Kevin Nelson was more than a little surprised when he learned that he would be the first recipient of the Making Democracy Work Award from the League of Women Voters of Billings.
“The first thing I said after ‘thanks’ was, ‘I didn’t think anybody was listening,’” Nelson said.
The press release announcing his selection said Nelson “is being honored for his independent study and advocacy in speaking out to city, county, and state officials about injustices he sees in taxation and funding issues.”
He is also a tireless advocate of transparency in government, and an outspoken critic of closed meetings and secret deliberations. More than anything, Nelson takes the trouble to attend public meetings, to take his concerns directly to bureaucrats and elected officials.
“What drives this?” he asked. “I don’t really know.” But he has learned that if nobody holds officials accountable, “all of a sudden they’re above the law.”
Nelson, who owns a heating and air-conditioning business, first got involved in a dispute involving School District 2’s food service contractor in the mid-1990s. That sparked a consuming interest in local and state government.
Since then he has been a regular attendee at meetings of the school board, the Billings City Council, the Yellowstone County Commission and the Montana Legislature. How many meetings?
“Hundreds,” he said. “Has to be hundreds of meetings.”
And he doesn’t just show up to listen and observe. He often gets up to testify, occasionally more than once at each meeting. Whether he is asking questions, challenging assumptions or tossing out accusations, Nelson has done his homework. He cites state law, points out errors in budget documents or calls attention to discrepancies between what an official is saying now and has said in the past.
After hearing that he won the award, Nelson did some more research. In other places where the League of Women Voters has given out Making Democracy Work Awards, he said, the winners are typically “somebody who runs the foundation,” or a school teacher who takes a group of students to Washington, D.C.
He said he wasn’t aware that many people knew of his activities as a freelance advocate of open government, much less that anyone cared about his work.
Janice Munsell, who headed the committee that chose Nelson for the award, said he was selected not so much for the particular causes he espoused as for how hard he worked to make his voice heard.
“We felt that he was making our government bodies more accountable,” she said. “He was doing something some of us would like to do but don’t take the time.”
Nelson said he is proudest of two accomplishments — bringing a “million-dollar mistake” to the attention of state and local officials and prompting the City Council to allow more citizen involvement in its informal work sessions.
The funding mistake involved an error made by the state Department of Revenue in calculating property taxes as they related to the South Billings Urban Renewal District. Because of mistakes caught by Nelson, the district saw its projected income of $1 million a year cut in half.
As for the council, it used to hold its twice-monthly work sessions in the Billings Community Center, and public comment was limited to one opportunity per person at the start of the meeting.
Nelson continually pointed out the unfairness of the arrangement, saying citizens were being asked to comment on deliberations they hadn’t yet heard. As a result, the council began formally accepting public comment on every item on the agenda, following council discussion.
That’s especially important, he said, because as the City Council’s reliance on work sessions has evolved, more and more of the debate and deliberation take place at them, not at regular council meetings where the votes are actually made.
The same is true of Helena, he said, where interim committees do much of the work to prepare legislation for the biennial meetings of the Legislature. If you go to Helena during a regular session hoping to make big changes, you’re probably too late, he said.
Nelson keeps a close watch on two interim committees, one dealing with revenue and transportation and the other with education and local government. He often drives to the capital, on his own time and his own dime, to monitor the committees’ work and to offer his testimony.
Munsell said the LWV selection committee was impressed by Nelson’s willingness to make personal sacrifices to represent the public at public meetings.
One of Nelson’s battles that is unresolved has to do with his neighbor, Highland Projects, a steel fabricator that mostly makes tanks for the oil industry. Nelson has been in Billings since 1989 and 10 years ago built a house on Bruce Avenue where it dead-ends west of Hallowell Lane.
Right across the alley from his house is Highland’s large manufacturing plant. For years, Nelson has been the leader of a neighborhood group trying to do something about the company’s constant noise and dust pollution from sandblasting.
Nelson has gotten the attention of city, county and state officials, but because the plant is in the county just outside city limits and conforms with zoning regulations, neighbors have been told there’s little anyone can do about the situation.
The company did cease outside operations at 8 p.m., rather than going until 2 a.m. as it used to, but Nelson says that might be because business is slow.
If the problems continue, don’t expect Nelson to stop pressing for a solution. He said people can get a response from government if they’re organized and persistent.
“If you want to make democracy work,” he said, “get five people or 10 people and go to a council meeting and you’ll get something done.”