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Stevensville Town Council: Bullying investigation issue put to rest

By Victoria Howell

The Stevensville Town Council will not be pursuing an investigation into allegations of bullying. After a lengthy discussion of the issue at the October 11 regular meeting, Mayor Gene Mim Mack voted to break a council tie, effectively putting the issue to rest.

An earlier request for an investigation – following newspaper articles in which former mayor Lew Barnett and council member Desera Towle alleged a pattern of bullying by council member Pat Groninger – had not been acted on, so council member Robin Holcomb brought the issue up again. According to Holcomb, she was concerned about a public perception that issues are “being swept under the rug” by the council. Holcomb made a motion to have Councilor Towle provide dates and time of alleged incidents within 30 days.

Under public comment, Bitterroot Star publisher Michael Howell said, “I’m not sure what you mean by an investigation, but I think the issue is important and should get some informal inquiry. The issue keeps coming up.” Howell then read a prepared statement and turned in a packet of supporting documentation regarding the past actions of Groninger. Howell claims the material he compiled for the council shows a “pattern of intimidation and bullying” and is all part of the public record. The documents included information on the recall effort that occurred when Groninger was mayor of Stevensville, records of the lawsuit filed by Groninger against Howell personally, and claims that Groninger’s treatment of Stevensville resident Frank Piwarski, town judge Marty Bethel, former council member Clayton Floyd, former mayor Lew Barnett and two former town clerks, are all indications of bullying. In addition to the attached documents, Howell gave dates of meetings where detailed information could be found on the tape recordings of council meetings.

At one point, Howell said, “I hope you pay attention to and respect the opinions of Councilor Clayton Floyd, Town Judge Marty Bethel, District Court Judge James Haynes, Councilor Desera Towle, and former Mayor Lew Barnett when you consider this matter. None of these people are liars. But Councilor Pat Groninger has proven himself to be a pathological liar by spouting lies and false allegations that are too numerous to recount during his last tenure as Mayor and his current tenure as Councilor.”

He finished by stating, “I hope that these snatches of evidence from the public record will be of help in your deliberations. If you are wearing heavy blinders and are looking through a microscope only at the allegations of bullying made in the newspaper by former Mayor Barnett and/or Councilor Towle, then you may find all this evidence irrelevant. However, if you are asking whether your fellow Councilor Pat Groninger is a bully or not, then you may find the public record relevant.”

Although Howell was interrupted by Holcomb partway into his comments, and again by Groninger, the mayor decided to let him finish.

“I can see that this is causing some consternation among the council and you’re probably wondering why I’m allowing this to go on,” said Mim Mack. “Restricting public comment is an extremely risky thing to do legally, even if we don’t like it and even if we think it doesn’t pertain to what we’re doing, and taking into consideration the recent $500,000 settlement in Great Falls, I think it’s appropriate to err on the side of caution.”

In further discussion, council member Dan Mullan said, “We as a council have been accused of ignoring this… If there is really some bullying going on, why has the council allowed this to go on? Did I really sit here for 14 months and watch this go on and say and do nothing? I don’t know if I did or not, but I’d sure like to know.” Mullan said there’s some legitimacy in figuring out what’s been going on. “What lessons do we learn from this?… The council needs to take a real hard look at the rules under which it operates.”

Mim Mack noted that when this came up previously, the town attorney pointed out that in the absence of a formal complaint the council couldn’t proceed with a formal investigation. “We’re dealing with a newspaper article,” said Mim Mack, “and you can’t really investigate a newspaper article. My question to Councilor Holcomb is… how would you like to proceed?”

Holcomb said she would like it to be noted for the record that “we tried to fix this, and there was no cooperation to look into this.”

When asked, Towle said she did not intend to file a complaint.

Mullan reiterated that he would still like this to be dealt with, perhaps within the council. “There certainly is a lot of tension here.”

“I would hope the behavior of the council has spoken pretty clearly, and that since I’ve been here, this issue has become a non-issue,” said Mim Mack. “Our behavior as a council moving forward for the public is the suggestion that we take our job seriously and the rules of decorum are adhered to and that’s my responsibility to make sure that happens. That sends as strong a signal as any that we took these allegations seriously and have acted accordingly.”

Holcomb restated her motion to have Towle provide dates and times of bullying incidents within 30 days, but subsequently withdrew it after further discussion. Mullan asked Towle whether she was willing sit down with the whole council and discuss these issues and Towle responded that she was not willing to do that.

Howell pointed out that the council does not have the authority to order a councilperson to do anything.

Jan Perrin, wife of Ward 2 council candidate Bill Perrin, said, “The most adult and healthiest would be for everyone to go forward with a clean slate and have respect for each other. You could drag this on forever and that would be a very unhealthy situation. If you can let go and move on, that seems very healthy to me.”

The mayor asked Holcomb to make a motion to withdraw the request for an investigation from any further consideration. Her motion was seconded by Towle. Towle and Holcomb voted in favor and Mullan and Groninger voted against. The mayor broke the tie in favor of Holcomb’s motion.

In other business, the council

• approved a request from family counselor Janelle Berthoud to use the kitchen at town hall for cooking classes for her clients a couple of times a month.

• approved depositing the proceeds of $1000 from the sale of an old fire engine into the fire department’s apparatus replacement fund.

• approved adding a fifth person to the Airport Board at the request of the Airport Board.

• discussed the previous appropriation by the town of approximately $5800 from airport funds for uses not authorized by federal statute Title 99. The Airport Board would like the money returned. According to airport manager Don Misevic, previous attempts by the Airport Board to resolve this matter have been unsuccessful. Misevic told the council that all documentation is available. The mayor told Misevic that he needs an “exact number” that would make the airport board “whole.” Mayor Mim Mack will research the records and bring back his findings to the next council meeting. If the council agrees that the claim is valid, they will then figure out how to budget the money to pay it back.

• approved Police Chief James Marble working with the mayor to come up with a plan and cost estimate for improvements to the police department work space.

• approved a town proclamation in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month by wearing pink on October 28.

• heard a report from the town clerk that budget work sessions had been put on hold while she gets help from Craig Shepherd, Hamilton’s financial administrator.

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