At the Stevensville Town Council meeting last Thursday, November 8, Robin Holcomb and Stacie Barker, the only two council members involved in the process following Council President Bob Michalson’s recusal, voted to appoint Jerry Phillips to fill the vacant council seat in Ward 2. But this was not until after they had both moved and seconded to appoint applicant Jim Crews and then turned around and voted against their own motion following public comment.
Some members of the public spoke up concerning the process prior to it being considered as an agenda item. Former mayor Gene Mim Mack requested that the town’s attorney, who was present, address the issue of the letter that was written on behalf of the town to former mayor and former council member Jim Crews, who, he noted, was one of the applicants for the vacant council seat that was to be decided on that evening.
Mim Mack also asked for clarification concerning the legal requirement that a vacant seat on the council must be filled in 30 days from the date of the vacancy, when 31 days had already passed.
Town Attorney Brian West stated that the Town had received a complaint from staff about a hostile work environment and retained an independent attorney in Missoula to investigate the allegations. He said, in the meantime, steps had been taken to structure the communication with the persons involved in the complaint “at least until we get some determination from the investigation which is still underway.”
Concerning the 30-day requirement to fill a vacancy, he said that state law and council rules both require that a vacant seat be filled within 30 days. As it stands, he said, it will be happening a day or two late. He said that after the meeting date for making the appointment was set for the 8th, he received an inquiry from the town about whether a special meeting should be called in order to meet the deadline. He said at that point, in weighing the consequences of violating the timeline by a day or two versus not being able to provide sufficient public notice for such an important issue as appointment of a council member, in his opinion it was “preferable to err on the side of adequate public notice.”
Town resident Loey Knapp told the Council that “the world has become a scary place… but what is fundamental to us as human beings is to feel safe at home and at work… you need to be creating a good work environment, not a bad one.”
Hattie Farrell said she was really surprised that Mr. Crews’ name was even on the list of applicants.
“He did lose the election,” she said. “I’m so fed up with the petty, childish actions that this council has taken… The citizens of this town voted him out of office and to appoint him back I consider a real slap in the face.”
As to the two other applicants, she said, “Why any intelligent person would volunteer to be part of the mess this council has become I don’t understand, but more power to them. I am definitely against Mr. Crews being appointed back. The people of this town voted him out and I think you ought to consider that.”
Former council member Desera Towle called the council’s discord very disruptive, saying “There is a reason town councils are supposed to be non-partisan.” She urged them to develop some mutual respect between themselves, the mayor and the staff.
One person, Joe Moore, spoke in support of Anne Marie McCormack, stating that she was a well-respected woman in the community, a very positive person and a very trustworthy person and that character should be considered in the process of appointing a council person.
When the item finally came up on the agenda, Council member Stacie Barker moved immediately to appoint Jim Crews and Holcomb seconded, saying, “I want everyone to know that I went through the applications over and over and this is probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my lifetime. I just felt like I needed to pick the best candidate out there.”
Barker said that she, too, went through the applications “over and over again” like Holcomb had, but that the two arrived at their own decisions separately because two discussing it would be a quorum at that point in time. She chose Crews, she said, because “he answered the questions that I was looking for.”
In further public comment, Joe Moore criticized the two council members for basing their opinion solely upon the applications and answers supplied by the candidates and “not even looking at the person.”
Jan Perrin stated, “I heard you say you looked at the applications, but my question is, did you listen to your community? That’s who you are here to represent.” She said she made telephone calls to express her views to both council members and one did not return the call and the other call “was met with total rudeness.”
Michael Sharkey wondered at what time the council members became aware of the letter to Crews from the town’s attorney. He wondered if they knew at the time that they were interviewing the applicants. He called the appointment of Mr. Crews a “foregone conclusion.”
Gene Mim Mack said that, with all the people coming forward, to judge simply based on an application was not appropriate. He said issues of character were vital to public service and should not be ignored.
“The issues being investigated are not to be taken lightly. They were at one time, at a great cost,” he said, referring to administrative complaints of harassment of staff by a former town judge. “The issue of not responding appropriately to allegations of harassment cannot be dismissed out of hand, whether or not the allegations are proven. I would say that the letter to Crews leads one to suspect that the town’s attorney felt it was important to protect the town legally while the investigation is happening. It is currently underway, what if it leads to a lawsuit? Other people are obviously taking this seriously.”
