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Commissioner named new chairman, again

Philipsburg Mail of Philipsburg, Montana

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The controversy surrounding the hospital is nothing new - just ask the County Commissioner's new Chairman Cliff Nelson.

When his term is ended, in five years, he'll have served four terms years as a commissioner (in two separate stints) and 13 as a school board member so he's shaped his share of local government.

He was first appointed to the seat he now holds in 1980 and the hospital was as big an issue then, he told the Philipsburg Mail. These days the commissioners find themselves at odds with supporters of the recently formed hospital district and it is a controversy that Nelson says, he's having a hard time understanding. "I was tickled to death at the mention of a hospital district. I have always been in favor of a hospital district, as far as our differences, I just don't see it, we don't have say on their budget and we don't want say on it," he said, "I've seen problems with the hospital before and in the past the county commissioners have been able to bale them out. As far as leasing the property as opposed to selling or giving it to them, that's the way I feel. We have to have a lease. If there is a problem in the future then at least we can still have a nursing home."

Another constant since the early eighties, he said, is a focus on maintaining roads, providing law enforcement and oversight of county budgets. Those are things he said he doesn't want changed.

"You know if I could change something I don't think I'd change anything. Really, we represent all the county. Each commissioner is familiar with the people they represent and I'm happy with the way the county is run. We don't interfere with the other county officials, the clerk, the treasurer, they are all elected to do their jobs, all we have is budgetary authority and that's good."

What has changed, he said, is the workload, paper workload in particular, of the commissioners.

"I was ranching at New Chicago when I was first appointed and I should have stayed there," he said with a laugh, "I'll tell ya' there's been a big change. When I was a commissioner before, we never had no agendas. We had our regular meeting and if something came up we acted on it. It was so much easier and there were so fewer problems."

The complications started, he said, when newspapers started making demands for written agendas prior to the meetings. That mandate for more public information necessitated the creation of more paperwork.

"In those days the minutes were nothing like they are now. It was simplified and the checks we wrote, they were all in a line and they were published in the paper and everyone knew every dollar we spent. It was all there and it was simple. It used to be that long, you know, your bills (he held hands inches apart) and now they're this long (he held his hands three feet apart)."

Subdivisions too are something new. He said he didn't experience them in the 1980s.

"We just didn't have any subdivision and planning and today it takes a lot of our time. We had to hire a planner and Linda (Bouck) is really an excellent planner and she helps us out. We've got to rewrite the growth policy and that too is taking up a lot of our time."

In addition to the paperwork there seems to be a lot of lawsuits these days.

"I think a lot of what's going on, not so much of it here, it's general. Somebody is suing someone all the time. So many things are settled with lawsuits that were never settled that way before. When I was commissioner before nobody was suing anybody, you never heard of it." As for the future of the county Nelson sees some changes coming.

"My district is from the Main Street of Philipsburg to the Marshall Creek Road and it follows Rock Creek and goes to the Airport Road at Drummond. Suzy (Browning) represents Drummond down to Rock Creek and Maureen Connor south of Main Street in Philipsburg. The commissioners districts are set by the census and when the new census comes out, that's going to change the lines of the district quite a bit."

Although each commissioner must live within one of those three districts they are elected by the entire county.

"That's been an issue. I'm representing all the taxpayers of Granite County and I think all the taxpayers should have a vote on the Commissioners. To me all the district does is set the roads and I would oppose changing to all open representation because then the populated part of the county, you would probably have three commissioners all from Philipsburg just like the Hospital District, four of them are from Philipsburg."

Nelson said he represents all parts of the county fairly and equally.

"I strongly believe I do try. I don't believe in representing just part of the county. I represent all of the county. Some people say, he's from Drummond so he'd going to represent that. But I do feel I try to be fair to represent Philipsburg as well as I represent Drummond."

He said that he doesn't see the county population growing in the near future because there is nothing pushing growth, like jobs. He said he does believe the county will see more second homes and with them absentee owners but he looks back and forward with some pride in his work as a public servant.

"You know to me it's a job that has to be done and I enjoy trying to do it. The thing I'm always concerned about and what I run on is that I want to represent the taxpayers of the county and to try to do what's right for the taxpayers of the county. I think the one part that I take a big interest in is the road department, that's of big importance, and I take a great interest in the road department. Our road department is in pretty good shape. We're not in a budget crunch with the roads like we are with everything else."

Since the commissioners take turns as chairman Nelson will have at least two more stints in the lead chair. After his term expires in 2015 he'll have logged 21 years as a commissioner. And then another run for office?

"No," interjected his wife, Mae, "this is where I put my foot down."

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Original Publication Date: January 7, 2010

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