Montana State University

MSU Extension helps local governments, voters with government review measures

May 23, 2014 -- MSU News Service

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN – For Montana’s upcoming June 3 primary election, ballots contain a question asking voters to approve, or reject, a resolution calling for a review of their local government.

Dan Clark, director of MSU’s Local Government Center, said his office often fields questions about these local government review ballot resolutions, mainly why they exist in the first place. The answer is simple: The Montana Constitution mandates voters consider a review every 10 years.

“Local government review empowers local people to decide the form, structure, authority and function of the government closest to them,” said Dan Clark, director of MSU’s Local Government Center. “The ability to manage, update and reform local structures is unique to Montana and a valuable tool in keeping this level of government efficient and accountable.”

MSU’s Local Government Center has worked with counties and municipalities across the state to place resolutions on local ballots. If voters decide to review their municipality or county, so-called study commission delegates will be elected in November.

The primary ballot also asks voters to approve a temporary mill levy to fund the review, as well as how many delegates should serve on the review commission. The Local Government Center will ultimately train those elected delegates for the job of potentially offering reform proposals to voters for the November 2016 election.

The provision requiring elections on whether to assess the functions of local governments was included in the 1972 Montana Constitution. The push to redraft the state’s constitution followed a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1965 effectively invalidating Montana’s one-senator-per-county representation in the state legislature.

The crisis in state governance had grown out of the fact that a state that began as nearly entirely rural had seen demographic shifts that put increasingly larger numbers of voters a handful of urban counties, Clark said.

“This meant that those urban counties were outnumbered 49-7 and senators representing 16 percent of the population could hold a majority vote,” Clark said. “Montana’s most populous cities and counties were dependent on the rural legislature, meeting every other year, for governance.”

When it became clear that there would be a bitter fight to reapportion representation to Helena, the legislature and voters called for a constitution convention. In 1971, Montanans elected 100 delegates to draft a new constitution.

In keeping with increasing complexity of Montana’s growing communities, the new constitution gave local governments expanded authority and abilities to self govern.

To ensure ongoing flexibility at the local level, the constitution also required that citizens review their local governments every 10 years. This year will mark the fifth time voters have faced a ballot decision regarding their local government structure and powers.

At the time of the first vote, in 1976, 173 study commissions placed proposals on the November ballot and 31 were approved. Most recently, in 2004, voters in 14 counties and 67 municipalities voted for a review of their local government, leading 13 counties and 28 municipalities to put reform proposals on their ballots, 23 of which were approved.

Vote-by-mail ballots for the June 3 primary election have already gone out to voters.

-jd/sj-

Contact: Dan Clark, (406) 994-6694, daniel.clark@montana.edu.