Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Answers to your questions — big or small — about anything under the Big Sky.

What's the best form of local government? You get to decide

A city council-like conference table with microphones. The Big Why Logo is overlaid on the image.

Austin Amestoy: Welcome to The Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio where we find out what we can discover together. I'm your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener-powered reporting. We'll answer questions, big or small, about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans, for Montana, this is The Big Why.

As you may have heard, we've been asking for questions focused on Montana's upcoming elections. And as campaign season gets into full swing, reporter Shaylee Ragar is here with our first one. Hey, Shaylee.

Shaylee Ragar Hey, Austin. Glad to be here. And yes, please send us your election questions. We want to answer all of them. Today, though, we're going to cover an issue that all voters will see on their June primary ballots that is not getting the same attention as the big-ticket races, but it's still something voters need to think about. Missoula listener Jeff Badenoch worked for the city of Missoula for 20 years, and because he's gotten so up close and personal with local government, he wanted to know.

Jeff Badenoch Why are the people of Montana's counties and cities going to be voting this June on whether to review their form of local government?

Austin Amestoy Hmmm a local government review? Is that like a report card?

Shaylee Ragar Yes. And more. The review is designed to evaluate how a city or county government operates right now, and also explore ways that the government can improve. And I know that sounds pretty vague, but this is important. Your local leaders decide whether a new high rise is going to block your view of the mountains, or whether you're allowed to raise chickens in town, or, you know, how much you have to pay for parking. And if people are not satisfied with how that governing is going, they get an opportunity this spring to ask for change.

Austin Amestoy Sounds like democracy in action, Shaylee. But why have I never seen this on a ballot before?

Shaylee Ragar Well, my fellow Gen Z-er, the question only appears on the ballot once every 10 years. So you and I weren't old enough to vote the last time it came up? The framers of the Montana Constitution wanted to make sure these conversations are happening at least once a decade. The last time the question was posed in 2014, 39 cities and 11 counties voted to review their forms of government.

Austin Amestoy Wow. So what's up for review if voters approve one?

Shaylee Ragar I think it might be easier to start with what's not up for review, Austin. Ashley Kent is associate director of Montana State University's local government center, and she told me the reviews are narrowly tailored.

Ashley Kent It's not things like, we want to remove an elected officer from office; We want to add or change or take away programing at the county or the city level; We want to talk about property taxes or special assessments or any of those kind of funding structures — That's not part of the scope of the the voter review process.

Austin Amestoy Yes, I can imagine a lot of people might be motivated by those issues, especially given high property tax bills this year. But sounds like this is not the avenue to air those grievances, right?

Shaylee Ragar This is about the structure of your local government.

Austin Amestoy So what can these different structures look like?

Shaylee Ragar There are six modes local governments can choose from with some creative license to tweak. So we've got the commission-mayor structure, in which voters elect a board and an executive to lead co-equal branches of government, which is like the city of Missoula. In the commission-manager form of government, voters elect members of a board that then hire a manager under their supervision, to run city operations, like in Billings.

Austin Amestoy Right. Commissioners, mayors, managers. Those sound the most familiar to me.

Shaylee Ragar Yeah, those are most common. And then a commission structure provides an elected board that oversees all government operations itself. Or commission members can elect a presiding officer internally to serve as the executive. That's another option. There's only one town hall form of government in Montana, in Pinesdale, where small towns can elect a presiding officer but otherwise serve as their own legislative branch. And finally, locals can adopt a charter or a written document that defines powers, structure, privileges, rights, duties, and limitations of the local government. Any of the previous structures I mentioned can be paired with a charter, or a charter can dictate a unique structure. Out of 181 local, county and city governments in Montana, 36 have adopted their own charters.

Austin Amestoy So that's the creative license you mentioned?

Shaylee Ragar Yes. And Bozeman is a good example of this. The city has a charter in addition to a commission-manager form of government. Citizens also elect a mayor who serves as the presiding officer of the commission. But what's unique is that the charter laid out a system in which the mayor is elected to a four year term, but always serves as deputy mayor for the first two years as a way to prepare for being mayor.

Austin Amestoy That is pretty creative. But there have to be some limits, right, Shaylee? Like the town charter can't dictate, say, anarchy as the form of local government.

Shaylee Ragar Correct. Right, Austin. There are, of course, some limits. And a lot of them are defined in state law: which rules the state Legislature gets to make and which rules local government can make. However, there are some gaps in the law, gray areas where no entity has claimed authority. For example, there's no mandate or limit on the local government's power to operate a public utility like electric or water, or require people to use seatbelts when driving within a local jurisdiction, or regulate door to door solicitation. If local leaders are interested in claiming some of these powers, they can do so through a charter. And that's also a question that could be explored during a government review. So it could come down to the ballot this June.

Austin Amestoy You know, a charter sounds to me kind of like a local constitution, which is pretty cool. But that's got to be complicated to right.

Shaylee Ragar For sure. And that's why there are attorneys dedicated to deciphering exactly where those gray areas exist in state law, and how local governments might be able to use them to their advantage. It's also why voting for a local government review is just the first step in a long process. Thomas Jodion with the Montana League of Cities and Towns says a review can take …

Thomas Jodoin Couple of years. Couple year process.

Austin Amestoy Oh, wow. Okay, well, break down what that process looks like.

Shaylee Ragar So, voters will decide whether to review their city government or their county government, and they will be asked about both in two separate questions at the June primary. If a review for either is approved, voters will then elect members to a review council at the November general election. The members can not already be elected officials, to avoid any conflict of interest. Then the work begins to analyze the current form of government and where improvements can be made. After that ...

Thomas Jodoin That commission will get together, produce a study, and then the voters will vote on those recommendations.

Austin Amestoy What does it take to pull off a study like that?

Shaylee Ragar City and county commissioners are actually discussing that right now. Before the June primary vote happens, local leaders are tasked with presenting voters with a rough plan. For example, in Butte, several council commissioners are excited about the possibility of a review. They want one to improve their government, and they're considering a proposal right now to dedicate $200,000 in taxpayer funds to pay for whatever resources their review might take. Commissioner Bill Andersen said during a recent meeting that he realizes that might give some voters pause, but he argues it'd be worth it.

Bill Andersen For the price of a latte, you can take part and change the way the governments kind of work, can function, for the next 10 years, so it's a great opportunity for that.

Austin Amestoy Well, we'll certainly be interested to see what voters decide this spring. Shaylee, thank you so much for your reporting.

Shaylee Ragar No problem. Thank you Austin.

Austin Amestoy: Now we want to know what makes you curious about Montana. Submit your questions below. Find us wherever you listen to podcasts and help others find the show by sharing it and leaving a review. Let's see what we can discover together!

Corrected: February 15, 2024 at 4:06 PM MST
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Thomas Jodoin's name.
Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or  
Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing
Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information