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Election preview: Changes coming to Polson Commission

by SCOT HEISEL
Lake County Leader | October 13, 2021 11:00 AM

A substantial remodel for the Polson City Commission is on the horizon.

Four positions on the Commission, including mayor, are on the ballot for the Nov. 2 election. Two incumbents are not seeking re-election, and a third was just recently appointed on an interim basis.

The county will mail ballots to all active status voters on Friday, Oct. 15. Ballots may be returned in person or by mail to: Lake County Election Office; 106 Fourth Ave. E; Polson, MT 59860. Ballots will be accepted at the Election Office 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Nov. 1 and 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 2.

Winning candidates will begin their new four-year terms on Jan. 1, 2022.

The Lake County Leader recently reached out to all candidates in contested races with a basic questionnaire. The following is a race-by-race look at the candidates. Responses within the article have been edited for space. Complete questionnaire responses appear at the bottom.

Polson mayor

Mayor Paul Briney will step aside after serving four years. The mayor is a voting member of the Commission who “preserves order, enforces Commission rules and determines the order of business under the rules,” according to the city’s website. There are two candidates to replace Briney, and neither has served on the Commission in the past.

Mayoral candidate Eric Huffine (independent) owns and operates Riverside Recreation, a boat and water recreation business based at Riverside Park along the Flathead River. According to his business website, the property that Riverside Recreation is located on has been in his family since 1910. He also owns Pablo-based Wall and Slab Concrete Construction. Huffine did not respond to the Leader’s questionnaire, and no photo was provided.

Mayoral candidate Rachel Wanderscheid (nonpartisan) is the new director of the Montana Afterschool Alliance, a resource and advocacy organization for youth after-school programs around the state. She’s also a licensed attorney with experience in civil legal services and indigent defense. Prior to becoming an attorney, she worked in outdoor education, teen drug and alcohol rehabilitation and youth wellness. She has lived in Polson since 2018.

“I am running for mayor because I think Polson is a wonderful community and I feel a responsibility to stand up and be involved in helping us continue to grow in a positive and healthy direction,” she said.

She said she has no specific personal agenda.

“The role of the mayor is to provide leadership and be a positive voice moving topics and issues forward. The mayor needs to listen to everyone and make sure people get the information they need to make informed decisions.”

She said she knows how to work with people facing opposition and with differing views, and is well versed in creating solutions when people have opposing needs and wishes.

Regarding military/community service, she said: “Since moving to Polson I have been a part of the Leadership Flathead Reservation program. This is a program that brings together leaders from various professions and backgrounds to find connections and create coalitions. I am also getting trained by the Community Dispute Resolution Center of Missoula and will begin volunteering to conduct Zoom mediations. Once fully trained, I am hoping to start mediating in the communities of Lake County.”

Ward 1

Ward 1 commissioners represent downtown and east of the bridge (A detailed ward map is available at cityofpolson.com). Jan Howlett is serving a term that expires at the end of 2023, and longtime Polson political figure and former Mayor Lou Marchello will not seek re-election following his term that ends this year.

Ward 1 candidate Jake Holley (independent) is a technical writer and documentation specialist at Black Mountain Software who has lived in Polson for five years. Holley said he’s never experienced a sense of community like that of Polson, and it has motivated him to “give back and do what I can to help Polson develop into a better place for everyone, especially as it continues to grow.”

Holley lists as priorities improving roads and infrastructure, promoting “more commercial variety downtown as a way to boost our economy,” and working with the Commission to develop a “multi-year plan for the entire city’s future growth.”

This is Holley’s first time seeking elected office. Regarding military and community service, he stated: “I have not served in the military, but respect those who have. I have participated in a few different community service events through Black Mountain Software over the years. Most notably, picking up trash along the highway for Clean Up Green Up, donating canned food to Polson Loaves and Fish Pantry, as well as donating winter clothes and books for children.”

Ward 1 candidate Jen Ruggless (nonpartisan) is store manager at Walgreens with 25 years of managerial experience. She has lived in Polson for five years, and said “most people will recognize me as the ‘Red Nose Day’ lady.” Red Nose Day is a campaign with the mission to end child poverty by funding programs that keep children safe, healthy, educated and empowered.

