Three candidates have already announced their intention to run for the position of Whitefish Municipal Judge.
Attorney Tom Tornow, Whitefish’s deputy city attorney Kristi Curtis and Attorney William Hileman all say they plan to seek the elected position.
Candidate filing for city elections opens April 20. Judge Brad Johnson, who has served as judge for 32 years, is retiring at the end of his term.
Tornow has 37 years of experience as a lawyer, law professor and businessman. He has previously served as the substitute judge in Whitefish Municipal Court and has lived in Whitefish since 1991.
Curtis has more than three decades of experience as an attorney. She was partner in a law firm in California before moving to Whitefish in 2000. She served as the prosecutor for the city of Kalispell from 2006 until joining the Whitefish city staff in 2015 handling prosecution for the city of Whitefish.
Hileman is a partner in the law firm Trieweiler, Hedman, Hileman and Lacosta and has been practicing law since graduating from the University of Montana in 1977. He has spent the last year serving as substitute judge for the city of Columbia Falls.
Tornow says he wants to bring efficiency to the court and would do so by reducing the judge position to part-time and streamline the court process for those appearing before the judge.
“I’m convinced it can be a part-time position and reduce the pay, which reduces the cost for property taxes,” he said.
Tornow served as substitute judge from 2003-2005 while still running his private practice and says he plans to do the same, if elected.
He said observing the system and talking with folks who have appeared in the court have convinced him there’s a better way to run the court. He tells a story about a man who received a parking ticket, but said he didn’t deserve it and then spent hours in court waiting his turn to be heard.
Tornow said he would create appointment times for litigants to appear in court, saving them and the court time.
“I want to make it easier for litigants,” he said. “If it can be handled over the phone or video conference we can do that. Most people just want to tell their story.”
He does note that some “serious” offenses such as DUIs, car accidents or domestic abuse cases would need to appear in court rather than being handled over the phone.
Curtis says she also wants to create a more efficient court process. She said her direct knowledge of the court system including the software used by the court gives her an advantage to implement changes.
“I think I have the experience, the interest and the knowledge to make changes in the court system,” she said. “I have the highest appreciation for what Judge Johnson has done, but I want to move toward more efficiency.”
She said she would use a Montana Supreme Court decision that allows for a bench trial when defendants fail to participate in the court process. A bench trial takes place in front of a judge and there is no jury involved.
“It’s an option that right now hasn’t been utilized,” she said. “Instead of issuing warrants or dismissing the charges, the case could be resolved using a bench trial.”
In addition, Curtis said she would consider civil fillings in the court for landlord and tenant disputes.
“I would like landlords to be able to recover payments from tenants who don’t pay rent,” she said. “That would be helpful.”
Hileman says he has always had an interest in the judiciary and serving as the substitute judge for Columbia Falls has sparked his interest to run for the municipal judge position in Whitefish.
He said he is running without an agenda. He has been a member of several Whitefish service clubs and volunteered for several community committees.
Hileman says Judge Brad Johnson has done an admirable job in the position, but he would like to make the court less formal.
“For most people it’s their first time in court and they’re nervous and intimidated,” he said. “I want to do what I can to put them at ease and make it less intimidating — that would help everybody make it a less unpleasant situation.”