Missoula County elected officials: We must work together to ensure justice for all

Protest
Protesters gather at the Missoula County Courthouse in May.

On May 25, 2020, our nation witnessed the horror of George Floyd dying with a police officer’s knee pressed into his neck. Mothers everywhere, from Minneapolis to Maine to Missoula, winced hearing a dying man call to his own.

This act is but a snapshot of hundreds of years of oppression. Much of the United States was built on stolen land with stolen labor, and these centuries old crimes still echo today, across generations. As your Missoula County elected officials, we share a vision of a just future, yet do not pretend to know the exact path forward.  Though some of us have faced discrimination, we have all benefited from structural racism. Much of our knowledge of racial injustice comes from shared stories rather than personal experiences.  Nonetheless, we are committed to amplifying and including the voices of those who do understand.

We embrace the right to peacefully protest, encourage our citizens to exercise their right to peacefully assemble and speak their minds, without violence. Across the country people from every walk of life are saying — loud and clear — ENOUGH.  We hear you and agree with you.

We are willing to listen and to take further action.  Some of the steps we’ve made to examine and address inequality in our local criminal justice system include rolling out our comprehensive jail diversion plan, launching our prosecution-led diversion program and reforming our pre-trial system.  We’ve invited the National Native Children’s Trauma Center to inform criminal justice employees of the devastating impacts of historical trauma of Native people and teach us the practice of cultural humility. As a county government, we’re proud of our relationship with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. We are committed to understanding why American Indians are disproportionately represented in detention and what additional steps we can take to address historical injustices.

We have people working exclusively on equity issues in our public health department and at the Partnership Health Center clinic. And we understand all our work must be considered through an equity lens. Even so, inequality persists and we must address it now.

There is a lot of work to be done and, as your elected officials, we shoulder the burden of change. This work must be perpetual, so we are making a sustained commitment. We expect that you will hold us to account and appreciate your involvement. Please join us in this effort.

Over the course of the past two weeks, in the midst of violence and devastation, we also saw unlikely alliances and witnessed acts of unprecedented solidarity and kindness: the organizer of a conservative rally invited a Black Lives Matter activist to the stage; law enforcement professionals denounced the actions of racist officers; a sheriff and his deputies responding to a call for security, instead joined the march with protesters; a stalwart row of blue uniforms in Texas took a knee in honor of those who’ve been slain and those who marched.

Robert Kennedy said each time a person “stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Let’s keep working together — starting with ripple —  so that the tragic events of last month mark the end of the long night of injustice for people of color in our community and signal a new day, one that honors the legacy of George Floyd, and all who came before him, by implementing — not just promising — justice for all.

Signed,

Alex Beal, Missoula County Justice of the Peace
Dave Strohmaier, Missoula County Commissioner
David Wall, Missoula County Auditor
Erin Lipkind, Missoula County Superintendent of Schools
Josh Slotnick, Missoula County Commissioner
Juanita Vero, Missoula County Commissioner
Kirsten Pabst, Missoula County Attorney
Landee Holloway, Missoula County Justice of the Peace
Shirley Faust, Missoula County Clerk of Court
TJ McDermott, Missoula County Sheriff
Tyler Gernant, Missoula County Clerk and Treasurer

*A version of this post was also submitted to several area news organizations

Missoula County offices to start reopening to the public June 1; here’s what you need to know

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Missoula County offices will begin to reopen to the public on Monday, June 1, with precautions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Precautions will look different in various buildings depending on the volume of foot traffic and interaction with the public. In general, facilities will have floor markings to indicate 6-foot spacing, plexiglass or other barriers between staff and the public, and hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes available for use. Staff and members of the public will be strongly encouraged or, in some offices, required to wear cloth face coverings in situations where social distancing is difficult.

Buildings also will have self-check stations set up for employees designed to review potential symptoms of COVID-19 and reminders to not report to work if they have symptoms. To facilitate this, employees will use designated entrances and exits that are separate from those the public use.

