EAST HELENA — East Helena’s mayoral race is pitting a two-term incumbent seeking to continue what he’s started against a city councilman saying a change is needed.
Councilman Kelly Harris says he decided to file for mayor in response to a report that accused the city’s former police chief of a pattern of improper behavior and argued the city hadn’t done enough oversight on the department. He said getting the East Helena Police Department back on track would be his top priority.
“The law tells you flat out the mayor has all administrative capacity for the police department of East Helena, and that’s where change needs to start,” Harris said. “We need to focus on community-based policing, getting police that we know here, that we respect and trust. Oversight’s the main thing there.”
The outside investigation, by the firm Ugrin Alexander Zadick, claimed former police chief William Harrington had surveilled his employees, mishandled personnel files and charged the city for excessive overtime. EHPD has been without a chief since Harrington resigned in March while under investigation for an alleged sexual assault.
Mayor James Schell told MTN when the report came out that he took responsibility for any shortcomings in leadership that led to those issues. He says the city has since improved EHPD’s policies and procedures, and that the city council has raised police salaries in hopes of attracting more applicants. He says he wants to be open, and he encouraged residents with concerns about the department to talk to him.
“Right now, we’re moving forward with the process of bringing in a chief, building the department over the next few years, and having those policies and procedures fixed up, but having those monetary aspects of the job fixed, it makes a huge difference,” said Schell.
Harris, who works as a permit technician for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, says he’s lived in East Helena most of his life and he’s proud of being active in the community. As the city’s tax base grows, he wants to invest back into streets and water and sewer infrastructure.
He says city leaders have made improvements, but they need to earn back trust from the public. He believes he can be a mayor who will get things done.
“I don’t think we’re getting action,” he said. “I think we have a lot of inaction, a lot of stalemates in government. We need to get some things moving here.”
Harris has run for office in East Helena’s last three elections. In 2017, he finished in a tie with Councilman Don Dahl, and the other members of the council selected Dahl to fill the seat. He won a council seat in 2019.
Schell has lived in East Helena with his family for more than 20 years. He was himself a councilman in 2013, when he challenged and defeated the previous mayor, Anthony Strainer. In 2017, he ran unopposed for a second term.
Schell says the city has improved its responsiveness to the public and its handling of new construction and planning. He’s proud of the work they’ve done to help move the new Vigilante subdivision forward. He says streets, traffic and housing will be major issues in the coming years as East Helena continues to grow, and he wants to be part of the process of preparing for that growth.
“There’s still projects that are uncompleted, future projects that we’ve been working on, and integration of some additional staff in East Helena,” Schell said. “Because we’re growing, with some new subdivisions, of course with an increased tax base, we’re going to need to implement some more folks inside the staff.
There will be a third name on East Helena voters’ ballots: Lori Erickson. Erickson, who says she filed as a candidate because of “leadership failures” in the city, told MTN Friday that she would be throwing her support behind Harris, saying they had shared goals and that working together would be in the best interest of the city.
“My family will continue to support Kelly in whatever capacity he needs, and we will proactively work with him on the issues we are passionate about, specifically accountability and transparency to the public when it comes to the actions of City leadership and a full-scale restoration of EHPD to the peace and safety organization that was outlined in our City Charter as a key factor critical to our community success,” Erickson said in a statement.
Ballots will go out to voters in the city of East Helena on Wednesday, Oct. 13.