One-Third Of Montana Municipalities To Review Local Governments After Primary Vote

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Over the next two years, dozens of cities and counties across Montana will review their local governments as called for by a voter initiative in Tuesday’s primary elections.

Once a decade, Montana’s Constitution offers voters the chance to study and potentially change the structure of local governments. The measure appeared on primary ballots across all counties and incorporated cities or towns in the state.

Voters in 12 counties and 42 cities and towns approved local government reviews on Tuesday. That’s about one-third of incorporated municipalities in the state and one-fifth of counties. Dan Clark, director of the Local Government Center at Montana State University, said that these results are higher than the previous vote in 2014. But historically, Montanans have shown more support for the reviews.

“We weren’t sure what to expect,” Clark said. “We figured there would be more engagement in this process than the previous cycle. We did get more, but not a whole lot more.”

In 1974, for example, all 56 counties and 128 municipalities approved local government review options. It was the first time voters had this opportunity after the 1972 Constitutional Convention. In 2014, the last time this was offered to voters, 11 counties and 39 municipalities underwent reviews.

The vote on Tuesday doesn’t immediately alter city councils, county boards or other institutions. Rather, it kicks off a process to assemble a study commission that will spend nearly two years taking feedback and proposing changes that will go before voters again in 2026. The changes can be big or small related to the election and powers of local government.

Reviews passed both in population centers and far-flung Montana towns in nearly all corners. Lodge Grass had one of the highest approval percentages with 88 percent voting in favor of the review — though just 24 votes were cast. Gallatin and Butte-Silver Bow are the largest counties by population to pass reviews.

Bozeman will be the site of one such review after voters passed the initiative on Tuesday with 68 percent of the vote. A grassroots effort called Represent Bozeman, led by Bozeman Tenants United, is hoping to establish ward elections for city commissioners through this process.

Organizer Emily LaShelle said securing Tuesday’s vote was just phase one. She says the group hopes to vet potential study commission members, make endorsements and get involved in the process through the 2026 conclusion. She said the group has found a wide base of support.

“One thing I will say is that this campaign has been just delightfully unifying in Bozeman,” LaShelle said. “I think there are groups who we really disagree with on some things who wanted this vote to pass and wanted similar things from the city charter.”

Gallatin County and West Yellowstone will also undergo their own reviews.

After Tuesday’s vote, the town of Scobey will proceed with a local government review. Mayor Morgan Lekvold said there had been some chatter about passing a review, and the challenge for the town will be finding participants.

“We’ve been talking about this for a year here locally,” he said. “Our biggest concern is finding enough able-bodied people. We’re really looking for four, five or six for the city and then four or five for the county.”

Daniels County, where Scobey is located, also passed a local government review.

Lekvold said the review may likely focus on efficiencies between Scobey and Daniels County resources. With two-thirds of the county’s small population located in Scobey, residents each bear a lot of public costs.

“We have 1,500 people in the county paying for a lot of things,” Lekvold said. “We’re trying to build a new hospital here in Scobey without raising county taxes.”

Potential study commission members, who must be residents of the town or county, have until Aug. 12 to file for the nonpartisan position. State law says the commission must have an odd number of members not less than three.

Study commission elections take place on Nov. 5 alongside the rest of the general election.


This story was originally published by Montana Free Press and distributed through a partnership with The Associated Press.