Forty-two years ago, in a push to eliminate wasteful duplication, quell bickering, and encourage efficiency, the city and county governments here were combined to form a single consolidated Butte-Silver Bow.
Now, one of 12 commissioners elected under that format believes it’s time for another overhaul, one that would shrink the legislative branch, make its members full time, and put a city manager in charge of running day-to-day operations of local government.
Commissioner Jim Fisher, with backing from longtime Butte resident Bob Worley and some others, says it would diminish "politics" in city-county management and give fewer commissioners more time to delve into big issues and make better-informed decisions.
As it stands, they say, an elected chief executive must oversee hundreds of county employees and manage daily intricacies of a local government even if he or she has no experience or education in doing that.
“Chief executives sometimes have no business experience and no labor experience, they are just popularly elected,” Fisher said. “We are not getting a city manager — someone who knows what needs to be done in the city without showing favoritism to Uptown Butte, east Butte, or anything else.
“Right now, we have 12 commissioners, and we seem to be working together, but everyone is pulling for their own district and not doing what’s good for the whole city,” he said.
Fisher wants commissioners to establish a panel of citizen volunteers, none employed in local government, to explore the idea of shrinking the council and putting a city manager in charge of daily operations.
Commissioners agreed last week to at least consider the idea, and they could discuss it further when they meet again Wednesday night.
“I think it’s worth looking at to see if it’s plausible,” Council Chairman John Morgan told The Montana Standard. “I know it seems to work well in other communities, but Butte is not other communities.”
Worley, a longtime member of the board that oversees Butte’s Urban Revitalization Agency, wants to see a council of five elected commissioners. Three would represent districts, and two would be elected at-large, with the highest vote-getter becoming the mayor.
The mayor would do ribbon-cuttings and other ceremonial events, but the council would hire a city manager by contract to oversee county employees and run day-to-day operations. The five commissioner seats would be full-time positions.
City managers are usually trained and educated to run cities, Worley said.
“If that person isn’t doing an adequate job, the commissioners can replace him or her,” Worley said. “You wouldn’t have to wait four years to make a change.”
The way things are
Twelve cities in Montana, including Billings, Great Falls, Kalispell, Helena, Belgrade, and Bozeman, have elected councils and hired city managers, according to the Local Government Center at Montana State University. So does Petroleum County.
Butte-Silver Bow and Anaconda-Deer Lodge are the only two consolidated city-county governments in Montana, and each has an elected council as its legislative branch and an elected chief executive in charge of day-to-day operations.
The vast majority of residents in Silver Bow County live in the urban area — the city of Butte — and that was one of the reasons a local, voter-approved study commission recommended consolidation in 1976.
There were 43,650 residents in the county at the time, according to documents and newspaper accounts, and 95 percent lived in or immediately next to the urban boundaries of Butte. There are about 35,000 residents in the county today.
In 1976, three elected commissioners oversaw legislative and executive operations of Silver Bow County. In Butte, 14 elected aldermen served as the legislative branch, and an elected mayor ran day-to-day affairs.
The mayor oversaw all county employees, appointed members to various boards, named all department heads with consent from the council, and carried out council-approved policies.
Voters approved a study commission in 1974, and after two years, a majority of its members recommended consolidation.
It made little sense to support and finance two local governments, often bickering at each other, when the vast majority of people and provided services were in the urban area, the commission concluded.
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Residents approved unification in the primary election in 1976, and later that year, 62 percent of voters approved a charter that established a new Butte-Silver Bow government.
It had 12 part-time elected commissioners, each representing a district in the county, and most of the county-elected officials were retained. Instead of a city mayor, an elected chief executive would manage operations of the entire county.
Proponents said the structure eliminated duplications and ensured checks and balances between three distinct branches of government — legislative, executive, and judicial — each with separate roles to play.
The structure remains today, and most cities in Montana have similar setups, with elected councils and executives, the latter sometimes called mayors. On the other hand, most of Montana’s biggest cities have councils and hired city administrators or managers.
There are pros and cons to each setup, said Dan Clark, director of the Local Government Center at MSU.
A big advantage to having a city manager, he said, is that person often has college degrees in public administration and experience running cities. Elected executives sometimes lack skills to oversee hundreds of employees and budgets of $50 million or more, he said.
But even a great city manager doesn’t mean the council that hires him or her is functional, Clark said, and councils don’t always like the changes managers make. They can grow impatient quickly.
“The average tenure of a city manager nationally is about three years,” Clark said. But some city administrators in Montana, he said, have served the same city for years.
There are three ways to alter local governments in Montana, including a study commission that explores changes for two years and then puts it recommendations before voters. That’s what led to consolidation here in 1976.
But voters only authorize study commissions every 10 years, and the last time it was on the ballot here, in 2014, voters decided against establishing one.
But changes can also be made through a petition process and vote of the people, or commissioners themselves can pass an ordinance that puts recommended changes before voters.
The way things could be
Fisher isn’t asking for immediate changes, but he does want them explored. He’d like to see three or four elected, full-time commissioners and a city manager, but a citizens group appointed by commissioners could hash out the possibilities first.
As it stands, he said, he and the other 11 commissioners often get bogged down in debate over minor issues. He points to recent lengthy discussions about recycled grass clippings and a proposal to dress up an Uptown alley with lights and artwork.
A handful of full-time commissioners could know the ins-and-outs of bigger issues like roads, water, the industrial park, and tax-increment financing and move the county forward, he said.
“I’m all for the alley getting lit up, but I don’t know if that was an issue that was real important to the county,” Fisher said. “I just think three or four commissioners could take the bull by the horns and get some things done.”
Worley, who served on the last study commission more than 10 years ago, says a smaller, full-time council and a city-county manager would take some of the "politics" out of county operations. And managers would still be accountable to elected commissioners.
“You don’t have the breakup every four years,” he said. “If they (managers) are doing their job, they stay.”
If they aren’t, he said, “it doesn’t take four years to change.”
The council’s 12 current commissioners could discuss the issue further when they meet at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the courthouse, 155 W. Granite St. in Butte.
Fisher knows that any overhaul will be challenging.
In Butte, he said, "Nobody likes things the way they are but nobody likes change."