Montana Politics

Derek Brown Retires as Lewis & Clark County Commisioner


Yesterday, Republican Derek Brown announced his resignation as a Lewis & Clark County Commissioner, only four years into a six-year term.  He described the partial term as “four yours [sic] of the most frustrating and disappointing time of my entire career.” He resigned after failing a second attempt to get a pro-developer ally on the Commission.

Brown has long complained of being the minority of the commission’s many 2-1 votes. But instead of working with fellow commissioners, he’s actively campaigned against them. In 2010, he supported third-party candidate Bob Hollow, a spoiler running against sitting Commissioner Mike Murray. This year, he endorsed Mike Fasbender’s challenge, commending Fasbender’s “clean campaign” despite the use of thousands in PAC money from the Montana Conservative Coalition. The Conservative Coalition is funded by $10,000 from the Helena Building Industry Association and is under investigation for not reporting all of its contributions.

It is impossible to build trust while campaigning against your fellow commissioners. This type of campaigning is so destructive that Mike Mansfield prohibited it in the U.S. Senate.

There may have been valid reasons why Brown failed to get any support for his policies like plumbing the entire valley. Perhaps current residents weren’t interested in covering the costs for developers to build homes in neighboring lots?

More importantly, Brown failed his primary responsibility to the voters he represents. Instead of finding compromise, Brown undermined trust and worked to replace his coworkers. He gave up when he couldn’t stack another developer onto the Commission.

Next steps: The County Republicans will choose three possible replacements to fill the rest of Brown’s term. The two remaining commissioners will make the final appointment.


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  • For over 20 years the County has attempted to implement zoning and development standards to govern growth and assure that public health and safety issues are not neglected. During this time a well-funded and vocal minority of developers, contractors and real estate agents who have a significant financial interest in the status quo have consistently decried the lack of consistency while delaying the process indefinitely through endless “working groups”, committees, hearings, and lawsuits.

    While the developers feign outrage over the lack of standards, uncontrolled development continues to burden taxpayers with demand for additional unfunded public services. The fact is that the Commissioners and staff have had their hands tied by the lack of a legal basis for controlling development. A legal defense can only be created by enacting the same comprehensive zoning and development standards that have been consistently thwarted by the very people who are once again whining about lack of standards. Commissioner Brown, former Commissioner Verone, and wannabe Commissioner Fasbender are among the champions of growth at any price.

    Look around and see the results: overcrowded schools in the North Valley, a constant traffic nightmare in the City, failing community water systems, flooded developments, and wildfire-prone communities. The only success story is the enactment of minimal fire standards for new developments which were vehemently contested by the development and real estate interests.

    I’m sure the Republican Party will proffer more of the same one-issue crowd as replacements for Brown. Hopefully, one of them will have the cojones to step up and offer a real alternative vision.

  • So what you are saying is that we have all of these problems because the L&C commission is unable to impose their vision without violating the law? Truly brilliant! Derek Brown did offer an alternative. Certainly, his vision was different from the majority but it was a plausible alternative nonetheless. We all need to come to the conclusion that growth is inevitable and start making some reasonable decisions about what that growth is going to look like. And we need to do it within the framework of the laws that exist.

    • You are correct that “growth is inevitable and start making some reasonable decisions about what that growth is going to look like. And we need to do it within the framework of the laws that exist.”

      That is exactly what the Commissioners have been trying to do for 20 years by trying to enact a comprehensive zoning ordinance. The HBIA and their cronies in the real estate industry have successfully thwarted this effort while hypocritically whining about the lack of standards.

      • The lack of a comprehensive zoning ordinance is also due to the prevailing resistance of the valley population. People will resist zoning until the lack of zoning starts to negatively impact them personally, that is just how it goes. Someone builds a dog kennel next door that keeps you awake and all of a sudden you are a zoning advocate! The valley takes advantage of the city of Helena while avoiding any responsibility.

        As an alternative thought:
        While I am an advocate of thoughtful planning, perhaps we are lucky valley zoning may be stalled until our general approach to zoning becomes more sophisticated. Current zoning is not designed to create better places to live, it is designed to protect current property values. Smart growth tools seldom exist in zoning ordinances, good design is hard to legislate. Consider that strict single-use zoning was the standard in most US cities for about 30-40 years (still is in place in portions of most cities), starting in the 1960’s. Cities grew (most suburban growth) vastly in size during that time, but created very few quality space. Can you think of any dynamic urban areas developed over this time? We got a glut of tract houses, strip malls, directionless subdivisions, auto-dominated no-where.

        It is also impossible to split planning between the city and county. Having a random line that defines one area as the city and another as the county makes comprehensive smart planning impossible. There will always be an us and them attitude and approach.

        While I support the general idea of controlled growth, I fear even the best intentioned valley zoning will produce more of the same.

        • Your points are well taken and you are correct about valley residents resisting zoning. The County’s first attempt at zoning was developed in a vacuum and was a fiasco. The second attempt was placed on permanent delay by the HBIA and the real estate people. In both cases the vested interests created dire scenarios to scare valley property owners.

          Now that Brown and Fasbender are out of the picture I’ll wager we’ll see zoning in about a year.

    • I think Edward Abbey had a nice take on growth mania in our cities:

      Why not consider the possibility that a city, like a man or woman or tree or any other healthy living thing, should grow until it reaches maturity—and then stop? Who wants to live forever under the stress, strain, and awkwardness of adolescence? Life begins at maturity. A human who never stopped growing would be a freak, a mutant, a monster, a sideshow geek eating live chickens for supper and toppling dead of diabetes and kidney failure into an early grave. We passed the optimum point of urban growth and population increase many decades ago. Now we live in the age of accelerating growth and diminishing returns.

      • I’ve no wish to diminish the sentiment, Pogie, but Abbey always and continuously had a difficult time reconciling his beliefs with the suburbanization of America. “Urban” growth stopped sometime in the 80’s (well after the flowering of suburbanization) and is only now picking up again. it isn’t the same creature that Abbey was reviewing back in the 1970s.

  • I disagree strongly with that position. I do not agree with most of the positions that the republican would be commissioners have taken but I have seen nothing much constructive being done by the current bunch either. Brown was dead on the money when he pointed out the instances of our commission instituting policy in opposition to existing statute. The courts have ruled consistently against these efforts. While HBIA and the local realtors are in favor of development they are not in favor of uncontrolled development. If builders were to give up theiir attempts to kill these policies, the local economy would not like the resulting home prices and ultimate unemployment brought about by an inability of the buying public to purchase a home with all of the added cost attached. Try paving several miles of county road and build that into the home price and see what that does. Try adding an automatic sprinkler system to every residential home and look at what that does to the price. There needs to be some compromise between these groups or this will go on endlessly. And by the way, it does not help when you use pejorative terms like “cronies” to make these arguments.

    • “Try paving several miles of county road and build that into the home price and see what that does.”

      If the county road needs to be paved due to increased subdivision traffic who do you suggest pick up the cost? The County taxpayer perhaps?

      “Try adding an automatic sprinkler system to every residential home and look at what that does to the price.”

      Automatic sprinklers were never mandated. They were listed as ONE option for developers to provide water for firefighters. Who should be responsible for supplying water?

      “While HBIA and the local realtors are in favor of development they are not in favor of uncontrolled development.”

      Really? What evidence leads you to this conclusion?

      You are correct, compromise is required. That will not happen until the HBIA and their esteemed colleagues agree to shoulder the true costs of development.

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Tyler Evilsizer

Raised in Helena, Tyler's particularly passionate about the environment, transparency, and wonky budget policy. The views expressed are his own.

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