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Primary Profiles: Four Republicans seek county commission seat

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | May 16, 2024 12:05 AM

Three Republicans, Wes Baertsch, Max Krantz and Josh Senecal, are vying for the Lake County Commissioner seat currently held by Gale Decker, who is running for reelection. The winner of this race will face Independent Kelly P. McDonald in the general election in November.

All four candidates responded to the Leader’s recent questionnaire.

Decker, the incumbent, has 12 years of experience as a commissioner, as well as six years as County Superintendent of Schools prior to that. “Experience is invaluable in making the decisions that a commissioner makes on a daily basis,” he says.

Decker is a life-long resident of Ronan (although he currently resides in Polson), and taught for 33 years in Ronan schools. He continues to volunteer in the cross-country, basketball and track programs, helped establish the Ronan Hall of Fame and serves as chairman of the Hall of Fame committee.

Josh Senecal is a fifth-generation Montanan, who has lived in Lake County for 16 years, and served on the board of Northwest Counties Farm Bureau for 14 years. He’s also a member of Lake County Search and Rescue, and he and his family attend New Life Church.

“As a small business owner and a property owner I feel the need to protect our property rights, and have reform in Lake County. We need to seek out our inefficiencies and correct them,” he writes. “We need a new generation of leadership in Lake County.”

Max Krantz writes that his family homesteaded in Lake County in 1908, and he was the first baby born at Holy Family Hospital in 1962. He attended K-12 in Charlo, spent 12 years in rodeo, and built his own construction business while working night shifts at Plum Creek Timber Co. He owns a small ranch and a licensed composting business.

He’s a firm believer in volunteerism, and has contributed to food drives, Coats for Kids, and veterans’ organizations, while also providing scholarships for high school students and donating to the skills program at Charlo High.

Wes Baertsch is a fourth generation Lake County resident, and a rancher, business owner and electrical contractor. He graduated from Ronan High School and has three children and two grandchildren. Baertsch writes that he’s a supporter of the FFA Alumni Association and the Western Montana Stockgrowers Association.

He also mentored two young high school students through the Western Montana Stockgrowers Association “to get them started with heifer programs to start their own commercial cow herd. I have also supported local sports teams in the valley and volunteer at multiple community events.”

Leader: Gov. Gianforte has said that he might be willing to sign legislation that gives Lake County additional money for law enforcement to cover the responsibilities of Public Law 280. If elected, how would you approach further negotiations with the governor and the legislature?

Baertsch: Going forward I would approach these negotiations with the safety of the citizens of Lake County at the forefront of my lens. I would partner with the Lake County Sheriff's office as well as Tribal law enforcement and law enforcement from Polson, Ronan and St. Ignatius.

Lake County is going to continue to grow. It is critical we reach an agreement that provides for improved safety for a growing Lake County while being fiscally responsible and accountable to funding.

The legislature is also an important part of this. They need to continue to be educated on this issue so they can make an informed decision. … I want to develop a responsible plan that meets the current safety needs as well as forecasting for future needs.

Krantz: To build negotiations with the governor and the legislature will take a group of people from the county asking to have a discussion about the problems facing the county. I would invite the Tribal Council to come, the governor, and county legislators to find solutions to our biggest problems. Most pressing would be the Flathead Lake water level and CSKT water compact. In addition affordable housing should be addressed.

Senecal: In reference Public Law 280, I do not believe that Lake County should have to carry the financial burden, as there needs to be compensation for us. I do believe that the first step is always collaborative effort. Bringing all parties to the table who have skin in the game and round-tabling to find a solution that all parties can live with.

Decker: Until recently, there had been no negotiations with the governor which was extremely frustrating. The Commission has spent six years trying to take some of the costs of the PL 280 agreement off the backs of county taxpayers. I agree with the governor that the agreement has been “a model of success” and needs to remain in place.

I continue to be hopeful that an agreement between the state and county can be reached prior to May 21 when the county officially withdraws from the agreement. Without an agreement that helps the county pay the costs of PL 280, we have no choice but to withdraw.

Leader: What are your priorities for spending county tax revenues and why? 

Krantz: Budget priorities would be resolving the county employee turnover problem. The cost of training and hiring is extremely expensive. I believe each department needs a transparent budget and making sure adequate monies are available for equipment and supplies.

I want to make sure monies cover services evenly throughout the Lake County region. Examples are roads, solid waste and day-to-day services.

Senecal: My priorities as far as spending county tax revenue is to have a balanced budget and focus on reform for the county, identifying inefficiencies and finding better solutions.

Decker: It takes a detailed understanding of our budget to make financial decisions that allow the commissioners to use our available dollars wisely. Public safety is always priority number one. Providing our employees with a wage that allows them to support themselves and their families is important; employee turnover is costly and counterproductive.

Our road budget is always under scrutiny. Maintaining 1,100 miles of county roads and hundreds of culverts and bridges takes planning and organization. The special levies passed by taxpayers in 2020 and 2022 allowed the county to rehabilitate and repair many miles of roads and we will continue to address those still needing work.

