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Slotnick opens doors for public input in Missoula County

May 3rd, 2018
SuzAnne Miller, Missoulian Guest Column

One need only look at Lolo Peak to understand the enormity of the issues Missoula County faces. Charred mountains stare back. Last summer's roaring fires, smoke-filled skies and dried-up fishing streams all speak of a changing climate and ever-increasing stresses on our natural systems. Add Missoula County's rapid population growth, housing shortage, evolving economic structure, aging demographics and the social divisiveness so apparent throughout our country, and you have a full slate of tough decisions to be made under adverse circumstances. Business as usual will not work.

Fresh approaches are needed to address the environmental, social and economic pressures our community faces. Our path forward must be deliberate, based on the best available facts, and start with an inclusive, open public decision-making process where all voices can be heard, acknowledged and incorporated. Just as we cannot rely on yesteryear's science, neither can we rely on antiquated public processes that are easily captured by dogmatic self-interests to be the sole source of public input. Some decisions may well require individual sacrifices for the benefit of the whole. Such sacrifices can be accepted and willingly enacted or they can splinter our community with distrust.

Residents deserve a constructive role in county decision-making. It should not require sitting through endless meetings or constant vigilance to at the right place at the right time in the hopes of being heard. Public meetings are essential, but insufficient. Social scientists have developed numerous robust public processes that not only meet residents where they are but encourage greater deliberation. Mechanisms such as citizen survey panels, citizen juries, deliberative surveys and focus groups all offer alternative ways to reach residents and supplement mandated public meetings. These alternatives need not be expensive and can offer more in-depth and diverse information.

Of course, the key lies in the willingness of elected officials to not only seek public input, but to substantially use it. The quality of county government reflects the quality of the people we elect to serve it. And never has our need been greater for decision-makers with the "right stuff" to work with people from across the county on the complex, systemic issues that will profoundly affect us all for years to come. From firsthand experiences, I believe Josh Slotnick to be the county commissioner candidate best able to meet these challenges.

Many may remember that under Jean Curtis' leadership Missoula County twice tried to close our Dunrovin Ranch business through litigation. The courts not only ruled in Dunrovin's favor but added that "Missoula County has, in fact, harassed this business since 2010." The experience left us with a deep personal understanding of how damaging county government can be in the hands of the wrong people. During our ordeal, the county repeatedly moved the goal posts, denied us access to officials and badmouthed us in the press. We experienced local government at its worst; and Jean Curtiss aggressively presided over the entire affair.

In contract, Slotnick's life has been full of collaboration, scientific analysis, teaching, agriculture and business-building. His diverse background enables him to see issues from multiple angles and hear differing voices. We know from personal conversations with him that he is committed to seeking and using public input from a variety of sources.

Missoula County is a magical place that faces an increasing fragile future. We need strong leaders willing go beyond the ordinary to work with all who want to be heard to chart a course that honors all that we love about our community. Josh Slotnick is such a leader.

SuzAnne Miller is the owner of Dunrovin Ranch and the social media platform. She is retired from a career as a statistician specializing in biological, social science, demographic and economic research for natural resource management agencies where she pioneered processes for gathering public input.