“Having been to a few of the commission meetings, I noticed a conflict between the people of Polson and the city. I would like to make a difference in a town that I loved at first sight by being a voice for the people, not the money.”

“Being a Business Manager in the area, I am very pro-business and local centric,” she said. “I would love to see our downtown area become a destination, not just a passerby on 93. I would make it a priority to attract new business owners to Polson and help provide housing for the workers they will hire.”

She said her father is a Navy veteran, “so I am sympathetic to the people who have risked it all for my freedom and my freedom of choices.”

She said she volunteers at local oncology clinics with Cheerful Heart, a cancer support group, and runs a Red Nose Day campaign in her store every year.

Ward 2

Ward 2 commissioners represent north Polson east of Fifth Street and primarily north of Highway 93, though it extends south of the highway closer to downtown. Tony Isbell is serving a term that runs through 2023, and commissioners appointed Laura Dever in July to serve the remainder of the current term, which ends this year. Dever was appointed to replace Patricia Corrigan-Ekness, who was appointed last October to replace Bob Martin.

Ward 2 candidate David Coffman (no party affiliation listed) retired following a 30-year career in law enforcement, during which he held “a number of supervisory and management assignments in one of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies.” He has resided in Polson for five years. Coffman applied for each of the last two Ward 2 vacancies. He was not selected either time, though he did receive support from Ward 2’s Isbell.

Coffman said he’s running “to offer solutions to meet Polson's infrastructure needs. … My top 3 priorities for Polson would be public safety, business investments and reasonable growth.”

“Recent election results, involving school bonds and a resort tax, clearly show there is very little public interest in additional local taxes to address the city's infrastructure needs. I believe demographics show Polson is an aging population in need of private investments that attracts a living wage necessary to support young families and sustainable city growth.”

He said he has two college degrees “involving areas of study including political science, economics and history,” and relative experience that includes “writing, training, implementing and enforcing public policy.”

Coffman is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran with service during Operation Desert Shield/Storm and a former law enforcement officer who was “twice awarded a Bronze Star for bravery, served as a Lake County election judge, volunteered as a Range Safety Officer (Polson Shooters Association) and has served on three Mission Bay HOA committees.”

Coffman did not submit a photo by press time.

Ward 2 candidate Laura Dever (Democrat) has served on the Commission on an interim basis since July and is running for her first full term. She is a licenced massage therapist who has lived in Polson since early 2020.

Dever said she’s running because: “I believe in service, in giving back and paying forward. We've been fortunate to live in several wonderful Montana towns over the 20 years (and counting) of my husband's law enforcement career, and we were blessed to land in Polson. … As the appointed Ward 2 city commissioner, I support the successful functioning, safety and smart growth of Polson, while respecting the history and unique character of the city.”

Regarding her priorities, she said “it's crucial that the commission seriously consider the infrastructure, safety, housing and budgetary needs of the city going forward. … Listening and responding to the concerns of my neighbors, as well as all of the residents of Ward 2, is a priority for me. Connecting with all of the city of Polson advisory boards, the Lake County boards, CSKT, local civic organizations and events, and local schools and businesses also informs my role on the city commission.”

Dever has a bachelor’s degree in English and political science and an extensive history as a community volunteer. She’s also served on the Montana State Board of Behavioral Health and as a board member for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), Guardian ad Litem.

“I bring diverse career experience in community relations, health and fitness, and sales and marketing, having worked for successful local Montana businesses, a large national corporation and as a small business owner.”

Ward 3

Ward 3 commissioners represent Polson’s southernmost residential area, primarily south of 11th Avenue. Carolyn Pardini is serving a term that runs through 2023, and Brodie Moll is running unopposed this year for another term.

COMPLETE QUESTIONNAIRE RESPONSES

Mayoral candidate Rachel Wanderscheid (nonpartisan)

What is your current profession? I am the new Director of the Montana Afterschool Alliance. It is a resource and advocacy organization for youth after school programs around the state. I am also a licensed attorney with experience in civil legal services and indigent defense. Prior to becoming an attorney, I worked in outdoor education, teen drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and youth wellness.

How long have you resided in Polson? I have lived in Polson since 2018.

