A new kind of race
Former MSU track star takes off running for seat on county commission
Gallatin County Commission candidate Scott MacFarlane knows how to run, though he’s never run for county-wide office until now. Back in Colstrip, where his prowess on the track earned him a scholarship to Montana State University, he knew long-time legislator Duane Ankney and his uncle is Sherm Anderson, a sawmill owner and former veteran lawmaker from Deer Lodge.
“I have some family members who’ve been in politics, but they’ve always been on the other end of the spectrum that I personally am,” said MacFarlane, a Democrat, who came to MSU to compete in decathlon, but ended up becoming a high jumping specialist.
His first leap into politics came four years ago when he joined the Monforton School Board of Trustees, which he planned to be the beginning of something bigger: “I always knew I wanted to get more into Gallatin County politics.”
Now MacFarlane is in a race to unseat Commissioner Steve White, who has deep ties to the local GOP establishment.
It’s an establishment that’s become dysfunctional from MacFarlane’s point of view, who was motivated to run after witnessing fall out from what he describes as the county commission’s faulty relationships and missed opportunities with local city governments, the U.S. Forest Service and developers in Big Sky.
MacFarlane watched with disappointment in November as the county commission shot down the proposed Powder Light subdivision, which included much-needed workforce housing for Big Sky.
“It’s the uncertainty of not knowing if you’re going to meet requirements,” said MacFarlane, echoing complaints voiced by Powder Light’s developer. “I see the commission just saying, ‘Go away and come back with something better.’”
That’s not good enough, insisted MacFarlane, who assesses the public approval process for developers like this: “It’s the same engineering firms. It’s the same players. There’s more opportunities to do something to help each other out.”
Take the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), said MacFarlane, “It’s one of those groups that is so detached and kind of nebulously large that it’s hard to get to anybody. It’s hard to talk to a person who can tell you exactly what to do. And that uncertainty costs people money and it costs people time. And we don’t have time. That’s the thing that got me motivated. So much is going to happen around here. We don’t have time.”
In other words, MacFarlane believes the county commission can do more to get MDT proactively involved in all the growth happening in Belgrade, Bozeman and Big Sky.
He has a particular interest in affordable housing, because before becoming a helicopter pilot and taking his current position as facilities director for Belgrade Public Schools, MacFarlane worked for five years as a liftie at Bridger Bowl.
“So I know the resort mentality and how little the resort people are paid,” said MacFarlane. “And I know about the wall people are coming up against trying to get affordable housing. Even getting past preliminary plat review, just getting a plan they can start working on and focusing on those things that make it a community for those people who are full-time residents and don’t just come and go. Those are the things that deserve energy from the public.”
What about the attitude among some in Big Sky who say, “Why do we have to provide affordable housing? Nobody offered me housing when I moved here.”
“That’s just a cop out. It is such a cop out,” said MacFarlane. “That whole, ‘Nobody did it for me’ and ‘This is supposed to be exclusive… what makes Big Sky awesome is its exclusivity.’ But we still want to have low-cost resort workers by the thousands up here serving us, making our food and tucking in our bed sheets. That’s a symptom of a lot of what’s wrong nowadays and the gap in rich and poor and it’s all on display up in Big Sky.”
Also heating up right now in Big Sky is the public comment period for the Custer-Gallatin National Forest plan revisions, and the county commission recently submitted a letter that missed the mark, said MacFarlane.
“A letter of that tone does not accurately represent the voice of Gallatin County residents and certainly makes our county look like we do not prioritize conservation,” said MacFarlane in response to the commission’s stated position on the forest plan and potential designation of the Gallatin River as wild and scenic. “I can assure everyone that I would not have approved the content of that letter.”
MacFarlane continued: “I see great benefit to rivers in our county and state attaining federal protections. The letter attempts to claim that wild and scenic river designations negatively impact private property owners, and constrain the Forest Service’s management of the resource. We don’t see that happening on other wild and scenic rivers. This year, there was strong bipartisan support in Congress for designating East Rosebud Creek in Carbon County as a wild and scenic waterway. My wife Jen was a BLM river ranger for three years in Fort Benton on the wild and scenic stretch of the Missouri. We cherish that piece of Montana as well as the rivers of Gallatin County, and I think we have an obligation to advocate for their protection.”
MacFarlane’s wife was a scholarship distance runner for the University of Montana and his three kids are serious distance runners now.
“I could talk about running all day,” said MacFarlane, who believes that if he’s able to win a seat on the county commission, it will mark the beginning of a long slog toward improved relationships with local city governments. He was appointed to the county’s capital improvements committee in September 2017, “And I was a little discouraged by how relationships are not maintained respectfully. County planning overrides everybody else’s ability to plan. So I decided the best way I could be an advocate for the business owners I know and the developers I know and the school officials I know—you can help all those people as a county commissioner. I think I could do really well bridge building and maintaining relationships. I’ve always thought that was something I was pretty good at. I’m good at getting people together and listening to their issues and being respectful—partnership.”
