With a nod to rural residents, Missoula County commissioners on Thursday chose Juanita Vero to replace outgoing Commissioner Cola Rowley in a decision unanimously reached.
Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick both tendered Vero’s name during a morning meeting, saying that while all three candidates provided by the Missoula County Democrats were qualified, Vero had the attributes they wanted in a peer.
That included rural representation.
“All things being equal, gender diversity on the commission is critically important,” Strohmeir said. “Secondly, all these being equal, I think we need to make a decision that takes into account the need for rural representation on the commission.”
Vero currently serves as a partner on a Greenough guest ranch and pressed for that rural representation during her interview with commissioners. She received support Thursday morning from fellow residents who live in outlying areas.
“I think it’s vital Missoula County has a rural representative on the county commission,” said rancher John Rimel. “It’s important to the rural residents to feel as if they’re being represented.”
“We the 41 percent of the population who live in rural areas would feel really excluded if all of the commissioners came from the city,” said another Vero supporter.
Thursday’s vote marked the second time in three years that two commissioners have appointed a replacement for an outgoing commissioner.
In 2015, Rowley and former Commissioner Jean Curtiss selected Stacy Rye to fill a seat vacated by former Commissioner Bill Carey. Strohmaier challenged Rye the following election and won. He remains in his first term.
“Commissioner Slotnick and myself are serving as proxy for all of the other voters in Missoula County who would otherwise be casting a vote as to who the next commissioner would be,” said Strohmaier. “It’s a tough decision and a decision I take very seriously.”
After her appointment, Vero said she planned on seeking the seat in next year’s election. She begins on July 1 and will need to defend the appointment next November.
Stacie Anderson and Denver Henderson represented the other two candidates considered by commissioners.
“I’m deeply honored to be considered, for one, and ultimately to be selected,” said Vero. “It’s a profound honor and a great responsibility. I look forward to citizens and staff holding me accountable and helping me be the county commissioner that’s worthy of Missoula County.”
Before Thursday’s vote, Slotnick said he and Strohmaier communicated via email while exploring values they wanted in a candidate. They included teamwork, respect and compassion, and the ability to represent both urban and rural residents.
“The things that came up for me were the notion of not being risk adverse, not being afraid to make a mistake in the pursuit of moving us forward, and not being held back by nervousness that I might get it wrong,” said Slotnick. “Someone who was expansive in their decision making rather than protective.”
While advocates lobbied for Vero in part on her rural address, and while commissioners ultimately selected her in part because of it, Strohmaier said there’s more to serving the larger public than one’s physical home.
Someone from the city or the greater urban area can and should do a good job representing those in the county, he said. At the same time, someone in the county “can and ought” to be able to represent the interests of urban residents.
“I do take some exception with the idea that we’ve absolutely got to have someone living in a specific geographic area to adequately represent others who may not be in the exact same situation in terms of where you physically live,” said Strohmaier.
“That being said, I think it’s critically important to recognize and respect that the lived experience, the community connections that someone might have who has deep roots in a rural area, is going to be different than those same sets of connections and roots you might have living in an urban area.”