The new mayor of Valier lasted about two weeks or one public meeting, depending on how you look at it. I was not at the first/last meeting so this is all second-hand and possibly unreliable information, but what I’ve heard from several sources was that he attended the Mayor’s Workshop in Great Falls (driving the town truck), decided to continue on to Helena in order to introduce himself around, had a nice meal there and stayed at a good motel, and on his return submitted a bill to the town for all expenses. They were startled since the usual practice is to combine Great Falls business with shopping or visiting, going and coming in one day in one’s own car at one's own expense. As well, he asked for reimbursement for a $600 Power Point presentation he had commissioned six months ago in the course of trying to convince the town to back out of their agreement to improve the sewage treatment lagoon, as urged by the state. In short, he behaved as he has been accusing the town officials and employees of behaving.
At the actual meeting he asked the clerk to run the meeting, saying he “didn’t know how.” He dispensed with the Pledge of Allegiance. There were two dozen people present, many of them from the American Legion, because he had previously decided to move his desk to the Boy Scout room that had been financed by the Legion. He thought his business should be private, that people were intimidated by the clerk in the office where the mayor has previously dealt with business. He also ordered a much bigger desk. He was advised to always keep the door open, particularly since he thought there was no need to displace the Scouts. He proposed that the library reserve fund, meant to be used for expansion or if the next library levy fails, be spent on heavy equipment, about which he had already consulted salesmen. Then he saw the librarian’s face.
There were many other plans proposed in a jumbled, random way. None were welcomed and by the end of the meeting he angrily despaired of “dragging the town into the 21st century,” gathered up his materials, and resigned. Jessie Wunderlich immediately moved to accept the resignation. It passed. The town has thirty days to decide on a new mayor. In the meantime, Velda Loch, who was already the president of the council and who has been mayor in the past, will be acting.
Many questions are raised and so far much of the thinking has been along the lines of high school: who was offended, whom no one liked anyway, why this town is so broken, and a lot of general emotion and vengeful thinking. “Those voters deserve what they get.” It is clear that the vote putting this man into office was really a vote against the previous mayor. Tom’s wedge-campaign allegations met willing listeners because of several powerful people wanting to do things that the town wouldn’t allow, mostly building projects.
In the past building in Valier has been welcome and hooking up the water, electrical, sewer, and other grid connections have been easily arranged with no more cost than the actual materials and labor. Now that the state is requiring much higher standards, the town has reframed their thinking as not just running extensions, but also requiring builders become “investors” in the whole system as was done to build the original infrastructure. Instead of the town being seen as a cost-free corporate provider, it is seen as much more of a cooperative venture that must divide the obligation to provide capital among the “shareholders”/voters/landowners, for both maintenance and development. But the town has no solidarity.
An historic bank building, now an embroidery business
In the past it was assumed that responsible business owners in the town could also be good leaders who acted in the interest of the town. Now it is said that council members are met with such resentment at any change that their businesses were damaged, threatened with lawsuits and boycotts. This is the national style. But I just made a list of the town businesses, using the Internet, and it looks to me as though very few businesses depend on town customers. The town’s three biggest businesses are the grain elevator, the irrigation company, and the school. The school runs buses to a wide area. The other two are ag businesses serving surrounding ranches and farms. The elevator is outside the city limits but connected to city infrastructure. After a huge kafuffle over a member of the town council selling the town some gravel (at a good rate) it developed that state law prohibits councilmen from doing business with the town.
A major ranch
Of the approximately forty other businesses, almost every single one serves the area -- not the town. In fact, many are based on visitors either camping here to fish or moving through on the way to Glacier Park. Many of the basic services in town, from the embroidery business to the Trader’s Dispatch, are run by people who live outside the town limits. The town clerk, the librarian, the dumpground monitor, the real estate agent all live outside the town. The newspaper is not just based in another town, it is a rival town with no motivation to explain matters or express optimism. It’s not in the same county as Valier. The Pondera County newspaper is not distributed in Valier.
One of the first things this tone-deaf mayor proposed when he began attending council meetings years ago was to suggest cutting off the sale of water to the surrounding ranches and farms, meaning that he did not realize (though he grew up in Conrad) that a town exists as a service nucleus for an area. Without the surrounding ag businesses, there would be no town. And yet those people cannot vote for council members or mayor. Because he did not think of this, he didn’t consider the power of the American Legion which is based on the larger area and military service, not the town. They understand money very well, are conservative in many ways but have been places, and have a special care for youngsters.
My training is in organizational design and development; I’ve lived a long time in this area of the East Slope. Over fifty years I’ve seen the major cities of Montana double in size. They hardly qualify as cities in coastal terms -- the closest real city is Calgary with a few less than a million residents -- while the whole state of Montana has only slightly more than a million residents. Billings has almost 107,000 at last count. Many of the new people are planners and regulators at the state level whose experience has been with much denser populations over much less area, not ag-based. They have no understanding of either small towns or ag service areas.
Valier’s last population count (in 2012) showed 508. Pondera County claims 6165. The county seat, Conrad, had 2579 people in 2010. There is no way to define the service area of Valier that I know of. There is no count of visitors to the area. Possibly MDOT would have a count of highway traffic. The number of citizens who usually attend town council meetings would barely break half-a-dozen most of the time. 208 voted in the recent mayoral election. Most people in Valier have lived locally all their lives.
At state urging we have established water rights, more than doubled our storage capacity, found leaks, and installed meters so that water is more conserved than ever. The town is dependent on wells inside the city limits and cannot draw on lake water which is owned by the Pondera Canal Company. The sewage lagoon has not hit its limits in terms of size, but plans are to upgrade its efficiency so that it passes the constant tests the state requires.
The Lighthouse fine dining
Valier has been passed over for optical fiber service (which hurts high speed internet service) from the telephone company but has acquired a cell phone tower. It is not inside the city limits. The airport has lost its resident crop-duster (moved out to a ranch) but remains in use. The railroad spur only serves the elevator. I’m unclear whether the livestock sorting corrals or in or outside the town. Our fine dinner restaurant is outside the town. No minister resides in the town. Electricity is occasionally interrupted or suffers from flares and sags or “brown outs” when one of the “third legs” is out. These issues are seldom brought before the council, though they would seem highly relevant to new business.