Reopening information for public-facing Missoula County departments is listed below. Guidelines and protocols are subject to change as the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve.

Clerk and Treasurer’s Office, Missoula County Courthouse First Floor, 200 W. Broadway

  • The office will open to the public Monday, June 1, with limited staff.
  • In-person services will be by appointment only. This includes motor vehicle registration, renewals and transfers, property tax payments or changes, and requests for birth certificates and other records.
  • Residents can call 406-258-4847 to make an appointment. Customers are encouraged to complete services online at missoulaclerk.us whenever possible.
  • The office encourages no more than one person to attend an appointment but will make accommodations for parties of two, such as a buyer and seller.
  • A maximum of four customers will be allowed in the office at one time: two at the open appointment windows and two in the waiting area.
  • Customers will be required to wear a cloth face covering to enter the office.
  • Hand sanitizer will be available for customers, and staff will wipe down pens and other items between customers.

Clerk of Court’s Office, Courthouse Second Floor

  • The office will open to the public Monday, June 1, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with limited staff.
  • In-person services will be by appointment-only by calling 406-258-4780.
  • The office requests no more than one person to attend an appointment but will make accommodations for marriage license applicants to appear together.
  • A maximum of three people will be allowed in the customer service area at a time.
  • Those with appointments should wait in their vehicle until called to limit congestion and must maintain physical distancing of 6 feet in the customer service area. Tape markings on the floor will indicate 6-foot distancing.
  • A cloth face covering is strongly encouraged for all customers. Disposable masks available upon request.
  • Hand sanitizer will be available for customers, and staff will wipe down pens, counters and other items between customers.
  • Only one person will be allowed in the public search area at a time. Customers should call 406-258-4780 to request admittance.
  • Marriage applicants may continue to apply for marriage licenses online, without an in-person visit.
  • Self-represented litigants are encouraged to continue to submit paperwork by email, fax, mail or drop box. The regular fee for email/fax will be waived.
  • Attorneys in cases not yet available for e-filing are encouraged to continue to submit pleadings by email, fax, mail or drop box. The regular fee for email/fax will be waived.
  • Email: clerkofcourt@missoulacounty.us
  • Fax: 406-258-4899

Commissioners’ Office, 199 W. Pine St.

  • Commissioners will continue to hold their public meetings virtually via Teams through June.
  • The public can check the commissioners’ schedule for information ahead of each upcoming public meeting.
  • Staff check email, mail and voicemail each day.

Community and Planning Services, 127 E. Main St.

  • Staff will begin transitioning to work at the office on June 1, though the office will remain closed to the public through that week and no in-person services will be offered.
  • Starting June 29, the office will open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
  • Members of the public are strongly encouraged to wear masks when visiting the office, and disposable masks are available if needed.
  • Guests will need to use the self-check station and sign in (including date and contact info) to assist with contact tracing, if necessary.
  • The info desk will be staffed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily to field questions from the public about zoning, permits, land use, projects or plans and can be reached by phone at 406-258-4642 or email at zoner@missoulacounty.us.
  • The department encourages the continued submission of documents and forms electronically when possible.

County Attorney’s Office, Courthouse Fourth Floor

  • The office will open to the public on June 1, with the majority of employees working in the building.
  • Hours will be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Staff may work staggered schedules to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
  • Social distancing and other measures will be in place, and the office will modify its lobby and conference rooms to accommodate 6-foot distancing.
  • Staff and visitors are strongly encouraged to wear cloth face coverings. The office will have disposable face masks for those who need them.

Crime Victim Advocate Program, 317 Woody St.

