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For Holmquist, a Quick Transition to Leadership
Most recently elected commissioner will soon be the most experienced
Pam Holmquist
Commissioner Pam Holmquist in her office at the Flathead County Courthouse. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
In an election year already full of high-stakes races, voters will have the responsibility of determining the makeup of two-thirds of the Flathead County Commission, a duty that was unforeseen this time last month.

And for Commissioner Pam Holmquist, it means shifting into a leadership position sooner than she expected.

Former Commissioner Jim Dupont passed away on March 19 after suffering an apparent heart attack. His death stunned the community, as well as county employees who served so closely with Dupont after he was elected to the District 1 seat in 2008.

“It was a shock, of course, when Jim passed,” Holmquist said. “It was so unexpected.”

The loss is still tender and raw for Holmquist. Her office in the recently refurbished Flathead County Courthouse building sits next to Dupont’s former office, and she acknowledged the difficulty of having to walk past it every day, knowing it is empty.

But Holmquist is grateful for the time she got to spend with Dupont, personally and professionally.

“I feel fortunate that I had him for that year,” she said.

Still, the process has already begun to fill Dupont’s seat on the three-member commission. And with Commissioner Dale Lauman not seeking re-election this year, Holmquist, with what will be two years of experience by the time the next election takes place, is next in line for the title of senior commissioner.

Conventional wisdom from previous county commissioners suggests that it takes nearly a full term – or roughly five to six years – to really understand the job. Holmquist acknowledged that theory, but doesn’t place much stock in it.

“I don’t agree with that at all,” she said.

Holmquist estimates it took her about six to eight months to gain solid footing on the commission, but that was the result of plenty of hard work. She said in the two months, between the 2010 election and when she took the District 2 seat in 2011, she researched her new role extensively.

County commissioners attend training with the Montana Association of Counties, she noted, but it comes down to work ethic, and anyone who puts in the time to get to know the job should reap the benefits.

Learning to become a commissioner is mostly a solo endeavor, Holmquist said. There are opportunities for more seasoned commissioners to teach the new ones about procedure, but that largely comes from sitting in hearings with one another.

Two commissioners cannot discuss county business among themselves, due to rules about quorum. A quorum is the minimum number of a deliberate body that is necessary to conduct official business.

Since Flathead County only has three commissioners, a quorum would mean two. Therefore, when she became a commissioner, Holmquist could chat with Lauman or Dupont about anything but the county business in front of her.

It was frustrating at times, Holmquist said, because she would have liked to pick their brains about the issues and learn about information they may know.

Lauman agreed, but stressed that the rules are in place because the commission adheres to the state’s open meeting laws.

“It would be nice to just be able to discuss some of these issues but you can’t,” Lauman said. “And it’s going to be a real challenge with two new commissioners coming on board on Jan. 1.”

But, despite having only served a third of her term, Holmquist is confident she can mentor the two new commissioners from her seat as commission chairperson. Commissioners rotate the position every year, and 2013 would have been her year anyway, Holmquist said.

Who Holmquist will be serving with is still up in the air, with a field of 15 candidates for the District 1 and 3 seats. The race for District 3 has six candidates, five of whom are Republicans, while the District 1 seat – formerly Dupont’s – garnered nine candidates, with only one Democrat.

Voters will face a crowded ballot for the primary elections in June, and Holmquist said she hopes the public realizes they have to decide on two commission races instead of one.

According to the Flathead County Election Department, an election year with two commission seats up for grabs is highly unusual. And it gets even more confusing, Holmquist noted, because she and Lauman will vote on an interim commissioner to serve until the general election in November.

Sandy Welch, chair of the Flathead County Republican Central Committee, said the candidates for interim commissioner were scheduled to interview on April 2, and the committee would have a closed meeting on April 3 to determine which names to present to the county commissioners.

Once the new commissioners are elected in November, they will be on their own when it comes to learning the day-to-day intricacies of the job, though the county staff is a great resource for new commissioners, Holmquist said. She hopes the newly elected are prepared to put in “a lot of hours” from the beginning.

Holmquist estimates that she spent over 50 hours a week at the office when she first began, determined to find her footing.

“I think it’s what you make of it,” Holmquist said.
 
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