Tell Me, Tallie: How does law enforcement work in Big Sky?
By Tallie Lancey
Big Sky is largely governed by the “golden rule.” For the most part, locals are courteous and respectful of their neighbors, tourists, and their collective “stuff.” Thanks to its strong Midwestern influence, Big Sky is the sort of spot where people take care of each other. And that means taking care of each other’s possessions and property. I’ve personally represented sellers of two homes that didn’t even have house keys because the owners didn’t lock their doors. Our crime rates are low. Our kids are safe. And all generalizations are false.
When the honor system sees a spur in its saddle, we rely upon county and state law enforcement to protect us. On the rare occasion when treating others as you’d like to be treated falls short, officers of the law intervene. And after a few weeks of frequent firecrackers, overt open containers, and a new traffic light, many of us are wondering about such issues. Who enforces local laws? Who creates them? What are the rules, anyway?
Starting from the top, our publicly elected officials are Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin and Madison County Sheriff Roger Thompson. From there, Big Sky is specifically served by six deputies who enforce state and federal laws and county ordinances. Per an interlocal agreement, those salaries and vehicles are funded by Madison County, Gallatin County, and the Big Sky Resort Tax Board in equal parts. Those entities fund a third of the bill or approximately $276,621 each. The interlocal agreement is the only one of its kind in the State.
Montana State Troopers oversee all roadways that are “open to the way of the state.” Due to an increased need in Big Sky, the Montana Attorney General Tim Fox and Colonel Tom Butler chose, just this spring, to fund one highway patrol trooper dedicated to the Big Sky area for 40 hours a week. In addition, Big Sky is in District 7 of the Department of Justice which is served by ____ additional troopers who circulate locally.
Ordinances are often written by cities and enforced by their police departments. Big Sky is not a city and therefore has no municipal ordinances, though there are Gallatin and Madison county ordinances. Surprising to many newcomers, many of the typical city-like laws fall under the jurisdiction of Big Sky’s 200-plus homeowners associations and their covenants. For example, overnight on-street parking, down-lit exterior lighting and noise concerns are all overseen by HOAs, meaning that often neighbors police each other on a volunteer basis. That’s a position most folks are not eager to fill. Some HOAs have the legal ability to assess fines; some do not. Also surprising to people who move here, there isn’t a local building code enforcement agency, which I’ll cover in a future column.
Interagency cooperation has served us well so far. As our community and its visitation numbers continue to grow, so too will our demands on public safety across the board. In fact, starting last week, for the first time in Big Sky, the Gallatin County Animal Control Warden will begin patrolling and enforcing county leash laws in an effort to protect people and their pets. This may unfurl with a mixed response; such is the consequence of more and more people living here.
Looking into the future, as we welcome new folks to Big Sky, we can extend our hospitality by demonstrating the Code of the West. And keep the Sheriff’s local number saved in our phones, just in case. It’s (406) 995-4880.
Are you wondering why something is particularly unique to our community? You want to know and I’m eager to learn. This column commits to answering your burning questions about why Big Sky exists the way it does. Ask me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tallie Lancey is a broker with Big Sky Sotheby’s International Realty and serves on the boards of Big Sky Community Organization, Top Shelf Toastmasters, and the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center.