Editor’s note: as is the case with our ‘letters to the editor’, the following editorial content by Commissioner Grulkowski doesn’t necessarily reflect the views or opinions of E-City Beat, our volunteer staff, or contributors.
As we move into a New Year in Cascade County, I will take an opportunity to reflect on 2023, a year as your newly elected Cascade County Commissioner. It has not been the experience I had hoped for. Assuming office nearly a year ago, I was unwelcome. Having to stumble to find my own resources was a good thing in that I had to stretch my arm outside our local government offices. This brought quick realization of problems, and solutions. I pray this community will come together to encourage their Commission Office to begin the journey of getting turned around. In my opinion, we are currently in trouble.
Recent actions by the body of Commissioners to usurp the obligation of duties as Presiding Officer of the board, was dramatic and confusing to the community. The majority of other large Montana counties have not changed their selection process in decades and those Commissioners readily work collaboratively to decide which amongst them will serve as Presiding Chair each year. Cascade County Commissioners chose instead to air animosity in public. The next recent action of forcibly taking the Elections Department under the Commissioner Office, by way of a resolution was again dramatic and confusing to the community. The speed at which this took place was also, in my opinion, disrespectful to the Clerk & Recorder Office, Commission Office, and especially, our community. This decision also lacked fiscal consideration. Both of these processes were highly politicized, highly agenda motivated by use of media and damaging to the confidence of our community. One might think this was a Federal government, not a local government.
Three questions and answers to close out 2023:
Number One: Why did I run for the office of County Commissioner? For the same reasons many of you reading this have said you wanted; to see change. Your government is not representing you the way you desire. For me, it began with a County Commissioner being allowed to advance their private mission of pursuing federal designation of my private property – without my knowledge or consent – using taxpayer resources. Those working files are still in our County electronic folders. For you, it may be something different. Our government was intended to have citizens actively involved, serving for a period of time then, passing along the gavel, so to speak. I saw my opportunity to serve and now I am here. I expected help from the senior officers, in navigating government structure. That help is still welcomed yet only comes if I ask. There is something called Continuity of Government. This ensures your government will function in the absence of one or more of its key members. It creates transparency and sharing of government policies, protocol and procedures among staff and Officials. When it isn’t practiced, your government gets stuck. That’s where we are in Cascade County. Three elected Commissioners each bring unique governing abilities to the table. We all have to partake and we all have to be willing to negotiate how to do that, in public meetings.
Number Two: Why is it that the county commission doesn’t seem to work well together? There is no relief valve when politics dominates. I am newly elected, fresh from the constituent pool. Those elected in this seat prior to me were bureaucrats. I have a different view of the problems in our government. It is not as though good relationships deteriorated, they never existed. I see numerous problems in our County government. As a business owner, I don’t tolerate inefficiencies and diversion from set policy. As a Commissioner I recognize obstacles in our processes, predominantly, others wishing to continue to “do things the way they’ve always done them” rather than doing the heavy lifting to change things. Or, I often get no response at all to my initiatives to make change. Those behaviors are adversely affecting good employees, and ultimately, our taxpayers. As often happens when Elected Officials are in office for extended periods of time, they tend to take a position of authority over other Commissioners and county operations, often times neglecting to mentor to ensure continuity of government. This greatly inhibits equal representation by all duly elected. I’m concerned about the personal shots being fired at me from other Commissioners; politics at its worst, I suppose. It certainly isn’t serving the People. It’s confusing and disrespectful.
Shortly after taking office, I established regular Commissioner Briefing meetings where I could be caught up on issues concerning the county and commission. These were very useful but became uncomfortable as our conversations were becoming deliberations and decision-making sessions, without minute recordings. We ceased holding these update meetings. The last one held was September 19, 2023. During our county budgeting season, our former Budget Officer (retired November 2022), offered to return on a temporary basis to assist with budget. I was pleased with this offer as she was always eager to assist our County and I find her very competent. Her offer was declined by the other two Commissioners. On June 27, 2023, I had set up regular Commissioner office budget meetings to become a part of the process. When 2 Commissioners meet, it is a quorum and Open Meeting Laws apply. The last budgeting meeting ended with the closing of our FY24 budget in September. Since then, we have had one Public meeting to appropriate capital expenditures. Any other means to familiarize myself with government accounting and our County budget has to be sought from alternate means of what is available in a healthy government structure. In part due to quorum issues, in part due to relationship issues fueled by politics.