Baertsch: Many businesses and organizations, including schools, face multi-faceted budget issues. Lake County is no exception. As a commissioner I would not take this responsibility lightly. I want to make sure we are being fiscally responsible with items that consume a large portion of the overall budget.

One of these items is health insurance. Is Lake County getting yearly bids for the best insurance for its employees at the best rate possible?

Another area would be infrastructure with the county. How are we bidding these projects? Are we getting the best use of tax dollars with these upcoming and future projects?

Leader: How would you approach or try to improve relations with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes? Are there areas of potential cooperation you'd like to explore?

Senecal: Tribal relations are very important. We live here, we do business here. We need to have a working relationship with the Tribes. We need to restore relations between the Tribes and the commissioners’ office through collaboration, sitting down and discussing what we agree on and making those items easy and simple to work through.

Then, let’s take the problems that we do not agree on and work on those items one by one and not harbor hard feelings on our disagreements but find a working solution.

Decker: There will always be conflict between County and Tribal governments due to the very different agendas the governments are trying to accomplish. I communicate regularly with council members as we look for common ground on issues, but unfortunately that is difficult to find.

Our county is not unique in its conflict with the Tribal Council as other reservation counties across the state experience similar problems. Mutual respect in working out our differences is important.

Baertsch: After talking with CSKT members in Lake County they want to see a positive working relationship with the Lake County Commissioners that is not currently as strong as they would like to see.

Through mutual respect and a love of Lake County I think we all want to see some improvements with our roads and infrastructure. I also see mutual efforts could be made with the safety of all the residents of Lake County. Nobody in Lake County wants to see crime rates or drug use continue to rise. These are two areas I would like to focus energy on and collaborate with our tribal communities.

Krantz: I would start by discussing some of the bigger issues Lake County is faced with by asking for the Elders and Tribal Council input. Simply asking the Tribes to be part of the solution is a start.

Leader: As the population grows in Lake County, lack of affordable housing continues to create problems in the labor market. Does the county have a role in resolving those issues? If so, how?

Decker: The county is limited in what it can accomplish with regards to housing as it does not have the financial resources to invest in housing construction and the infrastructure that goes with it.

The county does own some land suitable for housing and potentially providing the land at little or no cost to developers might prove successful in driving down the cost of new construction. This has been done in other counties.

Baertsch: Many of the issues impacting the housing costs are beyond the control of the county. Impact fees charged by each city are not controlled by the county. Building costs are also not controlled by the county.

I would start by meeting with the Planning Board to evaluate current policies to see if they are both the most efficient and fiscally prudent.

Krantz: I believe the county has a big role in helping to find solutions to the housing problem. I would start by researching the pros and cons of what other counties are coming up against. I would make sure our planning department and health department have enough staff to handle the work load of permitting and zoning.

This issue is not a Lake County problem alone. Montana in general has a difficult problem to address.

Senecal: Lake County is growing and we have a rising need for affordable housing. I believe we can handle this on our county level by opening up some zoning restrictions to allow for clean and affordable mobile home parks.

Leader: Candidate residency has been raised as an issue in this campaign, with two candidates (Decker and Krantz) living outside the district in which they would serve – even though both own land within the boundaries of the Ronan district. Please tell voters why this issue should or shouldn't be a factor in the upcoming election.

Senecal: Candidate residency is a huge deal. As one of the two candidates that actually live in District 3 the reason for this law is for the people to have equal representation in the county – one county commissioner per district. Right now we have two commissioners that live in District 1, and none in District 3.

If the Commissioner of Political Practices rules in favor of Gale Decker it will set a bad precedent for the whole state. It will allow anyone out of state to buy a blank piece of land, set up a mailbox and claim to have intent to build on that property but live out of state, and run for office.

Baertsch: Montana law states that candidates must reside for two years in the district they are representing. I am a person of integrity by following the rules and laws of society. If this issue is not resolved, it could have ongoing effects in future elections.

Voters will have to decide what it means to them to reside in a district. I reside in District 3 of Lake County, I go to bed there every night and wake up every morning in District 3 to go to work to serve the people of Lake County.

Krantz: Over the last two years I have averaged over $600,000 dollars spent at Ronan businesses. I do 96 percent of my business in Ronan. I am a member of the Krantz family limited partnership which has owned land for over 20 years on the Back Road.

I ran for commissioner two years ago and was winning in my district until the Polson community votes came in and I lost by 300 votes in District 2. My point is: why are people in District 1 and 3 voting on the commissioner race when they do not live there or have property or a home in the district?

Decker: Our state and county are governed by law, not by what people’s opinion of a situation may be. Montana Code Annotated 1-1-215 includes the qualifications for residency and District and Supreme Court decisions provide case law that clarifies specific situations.

By statute and case law, I am a resident of my district and too much time has been spent debating residency instead of the real issues in this election.

    Wes Baertsch, a candidate for Lake County Commissioner, District 3
 
 
    Incumbent County Commissioner Gale Decker is running for reelection in District 3.
 
 
    Max Krantz, a candidate for Lake County Commissioner, District 3
 
 
    Josh Senecal, a candidate for Lake County Commissioner, District 3