Five seasoned Democrats who have applied to replace Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy will face the public on Aug. 3.
The candidates are Robyn Driscoll, David Wanzenried, Lynda Bourque Moss, Chuck Tooley and Jennifer Merecki. Nominations also will be taken from the floor at the public forum.
Kennedy, also a Democrat, has resigned from District 3 of the commission to become chief executive officer of the Montana State University Billings Foundation on Aug. 1. The Aug. 3 public forum will narrow the list of five qualified applicants to three to submit to commissioners Jim Reno and John Ostlund for the final selection.
The forum will be held from 5-8 p.m. in the Community Room of the Billings Public Library. Kelly McCarthy, chairman of the Yellowstone County Democratic Party, will preside over the meeting. Former legislator Wanda Grinde will pose questions to the candidates.
Voting by precinct committee members for the top three candidates is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. A revote may be called for in case of a tie. Commissioners will interview the candidates whose names are forwarded to them, and they can request new candidates if none of those submitted is deemed acceptable.
All five candidates said in their applications that they support the right of public employees to collectively bargain, and all five said they would run for a full term as commissioner in 2018 if appointed to fill the rest of Kennedy’s term.
Here is an overview of the credentials and positions of the candidates, drawn in large part from their applications:
♦ Robyn Driscoll is a state senator who has run five times for political office and has won all five races. She served 12 years in the Montana Legislature and was minority whip twice.
She has been a secretary for Billings Public Schools Facility Services since 1995. She has a degree in history and political science from Rocky Mountain College.
Major issues will be the new jail addition, she said, and she advised lobbying the state with recommendations for jail and prison diversion. She notes that the Council of State Governments has been working with the state particularly on finding ways to keep those with mental illnesses out of jail or prison.
She also says that the county should focus on making full use of MetraPark and the Rimrock Auto Arena.
♦ Jennifer Merecki was a grassroots organizer for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. She is chairman of the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council Sustainability Committee and has lobbied in other states on healthcare and environmental issues.
Merecki is the owner of Agadas Integrated Wellness in Billings.
Key issues in Yellowstone County are quality of life, equality and financial security, she says. The role of county government in addressing those issues, she says, should be to “Pass policy that would dictate positive outcomes, evaluate and address issues that would diminish results.”
♦ Lynda Bourque Moss served as a state senator from 2003 to 2012. She was majority whip during the 2012 session.
She is a principal in Moss Consulting, whose clients have included Billings Clinic, Partners for Native Americans, the Library of Congress and the Paradise Center. Formerly, she was executive director of the Foundation for Community Vitality (2003 to 2011) and of the Western Heritage Center (1989 to 2003), where she worked as a Yellowstone County employee. She has a master of fine arts from Montana State University.
She serves on the board of the Montana State Fund and is vice chairman of the Northwest Area Foundation.
She listed expansion of the jail and of RiverStone Health as key issues, as well as the county’s growth policy and the 2017 budget. As commissioner, she says, she would convene a task force to address “a very troubling issue, the lack of coordination and collaboration between various social agencies, organizations and jurisdictions serving children in our community.”
♦ Chuck Tooley was mayor of the city of Billings from 1996 to 2005. He has held numerous positions on local and national advisory committees and boards.
He has run Tooley Communications, a consulting business, since 1984, serves on the Montana Human Rights Commission and was director of the Urban Institute at MSU Billings from 2007 to 2011. He has a bachelor of arts degree from Lynchburg College in Virginia.
He and Moss have both won the Jeanette Rankin Peace Award from the Institute for Peace Studies at Rocky Mountain College. He ran unsuccessfully for the Public Service Commission in 2012.
Key issues include economic development and jail overcrowding, he says, adding, “The biggest overall issue in Yellowstone County is how to deal with relentless, evermore-rapid change. National and state regulations, along with international and national trends, are impacting us in ways that will require strategies to help us survive and thrive. Local elected officials must constantly leverage our influence with state and federal governments to make sure we get the support we need to deal with change.”
♦ David Wanzenried represented Kalispell in the Montana House, then Missoula in both the House and Senate from 2001 to 2015, serving as House majority leader in 2005 and as minority leader in 2003. He has lived in District 3 for two years.
He serves on the RiverStone Board of Health and the city of Billings Public Works Board. He has been a consultant since 2010 and worked for 17 years in marketing and sales for Shepard Trucking.
He has been an adjunct instructor at MSU Billings, the University of Montana, Carroll College and Montana State University. He has a master’s degree in political science from the University of Montana.
Key issues include acknowledging the benefits of population growth while preserving Yellowstone County’s way of life; addressing demands for services and infrastructure; improving mental health services; dealing with jail overcrowding, including state sentencing policies; and diversifying the curriculum at MSU Billings to deal with workforce needs.
“Yellowstone County Commissioners should promote transparency, accessibility and meaningful public participation in county government,” he says. “During the budget cycle, the proposed budget and the scheduled hearings on each of its components should be posted on-line.”