HELENA — This June, for the first time since 2014, voters in every part of Montana will decide whether they want to review the structure of their local governments – and possibly make changes.
Montana has 56 counties and 127 cities and towns – including two consolidated city-counties. Every one of them – from Yellowstone County to Petroleum County, and from Billings to Ismay – will put a possible government review on the primary election ballot.
“We have an opportunity to pause and look at our existing form of government and look at alternative forms of government and decide: Is there something about some alternative structure of government that we can adopt that would make government more effective, more efficient, more affordable or economical?” said Dan Clark, director of the Local Government Center at Montana State University.
The review process comes out of Montana’s 1972 Constitution, which established a ten-year cycle for municipalities and counties to consider changes to their form of government. After a constitutional amendment passed in 1978, local governments have to give voters to option to launch a review every ten years – and the cycle is coming around again in 2024.
Clark said Montana is the only state that provides for a regular local government review.
“It's kind of a Jeffersonian idea – it's an opportunity for us to refresh and to evaluate,” he said. “We're not the same state, our counties aren't the same as they were in 1970, and so I think it's good for us.”
The Local Government Center is working with counties and municipalities to get them ready to go through the process – and trying to educate the public on what their vote will mean.
In June, residents in each jurisdiction will vote on whether to start a review. In any place that votes yes, voters will come back in November and elect members of a study commission. That commission will go to work in 2025, examining their government’s powers, form and structure. If the commission decides to recommend any changes, voters will have a final say by the end of 2026 on whether to approve them or keep the existing system.
Clark says the questions a study commission looks at aren’t about specific policies.
“It's not a time to look at tax policy, say,” he said. “It's not an HR review of the elected officials – it's not an opportunity to say, ‘Well, I don't like that mayor, so I'm going to be a study commissioner so I can fire the mayor.’ It has nothing to do with people; it has everything to do with process.”
He said one of the big issues commissions will look at is whether to pursue additional self-government powers from the state. Most local governments have “general government powers” and can exercise authority specifically granted to them by state law. However, those that have adopted self-government charters are able to take any action not prohibited by state law.
Government reviews could also lead to things like changing how city councilmembers or county commissioners are elected or switching from an executive mayor to a city manager.
Groups like the League of Women Voters are also stepping in, trying to educate voters about the review process.
“With all this discussion of how government affects our lives locally, nationally and state, here's a perfect opportunity for people to get involved in this process locally – because local government is where they say the rubber meets the road,” said Sharon Haugen, co-president of the League of Women Voters of the Helena Area.
Haugen said their group has been holding informational sessions about the upcoming review vote – with guests including Clark and local elected officials. She said Helena and Lewis and Clark County haven’t approved a full review since 1994 – and it’s been even longer for East Helena.
“I think people are interested in the process – they don't understand the process,” she said. “I think some people are satisfied, because they don't understand or don't have an idea how it can function. But there’s also other people I talk to who have very definitive ideas of what should change.”
In the last round of reviews, starting in 2014, only 50 local governments – 11 counties and 39 municipalities – voted to hold reviews. That was a lower number than any of the previous cycles. Of those, Clark said only 16 submitted proposed changes to the ballot, and voters only approved changes in five: Ravalli County, Denton, Hot Springs, Philipsburg and White Sulphur Springs.
Clark expects the trend to change this time around.
“I don’t know what the numbers are going to be, but already I can feel around the state there's a lot of conversation going on around the state about this next voter review process,” he said. “So we're expecting it to be higher than it was previous, the last ten-year cycle.”
You can find much more background information on the local government review process on the Local Government Center's website.