There is a “2 to 1” attitude that also fails our community and is nurtured in our County government. This attitude overflows into Department Heads and Public creating a slippery slope of eliminating representation and censorship. This is bad practice and does not allow building of common ground.
The adage “because we’ve always done it that way” resounds. I have caused a disruption by questioning operations, researching on my own and asserting laws and policies be followed. I have been called stupid and accused of holding up government processes without justification for these damning comments. Perhaps it is because I read each contract and document prior to affixing my signature. Isn’t this each Officials’ obligation – to remain cognizant of your actions on behalf of those you serve? Does government ever move quickly? And, does not the community deserve deliberative actions by government rather than to move quickly as it had done recently with Resolution 23-62: a matter of significant public interest voted on with just 6 days prior notice and introduction to the Public?
Number Three: What can be done to ease what publicly appears to be a disconnect in the Commission Office and unite our elected leaders towards the common goal?
- Cascade County currently lacks a Finance Officer. Budgeting and financial matters is a key function of each County Commissioner. In the absence of a Chief Financial Officer, these duties have been siloed to one Commissioner. While I can appreciate their ability and desire to handle our books, it conflicts with Best Practices and Separation of Duties. The Finance Officer is accountable independently to each Commissioner and, again, budgeting and County fiscal responsibilities are obligations of each County Commissioner. Allowing “a” Commissioner in this role leads to ostracization of any other Commissioner due to quorum requirements, relationship issues, and unilateral decision-making.
- Begin conversations toward restructuring our Commission office to include a Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). Our current structure has no mechanism to keep the Commission from being “stuck” in resolving deep division or other situations impacting progress of our local government. This “relief valve” allows staff a neutral ground when politics gets in the way. Many other Montana counties, smaller than Cascade County, incorporate a CAO. Cascade County continues to grow and our local government structure is being forced to grow with it. This position would be funded by current vacancy savings in the Commissioner Office, as well as cost savings from tightening up other staffing inefficiencies as earlier mentioned. This position does not take authority away from Commissioners and accelerates forward movement that is now stifled with quorum issues, hindering decision-making amongst fellow Commissioners and amongst Department Heads. Where elected Commissioners lack management and/or interpersonal skills, a qualified CAO alleviates discourse. A Chief Administrative Officer would focus on the Administrative duties; thus, freeing up the Commission to focus on Policy and Legislative duties. Commissioners have 11 department heads reporting to them. Do you really think three Commissioners are operating efficiently with constant meetings and remaining “in the weeds”? How often do you see us in the community visiting our constituents, learning what is important to those we represent?
- Enforce Cascade County Operations Manual policies within the County to include the Commissioner’s Office and begin creating County-wide Continuity of Government policies. Yet another benefit provided by a Chief Administrative Officer position as part of their responsibilities. County policies apply County-wide and are already adopted by the Commission, yet our office is deficient in enforcing these policies. This office should be setting the standard for the entire County.
- Encourage public involvement and attendance in all County Commissioner meetings. Earlier this year, I introduced a resolution (which was passed), to include public comment opportunities in our Work Sessions. We have to hear from you. You have to be part of the decisions we make. Keep your presence in front of us. I also encourage public to visit each Commissioner, in their office, regularly. Office visits allow you the transparency in a government we all wish to strive for. As we continue to grow, we also must continue to build relationships amongst Officials in our incorporated towns / cities. I am excited to work with the new leadership of these governments in the next year. I enjoy interacting with members of our community and also plan to continue attending our Towns’ Council meetings – hope to see you there.
In conclusion, I thank you for the opportunity to reflect on my first year in office. It is unfortunate that more time was wasted on politics than on building a strong foundation for our County government functions and processes.
Help build this foundation in 2024 by attending our meetings, listening to previous meetings at cascadecountymt.gov, and calling our office at 406-454-6811 with suggestions to create the government you wish to see.
Festive tidings to all your family and wishes for peace within our County in 2024, and always.