Jeff Krauss

Jeff Krauss stands in front of Bozeman City Hall Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019, in Bozeman.

There was a larger crowd than usual at Bozeman’s last commission meeting for 2019. Most weren’t there to send off that commission’s longest-serving member — they wanted to watch how Bozeman’s elected leaders drafted goals for the city to slow its impact on a changing climate.

Natalie Meyer, the city’s sustainability program manager, said while it was the loftiest goals the city would have yet, Bozeman’s climate action work began in 2006 when then-mayor Jeff Krauss signed onto a national pact to reduce carbon emissions.

“Thank you for opening the door to allow us to do this type of planning,” Meyer told Krauss, briefly locking eyes with the commissioner of 16 years.

Some in the crowd nodded in approval as Meyer thanked Krauss. They were among the same dozen or so people who said the city’s goals were a start, but didn’t go far enough.

Within the hour, Krauss was the sole vote against accepting the goals. Why was simple, he said to the crowd, some of whom looked taken aback. One of the goals seemed unattainable.

“My goal is to set responsible, achievable policy,” Krauss, 66, said.

Krauss is used to lonely votes.

For 16 years on the body of five commissioners, he’s been comfortable on the losing end of a 4-1 vote. It happens often enough, he has to be.

Though he doesn’t write prepared statements for his decisions like some “because that seems less sincere,” he may give the longest speech before the vote — even late into the night as other commissioners’ eyes dart toward the clock.

In his 16 years, Krauss has been mayor three times, been on the Montana Board of Regents and had a career in finance. In that time, the city’s population bulged from roughly 31,000 to about 50,000.

While on commission, Krauss has butted heads with some, played devil’s advocate for unpopular votes and has been willing to change his mind on the occasion when he thinks other arguments beat his own.

As of this week, Krauss is trying something new: retirement from local politics.

It’s time for a different generation to take the job, Krauss said in a recent interview.

Krauss also said he’s ready for a break. He rubbed his palms together and looked at his swollen hands — an after-effect of his years with leukemia, which is now in remission.

After a pause, Krauss suddenly grinned and his tone shifted like he was beginning an argument as he fell back in line with the character he’s been known for.

“Why now? The snarky answer is because I don’t want them to have to carry me out,” Krauss said.

ENTERING POLITICS

Krauss’ life in Bozeman started with midnight shifts in the rail yard inspecting trains, refurbishing parts, beating on cold iron. A layoff swung him from night shifts into a bachelor’s program at Montana State University in business and administration. He was 32.

He met a woman while in college, they got married and had two sons.

Krauss spent 10 years working in finance for Gallatin County and another 15 years as the finance director for the Museum of the Rockies.

Krauss first ran for commission in 2003, while his oldest was in middle school and his days were spent at the museum.

When Krauss is asked his political party, he says both Republicans and Democrats would likely be surprised to see him at one of their events. He added he’s a “60s holdover” who never quite trusted the government.

So not surprisingly, his campaign platform was sticking out from the majority. Or as Krauss put it: “I ran as the change agent.”

“The commission in charge was anti-growth,” said Krauss, easily saying something as fact that others may argue.

He said he wanted Bozeman to be open to building the homes the town needed and becoming a hub for jobs.

One of his proudest accomplishments is something that arguably didn’t need a commission vote to happen: Gallatin College.

Krauss, a longtime advocate for two-year programs, said people used to say Bozeman didn’t need a college. Krauss said his restart in life after the layoff made him think otherwise.

“Here, in this town where it’s risky, you could lose your job and there might not be another employer for exactly the same work,” Krauss said. “You could retrain yourself at a two-year college or invest in your career. I wanted that chance for my kids; I wanted that for everyone’s kids.”

After years of pushing and finding other advocates at Montana State University, the commission agreed to help fund the college’s first three years. Krauss said that tipped the scale far enough to get the Montana Board of Regents’ support.

