Creating legitimacy of voice
Local governance suggestions reignite talks of incorporation
With the help of nonprofits, businesses, special districts and citizens, unincorporated Big Sky has managed to function as a community straddling two counties since its inception in the 1970s. But as this resort “town” continues to grow, its unincorporated status brings frustrating challenges—neighborhood speed limits are difficult to enforce, noise ordinances cannot be created, and even something as simple as installing a wildlife crossing sign becomes a years-long process.
Dan Clark from Montana State University’s Local Government Center was hired several months ago by the chamber of commerce to look outside of incorporation into what sorts of local governance options are out there for Big Sky. The study was funded by the resort tax.
Clark presented his findings on May 15 in a final report that answered questions like:
How do you create legitimacy of voice?
How do you represent the citizens of your community in a legitimate way that’s recognized by other elected officials?
And, when Big Sky needs to present an issue to the Montana Legislature, who speaks for the community?
During his presentation, Clark asked, “Is it going to be the county commissioners? Do you want them to speak on your behalf? Could you set up a non-profit organization? Are they (the commissioners) going to see them as a legitimate voice of the community?”
Six options were highlighted. Those included:
Creating a community council, which would advise the county commission.
Forming a special or multi-jurisdictional district that could levy property taxes. Big Sky has a number of these currently, including the Big Sky School District, the Big Sky Water and Sewer District, and Big Sky Transportation District, among others.
Rethinking the role of the resort tax board, providing it with more leadership and power to serve the community.
The idea of creating a new county was also thrown out there, but that option requires both Madison and Gallatin counties to agree to “let Big Sky go,” said Clark.
Ryan Hamilton, Big Sky Town Center project manager, wanted to bring attention to the many accomplishments that Big Sky’s dedicated stakeholders have achieved over the years under public-private partnerships.
“One thing that I get super excited about is, let’s celebrate all that works in this community,” he said. “Because we get a lot of stuff done. We really do. We are a highly engaged community, and that’s amazing. Let’s find ways to build on that by bringing the entire community together—Canyon, Meadow, Mountain.”
But some meeting-goers thought the current, grassroots methods of getting things done are not enough anymore.
“That model won’t work in the future, because we are outgrowing it,” said one attendee. “We’re outgrowing it right now.”
Towards the end of the two-hour meeting, the idea of incorporation, called the “800-pound elephant in the room” was also discussed.
After the meeting, Tallie Lancey—who believes incorporation is an inevitability—expressed that none of the options offered up at the meeting seemed satisfactory, saying, “I have great empathy that this really isn’t the chamber’s responsibility. What people need to understand is that it’s just not up to anyone. Something that I’ve said over and over, is that in Big Sky there is no ‘them,’ in that, ‘They need to do this,’ ‘They need to listen to us,’ there is no ‘they.’ There’s only ‘us.’”
Lancey continued, “So to look to someone else to solve our problems is a fool’s errand. The people who were in that room are responsible for deciding what happens next. But in order to discuss incorporation, I understand we have to know what else is out there.”
Steve Johnson, who was recently voted on to the Big Sky Resort Area District Tax Board, has been a proponent of incorporating Big Sky since he retired here in 2001. He’s seen efforts by the Big Sky Owners Association in 2002 and later via the chamber (an effort he was directly involved in) to pursue incorporation fail. But Johnson still believes it’s Big Sky’s best option, given that the resort tax collection could continue as well.
“It’s a big issue, it can be complicated, and, yeah, it’s going to take some thoughtful stuff from real experts on the subject, but it’s doable. I think with the spirit we need to make this work, it’s all doable,” Johnson said, mentioning that the May 15 presentation by MSU’s Clark didn’t really offer up options for next steps. “I am at least hopeful that the meeting put on the table that it’s time to get down to the real business. Let’s just make this happen.”
Summing up the solutions described that don’t involve incorporation, Hamilton with Town Center added in an email to the Lookout, “The chamber is trying to identify the best way forward to facilitate community-wide leadership and discussions, enhance legitimacy and better establish our voice. There are several ways to do that—the short-medium-long term strategy seems like the best way to approach this. The chamber is also looking at using existing tools more effectively (zoning, enforcement, resort tax, existing districts, etc.), while at the same time possibly creating a new district or re-imagining the management of an existing district to accomplish some of the community’s short and medium-term goals.”