Here are 10 questions posed to MacFarlane and his responses. In the coming weeks, the Lookout will also run a similar profile and Q&A with MacFarlane’s opponent, Commissioner White.
1. When you enrolled at Montana State University, did you ever think you’d wind up living here and running for office?
Three of my older siblings had attended MSU before me, and I knew throughout my youth that I would spend my life in Gallatin County. It was never in question I would attend MSU, even as I was being recruited by other universities.
I have always looked up to our community leaders, and understood public service would be part of my life’s path.
2. Talk about why you decided to run for the board of trustees of the Monforton School and how that’s prepared you for further public service.
Deciding to be a trustee for our community’s students was an easy decision to make. Monforton was our family’s school of choice in the whole region. We knew this school district was facing enormous growth challenges that would only intensify. I was resolved it was my responsibility to help our neighbors keep Monforton the ideal school district in the face of extreme growth. The challenges and decisions our county school districts are negotiating mirror those of Gallatin County at large.
3. Why now—what about 2018 makes it the right time for you to run for county commission?
I have understood and recognized this goal for several years. Regardless of where you live in the county, the opportunity to run for commissioner only comes around every six years.
The next six years of growth are destined to be extremely pivotal for our county; I must take this opportunity now! This is an ideal period of planning and growth to prepare for the long-range future of Gallatin County.
I will be 38 when I am elected, which means 44 at the end of this term and the possibility of 50 at the end of the next. That is an ideal window in life to be totally invested and incentivized to make decisions that will benefit our community over 30-40 years.
4. The current county commissioners appear to agree that funding a new law and justice center is a top priority. Do you agree and how would you approach this issue differently than your opponent?
I do agree that updating and expanding the county’s law and justice facility is a top priority. The safe, efficient and effective operation of the courts and sheriff’s office is not possible at the current facility.
Getting this project right is critical for our community, and realizing the best possible outcome requires partnership with the city of Bozeman. It is the county commission’s responsibility to lead in this endeavor, and though this project is extremely urgent, I believe the possibilities of this partnership should be exhausted and prioritized over time. If this relationship is neglected, we will live with an imperfect solution for decades.
5. Big Sky’s main street is Highway 64, which studies show is in dire need of safety improvements, including several turn lanes around Town Center. How might you help this community find funding for these needed improvements?
The Western Transportation Institute has done a thorough job of identifying the remedies to Highway 64’s problems in Big Sky. The implementation of these solutions now hang on the question of funding and political will. There are numerous stakeholders, spanning from the local community level all the way up to the state level, with an interest in finding a solution to the funding problem. Particularly because Big Sky has no city commission, I feel the county commission is perfectly positioned to lead in organizing facilitation with the community and state to get this done.
6. If you are elected to the county commission, how would you support the desire for more affordable housing in Big Sky?
Providing affordable housing for Big Sky’s workforce is critical. As a commissioner, I would prioritize relationships and communication with HRDC, Big Sky Community Housing Trust, developers and the community.
7. What about the argument that Big Sky is an exclusive resort community and shouldn’t be expected to provide affordable housing? Why not let the market determine what gets built in Big Sky?
Big Sky’s exclusive resort economy is built upon an army of low-wage service employees. This workforce is the base of the economy. If the market avoids accommodations, there will not be enough workforce, and small businesses, schools and the Big Sky Medical Clinic will be the first to feel the repercussions. This is evident over the last couple seasons.
8. From your perspective, is the county commission doing enough to foster working relationships with planners, commissioners and others doing the public’s work in Big Sky and other communities around the county?
There is certainly much room for improvement in relationships between the county commission and the numerous management groups throughout our county. Gallatin County has a small army of dedicated people looking out for our communities and environment with five incorporated municipalities, multiple unincorporated communities and additional leadership groups such as school boards, water boards, fire boards, lands boards and irrigation boards.
I am witnessing the accelerating growth in Gallatin County cause tension and strain between these groups. These organizations each have their own charge to plan for our future, and all these plans risk failure without respectful collaboration, communication and partnership. The county commission represents everyone in the county, and as such has the greatest responsibility to foster this.
9. Do you have a go-to restaurant, coffee shop or bar in Big Sky?
The Corral has always been my family’s favorite place in Big Sky. My family lost one of its best friends this past September with the passing of Devon White. My daughters’ first Easter egg hunt was behind Devon’s saloon. We’ve never passed the Corral without stopping in, and it will continue to be an important place in our hearts.
10. What’s more difficult: Running for office or flying logs out of the forest?
Hopefully the job of county commissioner doesn’t carry near the physical risk of helicopter logging or flight instruction. I decided to put aside flying in favor of being around to help raise my family. It was an exhilarating profession, but I have never regretted grounding myself. Now that my wife and I have gotten our three kids up and running into their teenage years, it is time for me to pursue another exhilarating challenge: Helping our county meet and exceed the many challenges before it.