Does Big Sky need a community council? 

Other unincorporated places in Montana influence the county commission with an advisory board
“We have been able to leverage what little authority we have.” —Chris Stout, chair of the Seeley Lake Community Council

In its quest for self-determination, unincorporated Big Sky finds soul mates in communities across Montana, from the Billings suburb of Lockwood to the woodsy
paradise of Seeley Lake. 

Seeley Lake is in Missoula County, where the only incorporated city in the county is Missoula. The next closest thing to local town government are seven community councils. Lolo has one, so does Seeley Lake, thanks to a Montana statute allowing them. 

In addition to being an unincorporated resort community, Seeley Lake shares other characteristics with Big Sky. It’s a gateway to a national park and it straddles a county line. It’s also home to working-class locals and ultra-rich retirees. Together, as they do in Big Sky, residents of Seeley Lake are not shy about critiquing how the tax dollars they send to the county commission are spent. 

Seeley Lake has taken these critiques one step further than Big Sky by pooling its influence under one advisory body—the Seeley Lake Community Council. 

“Missoula County finds the councils very helpful in helping the county get information
to the communities they represent and for us to get input from the citizens,” said Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss in an email to the Lookout. “We use them a lot
as forums for community outreach on regulations changes, updating the park
plan, etc. The citizens vote on the board to represent them.”

The question of whether or not Big Sky should create its own community council is something the chamber of commerce is now studying. It asked Montana State University’s Local Government Center to help in its search for options worthy of further consideration by residents and local leaders.  

“The chamber was feeling like as a membership association that they were increasingly put in a position where they were facilitating the decision-making process or the community discussion about processes,” said Dan Clark, who’s directed the Local Government Center since 2008. He was asked by the chamber to look at opportunities for creating, “A voice of the community that’s representative other than a membership organization taking the lead.”

Chamber CEO Candace Carr Strauss said of Clark: “He’s really excited to roll his sleeves up” in the search for what’s possible under current Montana law.  

DIGGING IN

The challenging news first: “There’s not a lot of options,” said Clark, whose work for the chamber automatically steered him toward Seeley Lake and other Montana communities with lessons learned during their quests for more responsive forms of government. 

The Big Sky Chamber specifically asked Clark to avoid exploring the option of incorporating and creating a formal town. 

“To start, talking about everything except incorporation is right because it’s hard to go that next step,” said Patrick O’Herren, chief planning officer for Missoula County. “Communities want to have local government as close to the population as possible. What we’ve unfortunately found is the fact that incorporation requires a fair amount in expenditures, raising taxes. That is what has discouraged our communities from incorporation.”

It’s also one reason why unincorporated communities in Montana have turned to the option of creating a community council, which can’t tax, but
has proven influential in
Seeley Lake. 

The chair and former chair of the Seeley Lake Community Council report it’s been an effective tool for making local voices heard and doing practical things like drafting a land use plan, lowering the speed limit through town and building crosswalks. 

Any registered voter in the boundaries of the Seeley Lake School District is eligible to run for a seat on the council, which former chair Klaus von Stutterheim endorsed as a way to channel a community’s will toward the county commission. 

“You learn a lot just by doing it. Conflict resolution—How to deal with people who don’t like you or share your point of view,” said von Stutterheim, who worked on Wall Street before retiring to Seeley Lake. He added, “Some community councils are dead and some are very much alive. We are in the alive category.”

“The community council has been a good conduit to the commission. We have been able to leverage what little authority we have,” added Chris Stout, who in addition to being the current council chair, is also the local superintendent of schools. He wound up on the council, “Probably because I have the loudest mouth of the group. In a small town, some people are afraid to say what they are truly thinking.” 

So the community council becomes their voice, said Stout, explaining how over the years, Seeley Lake has explored all kinds of avenues of self-determination. At one point, Seeley Lake looked at combining the chamber of commerce with the local community foundation. It thought about incorporation, but ultimately found it might not be worth the cost. 

“We looked at the dollars, and to a certain extent, we’re getting a good deal from Missoula County,” said Stout. “We’d be losing money by incorporating.”

Seeley Lake plans to keep using its community council to build relationships with the Missoula County commissioners. 

Stout said that thanks to improved communication, the county continues to serve Seeley Lake well, helping residents replace 200 wood stoves in the name of better air quality. Then last summer, when wildfires filled Seeley Lake with dense smoke, the county installed air purifiers in school buildings. 

