Red Lodge Mayor to step down after stressful year

Alastair Baker
News Editor
Thursday, April 29, 2021
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Photo by Alastair Baker
Red Lodge Mayor Bill Larson.

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Red Lodge Mayor Bill Larson worked with Pam Wagner and Sara Urbanik of Junction 7 to help install temporary hand washing stations along Broadway last year to remind people to wash their hands while out shopping or walking during the pandemic.

By Alastair Baker

News Editor


“This year has been a tough one,” said Red Lodge Mayor Bill Larson.

The stresses and pressures of running a town are tough enough during a normal year, but add in a pandemic and those elements become ten-fold. 

Larson isn’t alone in his decision to not run in November as throughout the United States a large number of mayors are also calling it a day and citing COVID-related stress as the reason. 

Larson takes his role very seriously and enjoys the challenges that being a mayor brings but COVID has quite literally rung him out to dry both physically and emotionally. 

March 17 saw Red Lodge’s world change as a Carbon County Board of Health, in coordination with the Carbon County COVID-19 Incident Management Team, closed down the town following Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive to close all schools. 

“I’ve always enjoyed helping people and in some of those times, you couldn’t. I’ve always been face-to-face, it’s the way I like to communicate, and that wasn’t happening,” said Larson. 

Suddenly it was just Larson and Katherine Bursley, Utility Clerk, running the City offices, and just as suddenly the handbook to running a city went out of the window.

The phones began ringing at city hall from people desperate for answers not just about the pandemic but how they were going to cope. “People were upset, they were pent up, people having to homeschool their kids, some couldn’t pay their rent. They called the city to figure things out or lead them,” said Larson. “Some of the phone calls we got were from some angry people and it (the pandemic) just wore on people, as it did on me also.”

Larson spent many hours working with the Carbon County Commissioners “figuring out what to do and how we were going to do it. I have to say the county handled the virus situation excellently. They were weeks ahead of what the state was doing.” 

“We were trying to get everything implemented and keep the public informed,” he said. 

In the depths of these dark days, Larson did occasionally reconnect with his mayoral role.

“We were helping people in the community who couldn’t pay for their water, working through the Community Foundation and the Rotary to get them that help. We worked with the churches to help those people. Those things were satisfying.” 

However, these moments were few and far between and life became “very frustrating.”

“We saw this transferred to the business community and they were at each other and there was no way to solve that problem,” said Larson.

Politicizing the situation became the daily routine.

“My role changed where they expected me to be the peacemaker when a mayor’s role is to lead and improve on a city,” said Larson. 

Merchants would call him to tell him he needed to fix everything. 

“I needed to operate the city and manage the department heads and make sure the money's there. I love going out, cutting ribbons, and speaking at the merchants' meetings but that was all gone,” said Larson.

“I remember walking downtown.  I thought I’m not going downtown again for a while because people were coming up to me complaining about who isn’t wearing a mask,” he said. “People were coming out of their stores saying ‘so and so is doing this’ and ‘so and so is doing that.’ 

Some people were doing curbside business and you’d have to talk to them about guidelines… ‘I appreciate what you are doing but you can’t do this.’ That was tough because they are trying to stay in business but there are rules to follow and sometimes I’d have to talk to them again, and by then people were starting to get angry. I was on a tight rope.” 

The more time went on the less connected Larson felt, especially with city council meetings either canceled or streamed.

“I live close to city hall and for a long time, it was a matter of just walking to the office and walking home. That was all that you had and I’m sure everybody else was as frustrated as I was,” Larson said. 

“I am supposed to be with the community but instead I was shut in this office,” he said.

“The problems were overwhelming. I don’t think people realize how  hard we worked. It was so nice to have staff back and get that interaction back,” he said. 

Larson's anxiety and stress grew and grew to the point where he’d average little sleep at night, pacing through his house at all hours of the morning and with it his mindset started changing.

“My attitude changed, it truly did, it got to the point with problem-solving, which I enjoy, where I’d just so ‘no.’ And that’s not me,” he said.

“I couldn’t turn it off, there was no one to talk to.”

Larson, working with Junction 7, tried several ways to get the community united, firstly with the ‘Together We Can Do This’ poster and then with businesses sponsoring the water coolers along Broadway. 

“The whole idea of the handwashing station was to keep people safe and be fun but I took a lot of flack because of the color of them,” he said. 

A year on and with it a relaxation of Covid rulings might bring a ray of sunshine to the town. 

“I feel the town will explode with tourists and events this year,” he said. 

He even plans to lead the 4th of July parade.

Larson is proud that city staff managed to keep things running and the public works did their job, as he would field calls and the police department stepped up but it left him “Pretty much burnt out.”

“After making this decision not to go another term, it was a great weight off my shoulders,” said Larson.

To clear his head during this time he has gone to areas where no one knows him. 

“That was huge,” he said. 

Other times he has stayed at his cabin where even mowing the lawn for two straight days has provided much need comfort and solace.

Larson remembers one of the past mayors came into town and said “who would think this would happen?” Replied Larson “Yeah. The unknown.” 

Larson was open about his personality issues and said he discussed this with the city employees.

“They understand. We operate as a family here. We are a family and I am going to miss them,” he said. 

“Whoever my successor is I will work really closely with them, to get them through this,” Larson said.  “I hope nobody has to ever go through this again.”