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The Big Sky Way: May elections

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A voter receives a ballot through the mail. ADOBE STOCK

By Danny Bierschwale EBS CONTRIBUTOR

In our last segment we explored the basics of voting in Big Sky and the civic responsibility we each have in elections. As outlined, a variety of elections occur each year in Big Sky and to participate in most you must be registered to vote. With the May election in the rearview mirror, it’s worth taking time to demystify what voters just voted on in those elections: the school and special purpose districts. The vast majority of Big Sky-specific ballot initiatives in May are related to school and special purpose districts. 

The West is lawless—right?

Despite how Hollywood personifies Western culture, we as citizens actually have a fairly long standing structure for local government in Montana, starting with The Constitution of The State of Montana.

This body of fundamental principles outlines how local governmental units can be formed and classified, merged or dissolved or otherwise changed, as well as alternative forms of government decided by a majority of voters. This includes forms of local government including but not limited to county, municipal, and special purpose district structures. An example of a special purpose district that you might’ve seen on previous ballots is the Big Sky Transportation District.

Each of the different types of government structures available to Montanans has unique power and responsibilities under the Montana Code Annotated (MCA)—which is a combination of the state constitution and all state laws, also called statutes. For example, the powers and responsibilities of the Resort Area District in Big Sky are outlined in MCA 7-6-15.

Not everyone working in those governmental bodies are legal scholars, of course, which is why Local Government Services through Montana’s Department of Administration exists.

This public agency helps provide effective management of public funds, accountability and transparency for local governments through such support services as annual financial reports, audits and financial reviews, budgets, state agency audit findings, and other reports.

While Big Sky might not be an incorporated town in the way Bozeman or Ennis is, there are still governmental bodies, rules and other formal structures that help the community function.

The Districts of Big Sky

Eventually we will outline county and state elections, including an overview of the recent 2020 Montana District and Apportionment Commission decision, which realigned political boundaries throughout the state. However, with the May election just “hot off the press,” we’ll stay local. Big Sky has over a dozen districts, with some in both Gallatin and Madison counties, and each having distinct powers and authority granted under MCA.

Some of these districts have taxing, bonding, and assessment authority which all fall on property tax bills helping to fund services associated with the districts. They all have distinctly unique terms for board of director/trustee elections, including a few districts with appointment rules.

It’s important to note that Big Sky has a thriving nonprofit community, and those nonprofits have their own boards. Those organizations have independent Articles of Incorporation and bylaws but are not bound by Local Government Services under the state of Montana. A great resource for learning more about Montana nonprofits is the Montana Nonprofit Association.

Although the special purpose district ballot measures and elections have passed, our next few columns will give more specific focus to the distinctions of powers, authority, and governance of these critical government services. We’ll unpack the difference between mills, assessments, and bonds and how they’re used to fund community services.

Most importantly we’ll outline how you, as a citizen of Big Sky, can get involved. These building blocks will be an important framework especially as Big Sky explores the details of another form of government outlined in MCA—municipal government.

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of commonly used districts in Big Sky:

DistrictWebsiteGovernanceMCA Code
Big Sky County Water and Sewer District No. 363 Elected Board Members, 2 AppointedMCA 7-13-22
Big Sky Fire District Elected TrusteesMCA 7-33-21
Big Sky School District Elected TrusteesMCA 20-6
Big Sky Transportation District Appointed Board MembersMCA 7-14-2
Ennis School District Elected Board of TrusteesMCA 20-6
Gallatin Canyon County Water and Sewer District Appointed Board MembersMCA 7-13-22
Gallatin Canyon/Big Sky Planning and Zoning District County Commissioners, County Surveyor, county official appointed by commissioners, and 2 citizen members appointed by commissionersMCA 76-2-101

Daniel Bierschwale is the Executive Director of the Big Sky Resort Area District (BSRAD). As a dedicated public servant, he is committed to increasing civic engagement and voter education. Many ballot issues impact government services and public funding including subsequent property tax impacts. BSRAD is the local government agency that administers Resort Tax, which offsets property taxes while also funding numerous community-wide nonprofit programs.

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