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County election approaches

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LAKE COUNTY — The Lake County Election Office is gearing up for in-person voting Tuesday, June 7, when polls will be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. for the primary election. Absentee ballots must arrive in the election office or polling place by 8 p.m. Tuesday. 

Election administrator Toni Kramer says people “seem to be confused as to why some are getting ballots in the mail and some are not.” She advises voters to check their registration status at My Voter Page on the Montana Secretary of State’s website, A list of precincts and complete roster of federal, statewide and district candidates are also available. 

Voter registration forms are available at the county election office or online, and must be printed, filled out and turned in to the local office by noon, June 6. Those voting in person may want to check the current ID requirements,

The Valley Journal completes candidate profiles for three contested primaries at the local level this week, with Sheriff-Coroner and Justice of the Peace races (county commissioners were featured last week). For more information on federal and statewide candidates, including the U.S. House of Representatives and Public Service Commission, check out the online election guide published by Montana Free Press ( 

For more info on voting, call 406-883-7268 or the Secretary of State’s toll-free voter hotline: 888-884-VOTE (8683).


Lake County Sheriff Don Bell faces opposition in the primary from Ronan police officer Corey White. Since both men are Republicans and face no opposition from Democrats, the winner of the June 7 election will begin a four-year term as sheriff-coroner in 2023. 

Bell, who grew up in Ronan, served as a tribal police officer for many years and was named Montana Officer of the Year in 2012. He was elected sheriff in 2015, and again in 2018. 

He earned an associate degree in computer science from Salish Kootenai College, graduated from the Montana Law Enforcement Academy in 1993, and has since garnered the highest level of leadership training offered by the academy.

During a three-decade career, he’s completed more than 50 trainings, gaining expertise in areas such as leadership, domestic violence, anti-terrorism, suicide prevention, jail standards and tactical operations. 

In 2017, he received a Trilogy Award from the FBI-LEEDA’s Supervisor Leadership Institute for completing three leadership programs. He graduated from the FBI Intermountain Executive Law Enforcement Command College in 2020 and completed an Advance Death Investigation course in 2021. 

White, who was born and raised in Lake County and attended Polson schools, graduated from the Montana Law Enforcement Academy. He completed the Coroner Basic course and has completed nearly 30 training programs, earning basic, intermediate, and supervisory POST certificates.

He is currently a sergeant with the Ronan Police Department and was named 2019 Ronan Police Officer of the Year. He also worked for Lake County and during his career has served as a patrol officer, deputy, deputy coroner, corporal, sergeant and undersheriff. 

White has investigated and received convictions in major cases such as sexual assaults and embezzlements, maintained budgets, managed social media platforms and implemented community policing-based programs. He’s also proficient in technology, which he describes as “an ever-evolving tool in modern law enforcement.”

VJ: What concrete steps would you take to move jail improvements and expansion forward?

Bell firmly believes that Lake County needs to build a new jail. “The design of the current facility is inadequate and any expansion will create more costly problems for the county,” he says.  

He’s hopeful that if the state can be persuaded to fund Public Law-280, the corresponding infusion of revenue could help decrease the burden on local taxpayers. He envisions “a safe, modern facility, where local resources would be made available to inmates for substance abuse and mental health.”

According to White, the bond issue for a detention center that was defeated two years ago was not adequately explained nor promoted to the public. He’s confident taxpayers “will support a levy if needed, if it makes sense and does not break the bank.” 

He also advocates exploring less expensive options, such as looking for existing buildings that could be converted to a detention center, and “working with outside federal, local, and state agencies to fund and build a new jail.”

VJ: Please share your views on the benefits and issues associated with having the county investigate and prosecute felonies charges against Native Americans residing in Lake County under Public Law-280. 

White supports PL-280 and the county commissioners’ efforts to seek assistance from the state in funding the estimated $4 million in associated costs. “All entities need to work together to resolve this issue” without “driving a wedge between positive working relationships.”

If a new agreement and funding solution can’t be found, “we may have to take a serious look at pulling out of PL-280, because Lake County’s budget simply cannot keep going the way that it is without additional funding.” 

“Local policing is a critical component to the quality of life of a community,” says Bell. Without the agreement, the federal government – “where bureaucracy reigns supreme” – would take over felony prosecutions for Native Americans, making it harder “for citizens to access and hold accountable those who are in authority.”  

He applauds commissioners and legislators for their efforts “to provide some funding relief.” 

VJ: How can county law enforcement better address drug-related crimes? 

Aside from building a larger jail facility, Bell believes his department is “already doing everything in our power to curb drug-related crime.” The office has a full-time detective assigned to the regional drug task force who works closely with tribal, local, state, and federal agencies and partners. Patrol deputies also work hard to curtail drug trafficking within the county.  

He notes that the roots of drug and substance abuse “lie within the community” and are often beyond the scope of law enforcement. He’s encouraged by an increase in local treatment options and efforts of the 20th Judicial District Drug Court and the Never Alone Recovery Hall in Ronan to support sobriety. 

White advocates more cooperation between law enforcement agencies and better staff training on how to investigate drug trafficking and related crimes. A new jail would help law enforcement hold people accountable, especially if it included an in-house chemical dependency program “to better help individuals before they are released.” 

The sheriff’s department “needs to work on using drug court and work alongside probation and parole to ensure that individuals are staying on track,” he adds. 

VJ: What steps can be taken to improve working relationships between law enforcement partners in Lake County?

While White believes “most of the patrol officers in all agencies work well with each other,” he perceives a lack of communication at the administrative level. 

“Sharing information is something that does not seem to happen anymore and could be a valuable resource to help investigate or prevent crimes.” He suggests establishing more multi-jurisdictional teams beyond the drug task force “to better the law enforcement response to our community.”

Bell notes that Lake County is “fortunate to have so many cooperating agencies” at work here. Although each has its own responsibilities “when there is overlap, we all pull together to help each other.”  

Still, there’s room for strengthening relationships with partners and finding new ways to cooperate. The key, says Bell, “lies in honesty and communication among each other.”

VJ. What qualities do you bring to the position?

As the incumbent, Bell touts “a proven track record” and effective leadership. Over the past eight years, he says the department “has enjoyed a lot of success in bringing justice to some of the major crimes that have occurred in the county.” 

He attributes those accomplishments, in part, “to the level of accountability I expect in the office, which has brought stability to an agency that had a fair amount of controversy prior to my first election.” In turn, he says the sheriff’s office has seen an increase in community support – a crucial component in helping “local law enforcement do our jobs.”

White says he brings “hard work, dedication and compassion to everything I do in this career,” and promises to reduce turnover in the department. 

“I stand behind proactive policing and being involved in the community,” he says. If elected sheriff, he would strive to “empower the staff to do their jobs” and supply the guidance, tools, structure, and resources to help train and retain quality individuals.  



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