What is your motivation for seeking office? I am running for mayor because I think Polson is a wonderful community and I feel a responsibility to stand up and be involved in helping us continue to grow in a positive and healthy direction.

If elected, what would be your personal priorities? I do not have a specific agenda. Polson is a great town. The role of the mayor is to provide leadership and be a positive voice moving topics and issues forward. The mayor needs to listen to everyone and make sure people get the information they need to make informed decisions.

What relevant experience would you bring to the position? I am a licensed attorney and now I work for a statewide nonprofit. I know how to work with people facing opposition and with differing views. I am well versed in creating solutions when people have opposing needs and wishes. I know how to listen to many voices and seek solutions. These skills would be invaluable in the position of mayor.

What other military service and/or community service experience do you have? Since moving to Polson I have been a part of the Leadership Flathead Reservation program. This is a program that brings together leaders from various professions and backgrounds to find connections and create coalitions. I am also getting trained by the Community Dispute Resolution Center of Missoula and will begin volunteering to conduct Zoom mediations. Once fully trained, I am hoping to start mediating in the communities of Lake County.

Ward 1 candidate Jake Holley (independent)

What is your current profession? I work as a Technical Writer and Documentation Specialist at Black Mountain Software.

How long have you resided in Polson? Coming up on five years this Thanksgiving.

What is your motivation for seeking office? After moving here in 2016, I was embraced by an awesome community of people that went out of their way to make me feel welcome. Having never known a sense of community prior to moving to Polson, that experience made a significant impact on me. So much so that I have since developed a strong desire to give back and do what I can to help Polson develop into a better place for everyone, especially as it continues to grow.

If elected, what would be your personal priorities? I think personal priorities in political matters pose a conflict of interest. That being said, my main goal would be to improve our roads and local infrastructure without imposing new taxes by using federal funds recently allocated to the State of Montana through ARPA, but that have yet to be distributed locally (and that goes double for any future federally allocated funds that could come our way through the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act).

Additionally, I would advocate to attract more commercial variety downtown as a way to boost our economy by providing increased job opportunities for residents, and shopping options for local and visiting consumers.

Perhaps most importantly, I aim to work with my fellow representatives to come up with a multi-year plan for the entire city's future growth. With 2020 Census numbers indicating that the population grew around 15% over the last 10 years, it's important that the city be able to accommodate influxes of new residents should this trend continue. Moreover, I think that by improving our infrastructure, expanding socio-economic opportunity, and meeting the demand for housing through responsible zoning, we can create sustainable growth that minimizes the strain on long-time residents and incentivizes new residents to embrace what makes Polson special: a sense of community and connection.

What relevant experience would you bring to the position? This would be my first time seeking public office. Despite following national discussions, I have remained on the political sidelines. But with so many challenges facing Polson, it seemed like a good time to offer a hand. I have a knack for working effectively with people of all backgrounds and felt it was time to give back to the community.

What other military service and/or community service experience do you have? I have not served in the military, but respect those who have. I have participated in a few different community service events through Black Mountain Software over the years. Most notably, picking up trash along the highway for Clean Up Green Up, donating canned food to Polson Loaves and Fish Pantry, as well as donating winter clothes and books for children.

Ward 1 candidate Jen Ruggless (nonpartisan)

What is your current profession? I am the Store Manager here at the local Walgreens. I have been here 5 years, and with the company for 25 years. Most people will recognize me as the 'Red Nose Day' lady

How long have you resided in Polson? I have lived in Polson for 5 years with my Husband of 24 years, and originally hail from the Houston, Texas area.

What is your motivation for seeking office? Having been to a few of the commission meetings, I noticed a conflict between the people of Polson and the city. I would like to make a difference in a town that I loved at first sight by being a voice for the people, not the money.

If elected, what would be your personal priorities? Being a Business Manager in the area, I am very pro-business and local centric. I would love to see our downtown area become a destination, not just a passerby on 93. I would make it a priority to attract new business owners to Polson and help provide housing for the workers they will hire.

What relevant experience would you bring to the position? I bring 25 years of managerial experience and a positive, can-do attitude. Everything can be accomplished with a little work and thinking ahead for the future.

