By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce is tapping into a local resource, MSU Extension’s Local Government Center, to research governance options for this unincorporated community.

Local Government Center Director Dan Clark will meet with the chamber’s board of directors in early 2018 to help guide his research on governance options for Big Sky, which is largely run by a series of separate boards and organizations but lacks an overarching decision-making body.

Clark will be examining what Montana law states about options open to Big Sky, which has the added complexity of straddling Gallatin and Madison counties. He’ll also present on advisory and decision-making frameworks other communities around the state have implemented.

Big Sky chamber CEO Candace Carr-Strauss said the chamber regularly fields calls from concerned community members who have a stake in how decisions about infrastructure and local needs unfold. “Everyone’s urgency becomes our emergency,” Strauss said. “I’m taking [these calls] and saying, ‘How can we orchestrate these conversations so everyone can participate and be informed?’”

Such issues include transportation; energy, water and sewer infrastructure; and affordable housing, a subject this community has wrestled with consistently in recent years.

Clark’s contract will be paid out of the $25,000 that the Big Sky Resort Area District tax board appropriated to the chamber this June, to undergo a strategic planning effort.

Strauss said incorporation is not part of the scope of this effort. “The incorporation topic is a separate topic. We’re just trying to answer the question: How do we better operate as a community with what we have now?’”

“I think the opportunity to incorporate was probably a long time ago and the complexity of the community is only increasing and making it more challenging to achieve incorporation,” Clark said, adding that the last community in the state to incorporate was Colstrip, in 1996. Two currently incorporated communities along the Hi-Line will likely disincorporate in the coming months, dropping the state total to 127, he said.

Clark points to Missoula County as one area pertinent to this discussion. The only municipality that exists in the county is the city of Missoula, but there are a handful of other places like Bonner, Frenchtown and Seeley Lake that are run by community councils. These councils are elected and act in an advisory capacity to represent the concerns of their constituents to Missoula County commissioners, he said.

Clark said another option might be the establishment of what’s called a multi-jurisdictional district, which could address the fact that roughly half of Big Sky’s geographic area lies in Madison County, with the other half—and the more heavily populated part—lying within Gallatin County.

Many of the options that Clark will be looking into would require approval from county commissioners on both sides, but Clark doesn’t foresee that being an obstacle.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t,” he said, adding that it’s easier for a county commission—which is generally tasked with delivering state services at the local level rather than managing small and dense communities—to deal with one entity instead of thousands of individuals.

If it’s decided that it’s in the community’s best interest to implement some form of local government, details about that entity’s structure, including its membership and authority, will come later. He said the members of that entity would likely not be paid—although their expenses could be reimbursed—and would not have lawmaking or taxation authority.

It’s also possible Big Sky might decide its best not to continue in this vein at all. “At the end of the day, the community of Big Sky may say, ‘Yeah, what you’re proposing, Dan, it doesn’t really fit,” he said, adding that the prospect of another layer of government may be unappealing to some.

But, he added, it’s also possible that the solution Big Sky finds could prove groundbreaking for the state. “Changes to future law [could] allow much more governing structure in places like Big Sky, Big Fork, Gardiner [and] River Rock, by Belgrade,” Clark said. “It’s kind of exciting because you’re on the cutting edge.”