Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Back in 1994 the original Roxy Theater caught fire, Washington-Grizzly Stadium still had a grassy knoll, and most Missoula homes didn't have a computer, let alone a cell phone.

The city's population had just crossed 50,000 people, Daniel Kemmis was the city's mayor and a young Marty Rehbein had just taken a job as city clerk. Over the next 30 years, she'd become the eyes and ears of Missoula, watching its growth, its politics and the evolution of technology that has transformed local government and the way it interacts with the public.

“When I started, Reserve Street was a two-lane road,” she said. “I feel like people complained about traffic as much then as the situation now. It hasn't changed. But the city in both area and population, in just about every metric imaginable, has grown since I started.”

Rehbein, a University of Montana graduate who met her husband during college at the Rocking Horse Bar, is winding down a career that has spanned Missoula's evolution from a town to a city. She plans to retire by year's end, slow down and enjoy the sunny side of life.

To say her absence will be noted is akin to imagining a library without a set of encyclopedias. Rehbein has held a front-row seat to City Council meetings for three decades and has seen her share of mayors come and go. She knows the law better than most elected officials and has gained an institutional knowledge that spans more years than some council members are in age.

“This role of being the municipal clerk is one of the oldest roles in city government,” Rehbein said. “Early clerks were called 'remembrancers.' That has been the role for the ages, and it's always been someone's task to remember systems and document the decisions of a governing body.”

Back in 1994, the Internet was in its infancy, though that didn't matter, as most households lacked a home computer. Those that did have computer stored kilobytes of data on floppy disks and, when accessing the Internet, had to endure an ear-grating dial tone to see if “You've got mail.”

While Rehbein didn't start as city clerk in the dark ages, life before technology required a different approach to the job and how the city functioned.

“Technology has clearly changed throughout the ages,” said Rehbein. “During my tenure, we were extremely paper based. The practice of the position has changed substantially, but the function remains similar.”

Back in the early days, most of Rehbein's work was conducted on paper and she kept the staples in supply.

“I wanted to move to digital and there was this new awesome thing called the World Wide Web. We were the first city in Montana to have an electronic council agenda and packet,” she said. “Before than, we had a paper council packet. Sometimes those packets can be over 1,000 pages. We used to provide 34 of those every week to City Council members and the news media. It was a resource consumptive practice.”

Marty Rehbein began working as the city clerk in Missoula in 1994.
Marty Rehbein began working as the city clerk in Missoula in 1994.

While technology unfolds at lightning pace, the pandemic helped push the city into a new age faster than would have otherwise happened. Instead of meetings in person, local government introduced a hybrid format, allowing viewers to engage online while streaming a hearing.

Rehbein believes it has helped grow engagement with local government.

“Folks have a lot going on in their lives. Having to report to a room at a specific time in order to make your feelings known – there was always a barrier to that,” she said. “I think the virtual option and hybrid options provide more access, more transparency and more opportunity to participate.”

Other changes have occurred as well, including an increasing lack of courtesy and formality at City Council meetings. Like much of the nation, divisions run deep and the so-called “sausage making” process often ranges from aggravating to discouraging.

But as a political science major, Rehbein has always held a fascination for the public process, a respect for the media's role in it, and the fortitude of successful council members who, over the past 30 years, have helped make Missoula the place it has become.

While such street characters as Tommy the Leprechaun and the Reverend, who preached fire and brimstone on the street corner in his booming voice, may be gone, Missoula has emerged as a place where people want to live and work.

“Sometimes I admit, it's a little difficult. I'm a big fan of civility. That's when I get uncomfortable, when civility goes out the door,” said Rehbein. “But I'm a student of watching groups make decisions and trying to understand what goes into that. For 30 years, I've found that extremely fascinating. I also have a lot of respect for the decisions makers. The city has grown over the years, and that's because most of the decisions made created a place where people want to live and work.”

During her tenure, the city has tackled a number of controversial and challenging issues. Among them, it won public ownership of its drinking water, banned circus elephants, tried to close a loophole in gun registrations and, recently, ran a budget hearing into the wee hours of the morning.

But the city's push to address discrimination tops Rehbein's list of moments. That occurred in 2010 when Missoula became the first city in Montana to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“I very much enjoyed our hearing on illegal discrimination. It was long and extremely contentious,” Rehbein said. “But I felt the civility in the room and the respect everyone had for one another. It was definitely a milestone. That's probably the landmark hearing when I think back. It was the subject matter, but also the civility.”

Rehbein said she'll miss the work and the people who made it special. She'll be replaced by Claire Trimble, who will start her own chapter as Missoula's new remembrancer.

“This isn't a career or a job, it's a calling,” Rehbein said. “There's an earnestness and determination to act with purpose. Just getting to hang out with all those folks, whether they're elected, appointed or on staff is an absolute joy. I've always enjoyed the constituency part of the role as well.”