Nichole Girten

(Daily Montanan) “Do not force a wildcat and a bulldog to share the same cage, the results may not be pretty,” said Columbia Falls resident during a redistricting public hearing on Saturday.

Legislators and community members spoke against the proposal to include Columbia Falls and Whitefish in the same house district during a public hearing hosted by the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission on Saturday.

The commission met in Helena to get feedback in person and over remote video on the tentative adopted legislative map voted on last week. Over 100 people commented on the map, largely split even amongst supporters and opposition, which was originally drawn by Democrats after four days of consensus building with Republicans.

One part of the argument made by attendees to keep Columbia Falls and Whitefish in separate legislative districts, as opposed to how they are both included in House District 98, was citing the high school sports rivalry between the Columbia Falls Wildcats and the Whitefish Bulldogs.

Commenters including, Senator elect Mark Noland, R- Kalispell, cited this rivalry as a reason for not being a “community of interest,” one of the goals for drawing districts, but not a requirement. Others cited splintering cultural differences between the two districts for why they should not be drawn together.

“Columbia Falls is a conservative blue collar town, Whitefish is a hippie liberal ski town that resembles Bozeman and Missoula,” said Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R- Columbia Falls. “Which is a clear difference in Columbia Falls and the rest of Flathead County.”

Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, said he felt like he was in the Twilight Zone, citing that Republicans fought to keep Whitefish as part of the Flathead Valley when the line dividing the state in two was being drawn last year.

“If we split districts by school rivalries, we’d have quite a mess on our hands throughout this process,” he said.

Morigeau encouraged the commission to continue their work without influence from legislators speaking in self-interest and endorsed the proposed map as not perfect, but compliant with the criteria.

“We can’t make every legislator happy, but we can make Montana fair,” Morigeau said.

Commissioner Kendra Miller, one of two Democrats on the commission, pointed to the similarity between the most recent Democrat and Republican map proposals for the Whitefish and Columbia Falls district.

Republican Commissioner Dan Stusek attributed the similarity to the consensus building between parties that happened last week. The first maps proposed by Republicans on the commission had the two municipalities in different districts.

When asked about commenters requesting the two communities be divided separately because of the school rivalry, Stusek said he didn’t generally think it was the best argument, but that it added levity to an otherwise controversial process.

“But I think school districts and those political subdivisions are something to take a look at,” Stusek said.

Belgrade being drawn into a district with parts of downtown Bozeman and the Montana State University campus also drew some opposition, saying the communities are not alike and critiquing the “spoke and wheel” design, for dividing the urban area to also include surrounding rural communities. Others noted that people in Belgrade are commuting into Bozeman for work and that the two areas are naturally integrated.

Commenter Judy Lewis from Livingston said she thought the “spoke and wheel” design for districts was a good thing in that it gets different people with different views in the same district where they have to talk to each other.

“I think we need to remember that this map is just not for now. This map is going to go till 2032,” she said. “Montana is changing and we need to try to bridge the urban rural separation.”

Lewis was also one of several commenters who thanked the commission for keeping Livingston together in one district.

Other critiques of the map included East Helena should not be drawn west to include parts of Helena and Republican legislators commenting that the eastern half of the state was drawn better on the map proposed by the Republican commissioners last week.

There were noticeably more legislators commenting on the map proposals than in previous public hearings hosted by the commission as they get closer to determining a final map for submission for the legislative districts.

“People are seeing now what types of districts they would run in the future and it might be new and different because of population population changes,” Miller said. “That’s not intended to turn away any particular person from running, it’s just that your district might look different than the one you used to represent.”

Miller said she hopes that more people can see what the commission faces when balancing goals and criteria in drawing the legislative map.

The commission will meet at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday to determine Senate District pairings and assign districts to the 25 holdover Senators who were elected to four year terms in 2022. The commission will take public comment before submitting the final map in Dec. 21.