Mim Mack said that both the other candidates, “have character attested to by others. This potential vote on appointment of Mr. Crews is a slap in the face to all the town and to your own statements that you want to move forward with a better atmosphere, with better character and less histrionics.” He said to ignore the existing complaints by staff and all the public comment against Mr. Crews and go on and appoint him is “unconscionable.”
Vicki Motley said she had heard comments from people in Ward 2, but she wasn’t sure they were being listened to.
“Since Bob [Michalson] stepped back, no one is representing Ward 2 in this decision,” she said. “I think it’s extremely important that you listen to their feelings. You always say you want to hear from the public and a lot of people from Ward 2 have spoken here tonight. It’s important to take their comments into consideration.”
Crews was not present at the meeting and no one from the public spoke in favor of his appointment.
With no further public comment Holcomb was asked for her vote by the mayor.
She took several minutes to think about it. The public sat quietly and at one point the mayor told her to take all the time she needed. He said it was an important issue and that she should give it all the thought required.
After another long pause, she finally just said, “No.”
Barker also voted no.
Following this vote, Jerry Phillips was nominated by Holcomb, who said to him, “You were my second best.” Without any further discussion from the council or the public his appointment was approved on 2-0 vote with Michalson abstaining.
Phillips was sworn in the following day.
In other business, the Council approved a resolution amending its regular meeting days, changing them from the current schedule on the 2nd and 4th Mondays of every month to the 2nd and 4th Thursdays of each month. The change becomes effective beginning in January 2019.
The Council also set a date of December 3 for a Committee of the Whole meeting to discuss the 2018-2019 budget. This meeting was scheduled in response to the Council’s request for a “special audit” of the budget, since no such thing exists. Council member Stacie Barker said that she had questions about how funds were being appropriated under the budget and hoped to get answers at the COW meeting.
The Council discussed the possibility of holding an administrative meeting prior to every regular council meeting to give the council a chance to become familiar with the agenda items and inform themselves fully on the topics beforehand. The Mayor made some suggestions based upon a recent workshop with MMIA and Local Government Center officials. No decision was made, and the discussion may be resumed under old business at the next meeting.
The Council approved the “live streaming” of its meetings and adopted a policy governing its use. The last couple of meetings have been “live streamed” as a pilot test to see if it was practical. Meetings can currently be viewed live by going on the town’s Facebook page or on YouTube. The plan is to have them accessible and archived on the Town’s website eventually.
The Council also approved holding a COW meeting on November 15 to discuss the Town’s E-communication Policy and develop a short and long term view of infrastructure at the airport. Mayor Dewey stated that the issue had come up periodically since the airport land was annexed. He said originally it was agreed that there would be no water or sewer provided at the airport. Then, “somehow,” the town acquired a water well. Since then a network of water lines has been established to some of the hangars at the airport.
“Now,” said Mayor Dewey, “the town has a well but doesn’t know where all the water is going.” He said it raises the question of whether they have technically already established a “public water supply.” Public water systems have to meet certain state requirements.
Council member Barker read a letter into the record as part of her council comment, saying she has spent countless sleepless nights worrying about whether she had made the right decisions at the council.
“I quit reading the newspaper and watching the news due to all the negativity that has come through the town’s local newspaper and local media. This town never used to be in the headlines almost every week. There were far fewer articles about the town council. It used to be very quiet and we all did our jobs. We did a good job but we didn’t get recognized for what we had done. I’m not going to bash anyone about what is going on or being reported to the media. It is time to move forward, and I mean forward, to make our community whole again,” stated Barker.
She said she knew that some people were not going to be happy with the way she voted on the new council position. She said that she had listened to a lot of people and did get a phone call from one person who shared their views on the candidates but when that person asked what her own position was, “I said I wouldn’t share my opinion with them.” She said she told the person that they could go to the meeting and find out.
“This is the hardest thing I have ever, ever, ever, as far as a council member, done to make this decision,” said Barker. She said she had been contacted at her workplace with “unwanted accusations and suggestions,” about the appointment process. She said it was not right and had to stop.
“I am not going anywhere. I will not be pushed out of my seat.” She said she would stick out her term of office and at that time decide for herself whether to run again or not.