  • The office will open to the public Monday, June 8, with limited staff.
  • Telephone-based services are strongly encouraged.
  • In-person services will be by appointment, except in cases of an emergency. This includes applications for orders of protection and other advocacy services.
  • People can call 406-258-3830 to make an appointment.
  • The office encourages no more than one person to attend an appointment but will make accommodations for parties of two.
  • A maximum of two clients will be allowed in the office at one time.
  • Clients will be required to wear a face covering to enter the office. We will provide you with a paper mask if you do not have your own.
  • Plan to maintain a 6′ distance from staff when visiting the office and/or when attending court with an advocate.
  • Hand sanitizer will be available for clients, and staff will wipe down pens and other items between customers.
  • For general information, visit www.missoulacounty/cva

District Court, Courthouse Second and Third Floors

  • District Court, which is a function of the state, will begin conducting in-person hearings throughout June. Those with questions should contact their attorney or the courts for additional information.

Elections Center, 140 N. Russell St.

  • The Elections Center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and providing voter services with social distancing and sanitation measures in place. Voters should expect longer wait times for voter registration, ballot replacement and other services.
  • The Elections Office must receive ballots by 8 p.m. Election Day; postmarks are not sufficient. Elections staff encourages voters who have not yet mailed their ballots to drop them at the Elections Office through June 1 or at a drive-thru ballot drop-off on Election Day.
  • On Election Day, voter registration and other services will be in the large green building on the east side of the lot, with voter parking and drop-off at the same end of the lot. The west end of the lot, closest to Russell Street, is exit-only and right-turn-only on to Wyoming Street.
  • All voters in line at 8 p.m. on Election Day will be served.
  • Drive-by ballot drop-off will be available at five locations across the county from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day:
    • Missoula County Fairgrounds
    • Lolo Elementary School
    • Bonner School
    • Seeley Lake Elementary
    • Frenchtown Fire Station

Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, 3400 Captain Rawn Way

  • Museum will open to the public on June 1 with the reduced summer hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with the 10 a.m. to noon reserved for vulnerable populations. The museum will also be open from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
  • Only 10 visitors will be allowed inside the museum at any given time.
  • Signs and floor markings will indicate 6-foot distancing where necessary, and a plexiglass barrier will be installed at the front desk.
  • Visitors will follow a one-way traffic pattern while viewing exhibits.
  • Museum will close an hour earlier than normal for cleaning and sanitizing.
  • Visitors are strongly encouraged to wear cloth face coverings, and staff and volunteers will wear them when in public areas of the museum.
  • The museum will provide a sign-in sheet for visitors to assist with contract tracing, if necessary.
  • Starting Monday, June 15, small groups of 25 people or fewer will be allowed for programs outside on the grounds with proper social distancing. The number of visitors inside the museum will continue to be limited to 10. Social distancing is strongly encouraged.
  • HMFM will start accepting book and artifact donations by appointment only on June 15.
  • Volunteers can resume activities on Wednesday, July 13.
  • Groups of up to 50 can gather on the grounds with social distancing starting July 13.
  • The museum plans to resume all normal activities when the state enters Phase Three.

Justice Court, Courthouse, First Floor

  • All court hearings other than trials, order of protection hearings, and landlord/tenant possession hearings will be held by conference call or video. Parties should not appear in court unless a judge or clerk instructs them to.
  • Anyone who receives a ticket should contact the clerk of court at 406-258-3470 to schedule an initial appearance.
  • Anyone physically appearing in a courtroom must use cloth face coverings. The court will provide disposable masks for those unable to provide their own.
  • The court will not begin conducting criminal jury trials again until July, at the earliest. Civil jury trials will not resume until September, at the earliest.
  • The court is officiating weddings again under limited circumstances.
  • Upon request, initial appearances, trials and other proceedings will be available to the public via Zoom.

Public Works, 6089 Training Drive

  • The main office in Missoula will be open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays starting Monday, June 1.
  • No more than two customers at a time will be allowed in the lobby. The department asks that when visitors see more than one customer inside that they wait in their vehicles until a customer leaves.
  • Signage will be in place to help customers adhere to social distancing while inside. Public Works recommends that customers wear masks, and a limited number of disposable masks will be available upon entry.
  • The Seeley Lake satellite office also will open to the public June 1, but by appointment only. Please call 406-396-8148 to make an appointment.
  • Public Works inspectors will resume all inspections, including interior inspections, starting June 1. The department encourages on-site customers and contractors to wear appropriate PPE during the inspection and follow social distancing guidelines.

