, Spencer Galloway. Three longtime public figures are running for two city commission seats: former state senator and schools trustee Mary Moe, who quit the Legislature this year to help care for her triplet grandchildren; Rick Tryon, a government affairs consultant, musician and former conservative columnist for the Great Falls Tribune; and Owen Robinson, a longtime business owner and former chair of the Great Falls Development Authority Board of directors.

They’re competing for the seats now held by former police chief Bob Jones (who is not running for re-election) and Fred Burow, who made it through the September primary but ended his campaign early due to a family health issue.

You can view interviews with all of them thanks to KRTV, and the Tribune rounds it all up here.

The Town of Cascade will choose between Robert Reissing and Wesley Seabolt for Ward 2. Over in Belt there’s a four-way race for mayor featuring Donald Crowell, John Masonovich, James Olson, and B.J. Wells.

All voters in Cascade County will get to decide on an Economic Development Mill Levy. Back in July, the Cascade County Commissioners unanimously agreed to put this levy on the ballot. It’s a three-mill levy that would contribute about $460,000 per year to economic development. The funds would help build infrastructure to attract businesses, promote higher-wage non-governmental jobs, and support existing businesses.

The Cascade County Commissioners would decide in public meetings how to spend the money raised through this levy. This levy has been endorsed by the Tribune’s editorial board, the Great Falls Development Authority Board of Directors, and the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

Deeper yet in the weeds, Great Falls voters will decide whether to tweak the city charter, correcting outdated language and making other tweaks. You can read the city commission’s take on that here.

IMPORTANT VOTING INFORMATION: Remember, if you vote, and then have complaints about your local government, no one can say to you, “Well, you should have voted!” That alone should be enough motivation.

ULTRA-IMPORTANT VOTING INFORMATION: If you haven’t received a mail-in ballot or you can’t remember if you’re registered to vote, check your status here. The good news is, it’s not too late! To turn in your ballot or to register to vote, go to your local county election office before 8 p.m. on Tuesday, November 7.  

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