At the close of last week’s Stevensville Town Council meeting, after all the business on the agenda had been completed and most of the public had left, Council President Bob Michalson attempted to get a “spending freeze” passed which in effect could have shut the town down without any public notice or any public comment.
The meeting was heavily attended earlier for discussions and decisions regarding the potential outsourcing of municipal law enforcement to the county and potentially passing a levy to support the Police Department. Once the Council had rejected contracting with the county and approved placing a mill levy on the ballot to fund expansion of the police workforce, almost all the public left the meeting. The council continued its deliberations and approved three items that had been placed on the agenda by Council members Michalson and Stacie Barker.
Once all the agenda items had been dealt with and they moved into the council comment portion of the meeting, Michalson put a surprise agenda item on the table.
“I would like to suspend Council Rules and adopt Resolution 37-A, Part 5, Section 1,” he said. “I would like to do a sixty-day spending freeze on the town until we adopt a budget and get going from where we are at.”
“It doesn’t mean that we are just spending on this and that,” he said. “I know you guys have to spend on a regular basis. You need gas and lights and that sort of thing, just no outstanding things like tires and all this stuff. I’d like to make it a matter of public record by having the council vote on having the town departments just watch their spending as we go forward.”
“You cannot do that,” shot back Mayor Brandon Dewey.
“I can,” said Michalson.
“You can’t vote on an item that is not on the agenda,” said Dewey.
“Yes, I can,” said Michalson.
“You did not bring a resolution forward to put a spending freeze in place and a spending freeze is an item of significant public interest and you are cutting the public out of that process,” said Dewey. “You are implementing a spending freeze and I’ll say that a spending freeze is unwarranted. I have told you that we have put expenditure processes into place and it’s always been the practice of the town that until the budget is adopted we only pay the necessary bills.
“Part 5 order of business, Section 1, the presiding officer shall prepare the Council agenda which shall subsequently be followed in the order of business,” said Michalson. “Council members may, by voting to suspend council rules, consider an act of routine administrative items not on the agenda. Unscheduled items and an item not listed on the agenda may be addressed in the Council committee [sic] section of the agenda.”
“I don’t think that a spending freeze is a routine administrative task,” said Dewey.
“I checked my sources, Mr. Mayor,” said Michalson. “I checked with Lew Barnett, a previous mayor. I checked with Nancy Lowell, a previous clerk and treasurer. I checked with ex-mayor Crews, who as you well know is pretty much an MCA [sic]. So we did our homework before this and this is a time that it does not have to be on the agenda that the council can conduct business and can bring a motion forward to entertain a spending freeze. I’m sorry, but you have no say about it. All you get to do is break a tie.”
“Does the spending freeze include the legal fees when a member of the public is ticked off that we implemented a spending freeze?” asked the Mayor.
“Mr. Mayor, I am not saying a spending freeze,” said Michalson. “We can do the regular stuff, but no big ticket items like tires and all that stuff until we figure out where we are at with the budget.”
“Nobody has purchased any tires,” said Dewey.
“I’m not suggesting that right now, but going forward,” said Michalson.
“So we have a motion on the floor to suspend council rules,” said Dewey.
“And a spending freeze,” added Michalson.
Dewey said that the motion to suspend the council rules needed to be dealt with first, then the motion to place a spending freeze would follow.
Michalson moved to suspend the rules.
The mayor asked if there was any public comment on the motion.
“There is no public comment,” Michalson objected.
Bitterroot Star publisher Michael Howell was recognized and said, “I think you should consult a real attorney.”
The new Police Clerk, Janelle Berthoud, said, “How am I going to continue to run the police department if I can’t pay monthly dues and other necessary expenses? I can’t move forward with my job if you put a freeze on things.”
Public Works Superintendent George Thomas said, “It means I can’t buy chemicals for the pool, and other things for the wastewater discharge plant?”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” said Michalson.
“It sounds like what you are saying,” said Thomas.
The motion to suspend council rues was put to a vote and defeated 3 to 1 with Michalson casting the only vote in favor.
The Bitterroot Star checked with an attorney for the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline who confirmed that any vote on an item of significant interest to the public requires prior public notice as well as an opportunity for the public to comment.