The name Mike Pence has come up a lot in recent weeks as the vice president has campaigned for reelection.
Some locals, however, might not be aware that Flathead County has its own Mike Pence, who has overseen county operations for the last 16 years. He is introduced as “the real Mike Pence” on a monthly KGEZ radio segment.
“’The man that has his hand on everything that happens in the county,’” Pence said in an interivew, quoting the radio introduction. “That’s probably true.”
While he hesitates to say it, Pence, 72, acknowledges he’s probably the most powerful governmental figure in the county, but is unelected. As county administrator, Pence reports to the three county commissioners, and by the time he retires from his position early next year, will have served under 11 different commissioners.
“Some people like continuity over time, but I haven’t really had that,” Pence said. “Eleven people over 16 years, that’s quite a bit of change, but they’ve all been great people and everyone has a different personality and ways they approach the job. I really like that challenge.”
Pence learned early on that he had a knack for getting along well with people, a trait that has served him well during his 45 years serving in governmental entities.
After graduating with a degree in political science, Pence worked as a deputy county auditor in Iowa before running for election as county auditor. After serving two terms, he turned to city management and since then has worked as an administrator for three cities, three counties and an American Indian nation.
Pence notes that while he’s learned a lot on the job, his Iowa upbringing is the key to his work style.
“I grew up on a farm. I was taught common sense and hard work, and that’s pretty much what I apply to all these positions I’ve taken over all these years,” Pence said. “I’m a fiscal conservative but not so much that I won’t do things that need to get done.”
Since he moved to the Flathead in 2005 to take over his current position, Pence has accomplished everything from creating the county finance department and overhauling an antiquated budgeting process to overseeing the expansion of the county campus and building up the county’s cash reserves.
The bulleted summary report of his accomplishments covers 13 pages, but he is most fond of an additional 1,800 pages of documents that he began compiling early in his tenure.
“This is what I take the most pride in,” Pence said, hefting three spiral-bound books. “My focus has been on fiscal management and the capital improvement plan.”
One of the bound books is a 600-page budget system the guides each county department through the fiscal year. The capital improvement plan (CIP) book is similarly sized and is a comprehensive five-year funded plan with a 20-year outlook.
“When I started here, the budget process was so antiquated it was hard to wrap your arms around it,” Pence said. “The capital improvement plan back in the day was departments basically giving us a Christmas wish list and we would deny most of it.”
Pence works directly with roughly 20 department heads and managers, and believes that he has helped to create an effective system within the structure of the county government.
“I think the management team is superb; we’ve made huge progress, and it’s all been positive,” Pence said. “I think we match up with any quality organization in the entire country. We’re definitely in the top tier.”
If Pence harbors any regrets about unfinished business, it’s that he hasn’t been able to find a way to take county transparency to the next level.
“Doing a really nice summary brochure and financial report was a goal of mine that I didn’t obtain, because I can’t figure out a way to do it so that people would read it,” Pence said. “I’ll pass that along to my successor to do.”
The search for his successor is currently underway, and after a short transition period, Pence and his wife Renee plan to leave the Flathead. Their goal is to travel the country visiting their six kids and 25 grandkids before settling down somewhere warm.
“I’m glad I stuck with this career,” Pence said. “I really enjoy serving the actual citizens that have come to me with complaints and grievances. Even if I couldn’t solve hardly any of them, I can make them feel better about government and be someone who will at least listen to them.”
“I think I’m leaving this place about as good as I could,” Pence continued. “Doesn’t mean there isn’t more to do, but I think it’s a well-oiled machine.”
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