I’m finishing up reporting on Ruston and decided to get the academic view on small-town politics, so I called James J. Lopach , the chair of the political science department at the University of Montana. He’s worked with small towns across Montana, so he has a pretty good view of the phenomenon.
For some places, the political turmoil has caused a deadlock.
"In recent years, I’ve seen two towns that have become dysfunctional because of the divisiveness in the city government," he said. "Both had to bring in outside mediators just to make it work – almost like a marriage counselor."
The size of the town plays a direct role on the viciousness of the politics.
"You don’t have a large group of people to choose from for mayor or city council," he said. "Those who do run are involved in other things. Their lives are entangled, and they bring this baggage to council meetings. In larger towns, you get a larger group of people, many of whom don’t know each other."
There’s also something else to think about.
"Also, I think there’s a greater likelihood of conflicts of interest," he said. "If there’s a request for a change of zoning or a contract comes up for review, there’s a greater chance of having a history with the person making the request."