Lewis and Clark County Commission candidates at forum

Lewis and Clark County Commission candidates Matt Elsaesser, right, and Jim McCormick, left, answer questions from the League of Women Voters Wednesday afternoon during a forum at Helena Civic Television.

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

Candidates for the sole vacancy on the Lewis and Clark County Commission have different ideas about the major issues facing the county. 

Matt Elsaesser, a Democrat, and Jim McCormick, a Republican, answered questions on the topic during a forum Wednesday at the Helena Civic Television studio.

They are seeking the seat that will be vacated when commission Chairman Mike Murray leaves office at year’s end. Murray has served on the county commission since 1993, and on the Helena City Commission from 1988 to 1992.

Wednesday’s forum was held by the League of Women Voters of the Helena Area and Helena Civic Television, which broadcast the event live on channel 189. It will be rebroadcast at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, and on Friday at 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Elsaesser, a two-term city commissioner who did not run for re-election last year, directs the recycling program at Helena Industries.

Realizing the objectives in the county’s new growth policy and matching it with the city’s growth policy was cited among top issues by Elsaesser, who responded first to all questions after winning a coin toss.

Elsaesser also pointed to the importance of business, such as fly-fishing shops in Craig, and ranching, as he advocated for helping to keep the local economy strong.

He also noted that this is a difficult time for those who are on fixed incomes.

McCormick ran unsuccessfully for the Montana Legislature in 2004 and is the sales and marketing development leader for the Montana State Fund.

McCormick cited overcrowding at the county’s detention center as a pressing concern for him.

Voters will consider two ballot issues in November to fund the $6.5 million conversion of the Law Enforcement Center so all three floors can be used for detention purposes as well as a 15-year levy to fund the jail’s operation and maintenance and provide programming aimed at overcrowding, crime and recidivism.

He also said the blend of wild and urban lands in Helena – this is called the wildland-urban interface – is a concern and noted the catastrophic losses of property at Fort McMurray, Alberta, from wildfire this year to illustrate what could happen to Helena.

Online sources estimate some 2,400 buildings were destroyed by that fire.

McCormick spoke of the importance of volunteer fire departments in protecting the estimated 10,000 homes in the Helena Valley and said those firefighters are owed a debt of gratitude.

The importance of the private sector to expand the county’s tax base was yet another issue he named, and it too, he said, was important to him. The county’s growth policy, he added, was the county’s strategic plan.

Candidates were asked about the differences in city and county governments and how they viewed the role of a county commissioner.

Elsaesser said departments within Helena’s government are responsible for providing many of the utilities, and the city commission’s role is similar to that of a board of directors.

This is not the case in the county, he said, adding that the job of a county commissioner would be a full-time position.

Ensuring that money is spent well is part of both city and county commissions, Elsaesser added.

McCormick said the county commission will see issues from residents of the outlying communities.

He noted the differences in the budgets and priorities for the two governments.

McCormick said a previous memorandum of understanding between the city and county on development was central to what the two jurisdictions need to focus on for a positive outcome.

The candidates discussed how they would deal with issues they were not familiar with or not interested in, with Elsaesser citing the importance of bringing a commitment to the issues and learning from staff.

He also favored a robust public process and listening to comments at public hearings, as well as community feedback.

McCormick, who served two terms as the chairman of the Helena Citizens Council, said finding those with passion for issues is important, as is getting those who are interested involved in the public process.

Neither candidate proposed any change to the county’s arrangement with PureView Health Center, and McCormick explained that the health care provider is essentially autonomous from county control.

While Elsaesser said he spoke with people in Lincoln who had different opinions on the health care provided there by PureView, McCormick called for ensuring that the clinic there was adequately staffed.

PureView, McCormick said, works well for those who use it.

McCormick noted the importance of the county’s health improvement plan and the vital role of Lewis & Clark Public Health, the county’s health department, in responding to health emergencies.

Health care is an issue that touches everything, Elsaesser said.

Elsaesser closed his remarks by saying he is proud of his service to the community.

McCormick said he has a passion for public service and at this point in his life he isn’t building a political resume, as those days are finished.

People elected to public service own the responsibility to protect life and liberty, and they owe the responsibility to county residents for their actions, he said.

He promised to own and owe that to county residents.

Al Knauber can be reached at al.knauber@helenair.com

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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