Another story he likes to tell is about commissioners putting money toward a veterans cemetery in Bozeman.

He’s also proud that when he was mayor in 2010, the body approved him writing a letter to the governor at the time, Brian Schweitzer, in support of same-sex marriage. And, in 2014, Bozeman passed its non-discrimination ordinance.

“I’m proud of my city, I’m proud of those things we’ve done, what we’ve rallied behind,” Krauss said. “All of that was abnormal thinking.”

He said he hopes commissioners have another big-picture talk about what type of town Bozeman should be as more buildings and people arrive. He said he’s frustrated because he felt like commissioners agreed what direction Bozeman was headed years ago.

“We weren’t building a town for commuting, we were building a town to live in,” Krauss said.

He said somewhere along the way, the city paved and expanded roads made for commuters and approved development that left people miles from a store and places to work.

Even so, Krauss said he’s excited about a lot of aspects of Bozeman’s growth and believes the city should lean into being a retail trade center.

Krauss said the role of sometimes voting against the majority hasn’t felt lonely. He imagines the world’s changers as somewhat isolated people who are “out of step with our ordinary way of doing things.”

“So when people say ‘you’re kind of out of step with the rest of the commission,’ I say ‘that’s the difference I like,’” Krauss said.

A GOODBYE

Krauss said being a commissioner took its toll, adding he’s divorced and didn’t make it to all his kids’ events that he should have.

He said the work always felt important.

“People say being a commissioner must be a thankless job,” Krauss said. “But this has never been. People thank me all the time.”

After Monday’s agenda items wrapped up around 9 p.m., those there to watch policy cleared out and a larger crowd gathered for a not-so-secret surprise send off for Krauss. Though city staff were clear to head home, most stayed. They were among a mix of Krauss’ friends, former Bozeman staff and city officials.

The first two to speak were American Legion Post 14 members dressed in uniform who saluted Krauss.

Greg Harbec thanked Krauss and the commission for their support for the legion after a 2009 gas explosion in downtown destroyed the post’s home base.

“Literally, we had nothing but a smoking hole in the ground to call American Legion Post 14, and we needed a veterans cemetery. And along came Jeff Krauss,” Harbec said.

He added Krauss helped the city bring back its Memorial Day parade after a 35-year absence.

“We couldn’t have done it without you,” said Bozeman Legion Cmdr. Len Albright. “You’re not just a public servant but you’re also my friend and patriot.”

Next in line was Mike Long, who said when he and his husband moved to town 15 years ago, they worried about the discrimination they could face as a gay couple in Bozeman.

“I can truly say that over the past 15 years we suffered nothing negative,” Long said after pausing to stop himself from crying. “While there are many sociological reasons for that, a Republican city commissioner and a Republican mayor, who demonstrated everything up there and promoted a non-discrimination ordinance was a big part of that.”

Mayor Cyndy Andrus said Krauss led the city on its climate change response and its non-discrimination ordinance, among other issues.

“You have helped build a better community. Speaking for myself, we did not always agree,” Andrus said as Krauss and the rest of the room laughed. “Even in that disagreement, I believe you enhanced the discussion. I learned a lot from you.”

“WE’LL SEE”

Krauss said he doesn’t want anyone to be surprised if his name shows up in the next race for mayor in two years.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said.

Krauss said he would only run again if he doesn’t see a mix of candidates he approves of.

After all, he is the guy who in 2017 walked into the election department ready to join the race for mayor if no one else showed up to challenge Chris Mehl. Another candidate walked in the door minutes before the filing deadline and Krauss left.

Krauss said for now, he’s ready to look for a warmer spot to spend a few months through the winter. He’s been told by others who have left local government his sanity will depend on tuning out of those Monday commission meetings, “that whole unplugging thing.”

That won’t happen, he said. It’s not in his nature.

“No amount of exercise or reading or whatever else I come up with in my retirement is likely to satisfy me,” Krauss said.

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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