Why can’t commissioners ban fireworks? The difference between county and city government

Fireworks

One of the most common requests constituents ask of commissioners is if they will consider enacting various ordinances addressing issues throughout the county.

A frequent example tends to pop up this time of year, when commissioners start fielding requests to implement an ordinance banning residents from lighting fireworks on private property in the county, like the city does.

While commissioners themselves may support the idea behind suggested ordinances, here’s the catch: Unlike municipalities, such as the City of Missoula, county government is a general powers government. This means commissioners cannot enact specific ordinances or laws unless the state has explicitly granted them the power to do so.

On the other hand, a municipality with a self-governing charter, like Missoula and most other cities in Montana, can enact ordinances as long as doing so is “not expressly prohibited by the Montana constitution, state law or its charter.”

For Missoula County to ban fireworks, the Montana Legislature would need to pass, and the governor would need to sign, a bill granting counties the authority to ban fireworks. But since it has a charter providing for self-governing powers, the City of Missoula can ban fireworks all it wants, unless the Legislature passes a bill barring municipalities from prohibiting fireworks. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and the county can prohibit lighting fireworks on private property when the risk of forest fires warrants it. The county also can prohibit lighting off fireworks on county property, including county parks and recreation areas.

Counties in Montana were originally established as an extension of state government, when distance and geography significantly hindered the state’s ability to conduct business effectively. Today, counties still administer many roles on behalf of the state (think vehicle titling and registration, elections, criminal prosecution, etc.). For their role in this, commissioners essentially serve as the executive branch of the state, enforcing state laws and providing the system of check and balances enshrined in our bedrock governing documents.

What can county commissioners do, then?

Per MCA 7-3-401, “all legislative, executive and administrative powers and duties of the local government not specifically reserved by law or ordinance to other elected officials reside in the commission.”

In Missoula County, this means commissioners can:

  • Approve county contracts, employee agreements and grants
  • Review, adjust and approve all department budgets to fund county priorities. The approved budget is a major factor in determining the amount of tax revenue the county will need to fund operations.
  • Vote to put citizen-driven initiatives on the ballot
  • Pass resolutions that set county priorities and direct staff efforts, such as the resolution to attain carbon neutrality in county operations by 2035. Resolutions can also address imminent threats to public safety or health, such as those declaring a state of emergency amid flooding, wildfires or other natural disasters.
  • Direct staff to develop and implement county guidance documents, such as the Jail Diversion Master Plan and the Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Commissioners also must vote to adopt these plans before they can be implemented.
  • Create and enforce zoning regulations dictating what sort of development can occur in an area
  • Create separate taxing districts to encourage development or fund public infrastructure and services in a specific area of the county. These most often occur in the form of Tax Increment Finance Districts (TIFs), Targeted Economic Development Districts (TEDDs) and Rural Special Improvement Districts (RSIDs).
  • Advise the City-County Health Board on creating and enforcing health codes that protect public health and the natural environment
  • Create and enforce subdivision regulations
  • Appoint community members to serve on advisory and governing boards

What is a constituent to do then if they see a need for a law or ordinance outside city limits? Your best bet is to take it up with your state representative and senator. They can pursue legislation in Helena granting counties the power to create and enforce a specific ordinance.

Or, you can vote in favor of a conducting a local government study, which could include consideration of a charter granting the county self-governing powers. This constitutionally mandated resolution appears on the ballot every 10 years to provide flexibility and accountability for local government in Montana. (You can read more about the last time Missoula County conducted a local government study, in the mid-2000s, in the Missoulian archives.)

If you want to go that route though, you’ll have to be patient – residents voted down the measure in 2014, and it won’t appear on the ballot again until 2024.

What other questions do you have about county government? Comment here, and we’ll answer them in future posts.