What other military service and/or community service experience do you have? I do not have any Military Service to tell about, however my Father is a Navy Veteran, so I am sympathetic to the people who have risked it all for my freedom and my freedom of choices. I volunteer at the Oncology Clinics in Polson and Ronan with Cheerful Heart, a Cancer Support group, and I run a successful Red Nose Day campaign in my store every year. I try to get out into the community as much as I can.

Ward 2 candidate David Coffman (no party affiliation listed)

What is your current profession? I have been retired for 10 years following a 30 year career in law enforcement where I held a number of supervisory and management assignments in one of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies.

How long have you resided in Polson? I have been a Polson resident for 5 years.

What is your motivation for seeking office? My reason for seeking public office is to offer solutions to meet Polson's infrastructure needs. Recent election results, involving school bonds and a resort tax, clearly show there is very little public interest in additional local taxes to address the city's infrastructure needs. I believe demographics show Polson is an aging population in need of private investments that attracts a living wage necessary to support young families and sustainable city growth.

If elected, what would be your personal priorities? My top 3 priorities for Polson would be public safety, business investments and reasonable growth.

What relevant experience would you bring to the position? Collaborative management and leadership style involving writing, training, implementing and enforcing public policy. I have 2 college degrees involving areas of study including political science, economics and history.

What other military service and/or community service experience do you have? I am a U.S. Marine Corps veteran with service during Operation Desert Shield/Storm, as a law enforcement officer I was twice awarded a Bronze Star for bravery, served as a Lake County election judge, volunteer as a Range Safety Officer (Polson Shooters Association) and have served on 3 Mission Bay HOA committees.

Ward 2 candidate Laura Dever (Democrat)

What is your current profession? Licensed Massage Therapist (L.M.T.)

How long have you resided in Polson? 1.25 years

What is your motivation for seeking office? It's very important to me to be invested and involved in the communities where we live. I believe in service, in giving back and paying forward. We've been fortunate to live in several wonderful Montana towns over the twenty years (and counting!) of my husband's law enforcement career, and we were blessed to land in Polson. We chose Polson for the friendly atmosphere, great neighborhoods, downtown business climate, civic pride, recreational opportunities and incredible natural beauty. As the appointed Ward 2 city commissioner, I support the successful functioning, safety and smart growth of Polson, while respecting the history and unique character of the city. It's an honor and a commitment to represent Ward 2, and I'll continue to work hard for the best interests of our community.

If elected, what would be your personal priorities? City commissioners work together to develop and enact policies and ordinances to help the city function effectively. With all of the recent growth in this area, it's crucial that the commission seriously consider the infrastructure, safety, housing and budgetary needs of the city going forward. It's better to be proactive than reactive. Ideally, different areas within each city ward are represented on the commission. Listening and responding to the concerns of my neighbors, as well as all of the residents of Ward 2, is a priority for me. Connecting with all of the City of Polson advisory boards, the Lake County boards, CSKT, local civic organizations & events, and local schools & businesses also informs my role on the city commission.

What relevant experience would you bring to the position? As a city commissioner for Ward 2, I bring diverse career experience in community relations, health & fitness, and sales & marketing, having worked for successful local Montana businesses, a large national corporation, and as a small business owner. I also have a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Political Science. My service as community volunteer (Neighborhood Council, Montana State Board of Behavioral Health, CASA Guardian ad Litem, Eagle Mount therapeutic & adaptive recreation, P.E.O., arts education, several athletic boards) has taught me to work collaboratively with diverse groups and stakeholders to get results. I'm a team player and I'm ready to work.

What other military service and/or community service experience do you have? I've had the opportunity to serve with and learn from many different community organizations: The Montana State Board of Behavioral Health, board member; CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) Guardian ad Litem; P.E.O., Chapter BY, Polson; Eagle Mount Therapeutic Recreation; Great Falls; Neighborhood Council 1; Great Falls; Special Olympics MT State Games; Great Falls; Great Falls MT Ski Club, board member; Women's Hockey Association of Missoula (WHAM), board member; Missoula Writing Collaborative, board member; First Book, board member.

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City of Polson ward map

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Laura Dever

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Jen Ruggless

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Jake Holley

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Rachel Wanderscheid