Ballot provides chance to assess the future
How does a community improve?
Recently a group of 25 civic and business leaders from Billings took a trip to Sioux Falls, S.D. in an attempt to answer that question.
The trip might seem strange at worst or uninteresting at best. In reality, it is an astonishing testament of community humility and confidence.
The trip – described as aspirational – organized by the Billings Chamber of Commerce, was an acknowledgement by Billings that it might improve by learning from another successful city which happens to be about 50 percent larger.
It would be easy for city leaders to sit in their offices in Billings and feel pretty darn good about themselves. After all, Billings is by far the largest city in Montana. It has experienced years of growth. It is the commercial, industrial and retail hub of large parts of Montana and Wyoming.
And yet 25 busy and important people journeyed hundreds of miles to the far side of South Dakota to learn and discover a few new and different ways of doing things.
That is a sign of real leadership: the humility to recognize room for improvement and the confidence to do the work to make it happen.
Some people are slowly but surely daring to ask the question here: What does Glendive aspire to be? From what I read in this newspaper, that is essentially the question Mr. Waples put to the city council last week.
For many, I fear the responses are one of two equally negative choices: “it can’t happen here” or “it shouldn’t happen here.”
The can’t-happen crowd believes that Glendive is unsuited, undeserving or too dysfunctional for progress.
The shouldn’t-happen crowd likes our little town just the way it is and you can keep your growth and change, thank you very much.
Fortunately there are examples all around us showing just why both groups are wrong.
The new splash park and upcoming reconstruction of Perham Field belie the notion that nothing good can happen here.
The high rents and constant construction prove that you can’t stick your head in the sand and hope away the growth.
The question is whether we as a community can properly prepare for and manage it so as to retain and improve our quality of life.
Which brings us to a great opportunity to examine how well we do things, without having to leave home. On this June’s primary election ballot the residents of Glendive and Dawson County have the opportunity to review their systems of local government.
This unique feature of the Montana Constitution empowers citizens to rethink how they govern themselves, but the chance only comes up every 10 years.
Understandably, few of us really think about how we are governed at all — until some project comes along that is going to cost a lot of money.
Nevertheless, not all forms of government are created equal. What worked well in the past, may not work as well under new circumstances.
Glendive currently features a weak mayoral system. This is not to say the current mayor is weak — quite the contrary — but the system is designed for a part-time, figure-head mayor without much executive power.
Is that an appropriate arrangement for a rapidly changing and growing community? Would Glendive be better served by a professional city manager?
For its part, the population of Dawson County is overwhelmingly concentrated in Greater Glendive. Yet, unincorporated West Glendive has no elected representation whatsoever. They are managed by the county commissioners by default. This despite the fact the area is larger than Baker or Forsyth, and Forest Park alone has more residents than Wibaux and Terry combined.
Under these circumstances, is a three-person commission the best form of government? Are there other arrangements that would better meet the needs of the county’s rural and urban residents at the same time?
I don’t know the answers, but the ballot affords us the opportunity to thoroughly research it. Let’s exercise our constitutional right to find out.
The results of the studies may demonstrate everything is working as well as should be expected. But they might suggest more effective, more efficient and more responsive governing structures.
Surely that is something to aspire to.
So how about we 5,000 or so busy and important voters of Dawson County journey through a government review to learn and discover a few new and different ways of doing things.
It isn’t flashy, but it is a good place to start considering what we want to become. Because something will happen here no matter what we do, but good things can happen here if we are willing to do the work.
Who knows, maybe we’ll be boarding a bus for South Dakota someday soon. All we need is a little humility and a lot more confidence.
Chad Knudson is the general manager of the Glendive Ranger-Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.