“It’s been pretty amazing when we reach out,” said Stout of the county’s response to his community’s needs. 

Missoula County also has helped Seeley Lake manage the part of its community that spills over into Powell County. Thanks in part to assistance from Missoula County, the community appears headed toward development of a new water treatment plant—located just across the line in Powell County. More work sits on the horizon, as a 60-home subdivision in the Powell County part of Seeley Lake will receive scrutiny from Missoula County in an effort to address potential problems and local concerns. 

HOW TO “FRAME IT OUT”?

The big question facing Dan Clark with MSU’s Local Government Center is: What mechanism will best meet Big Sky’s needs?

Clark is versed in the jigsaw puzzle of governmental tools used to organize the work of unincorporated communities. The first thing he wants residents in the 59716 zip code to know is: “Counties, they’re not designed to really manage fairly complex communities like Big Sky.”

Take Gallatin County. It has to deal with several unincorporated areas: Four Corners, Gallatin Gateway, Big Sky and the River Rock subdivision on the edge
of Belgrade. 

“If River Rock in Belgrade were to incorporate, it would be the 17th largest municipality in the state,” said Clark. “So here’s the county trying to manage this highly dense subdivision.”

Clark pointed out basic powers counties lack, like the ability to pass a noise ordinance. That’s why if you run a mediation studio in an unincorporated area, you have to worry about a hound dog kennel and metal grinding shop opening up next-door. 

One option Big Sky might consider, said Clark, is creating a multi-jurisdictional district. These have come together in other parts of Montana to build and manage necessities like landfills and hospitals. 

So, what thing would such a district create for Big Sky?

“Some sort of a governing body that could bridge both counties and become a voice for the people—coordinating and integrating all the work that’s being done in Big Sky,” responded Clark. “Is there a tool that can be used that’s not quite the county managing and not quite an incorporated city? Is there something else that might help satisfy some of the challenges the community is facing?” 

“As a we frame this out, there’s a variety of ways that district could be populated as a board,” continued Clark, noting how a future Big Sky community district board or council could be filled with representatives from the existing resort tax, sewer, transportation, school and other interest groups. Or it could be elected with candidates drawn from across the community. Everything is in the brainstorming phase at this point, said Clark. 

“We need to talk about what’s the framework for a multi-jurisdictional district,” said Clark. “And match what it can do with the needs of the community. What would be its powers and what’s its relationship with the county? It’s an interesting exercise of looking at the complexity that is Big Sky. And I’m telling you, it’s not just Big Sky. These issues run deep in our state. And I think at some point the Legislature may need to deal with it.”

Take Lockwood, a community not often compared to Big Sky. It wants to be part of Billings. “But Billings doesn’t want Lockwood,” said Clark. “And Lockwood can’t incorporate on their own. So there they sit, frustrated. Everyone’s frustrated. So they struggle along.”

 At issue is the cost of updating Lockwood’s water, sewer, roads and other infrastructure. Billings doesn’t want to get stuck with the bill, and when citizens in Lockwood come together and talk about incorporating, they worry such a move won’t pencil out. 

“The Legislature needs to say, ‘Let’s make this easier,’ or find some other inter-median,” said Clark.

Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, who said she depends on community councils to keep her informed about the seven unincorporated communities she serves, said, “In regards to the Legislature, they may want to look for another tool for communities like Seeley Lake and Big Sky—that have more things in place, like medical clinics, sewer and water systems and boards but are not incorporated.”

“And what would that look like? I don’t know,” added Clark. “But these communities want to have some self-determination.”

Neither town nor county

Options for the unincorporated:

Community council: Unincorporated communities can create an elected advisory board that communicates directly with county commissioners. 

Multi-jurisdictional district: A voter-enacted district that pools influence from different parts of the community for, as Clark with the local government center explained, “coordinating and integrating all the work that’s being done
in Big Sky.”

Non-profit advisory board: Communities can invent an advisory body that exists outside of county government, but is charged with influencing the county commission and other local levers of power. 

Other: The current search for options in Big Sky could reveal more tools and strategies for effective self-governance.

Got ideas? Want to add input?

The next joint meeting between the Gallatin and Madison County Commissions is scheduled for April 4 at Big Sky Resort. The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce will host an “Eggs & Issues” event beforehand, and hopes to further explore this topic at that time. Stand by for more details in the coming weeks. 

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