At its meeting held on Monday, December 10, the Stevensville Town Council finally discussed Mayor Brandon Dewey’s report on the complaints made by Town Clerk Audree Tribbensee concerning harassment and bullying and a toxic work environment. After dredging up some old complaints and adding a couple of new ones, the council members agreed to take some “baby steps,” as Council President Bob Michalson put it, and address at least some of the complaints by developing a Code of Ethics that would include rules for conduct for council members and define the potential repercussions if the rules are violated.
The Mayor’s report included the results of an independent investigation into the allegations by Missoula attorney Malin Johnson. In Johnson’s report, some of the allegations of harassment and bullying were believable and met the definition of harassment and bullying in town policy, but were not explicitly prohibited by the policy. She found the allegations “unsustainable” and recommended that the council consider amending the policy to correct this deficiency. The mayor, based on additional interviews with the staff and additional research into the existing policy, found, in his opinion, that the actions described in the allegations were in violation of the prohibitions in another section of the personnel policy concerning “workplace violence” and were thus sustainable in his opinion.
Council member Robin Holcomb said that she was bothered that the report included accusations against people with no proof and then added, “I notice that you continued to add to this. I thought once it was completed, the investigation was done. So, I don’t know where we go from here with all this.”
Dewey said that he was simply rendering his recommendations as required since the complaint was given to his office and the council can consider whether to follow them or not.
“We will take the steps on the executive side to mitigate any harm or misconduct or risk thereof,” he said. He said he used Johnson’s investigative report to form his recommendations but would defer to the town’s attorney for recommendations about how to proceed.
Town Attorney Brian West said, “Ultimately this council will have control over policies, like the personnel policy, and either choosing to implement or amend those policies. This was one of the major recommendations of Ms. Johnson’s report.” Johnson’s report characterized the current policy as “deficient” in regards to prohibiting harassment and bullying. West said that his recommendation would be to pose it as an agenda item so that the deficiencies pointed out in the report could be addressed.
Johnson’s report also found that Council President Bob Michalson had retaliated against Tribbensee by threatening her with being fired following the filing of her complaint. Johnson found the allegation credible and the actions prohibited by law and suggested that Michalson apologize to Tribbensee for his action.
Michalson said he had had a good talk with Johnson and then stated, “I would like to apologize to our clerk Audree for my comment made one night as far as stating a retaliation issue. I did try to tell her that it takes more than one person to get her removed from her probationary status, it takes a majority vote. It doesn’t matter now what I thought. I do apologize if you took that wrong, Audree. Johnson thought very strongly that I should do that and I’m doing that and I mean it.”
Asked by the mayor how the council wanted to proceed, Michalson said, “Is there going to be a point where that door is opened again for council? Or is that closed-door policy going to be forever?”
The Mayor said the lock was installed as a measure to protect staff after interviewing staff and hearing their concerns for their safety and it would remain. Citizens, including council members, may approach the open counter and ask for help, said Dewey.
“Then we are not going anywhere,” said Michalson. “If you keep the lock on that door and you keep your lock on your door you are keeping the council out. You are locking out the voices of the people. How can we start over again when you keep the door locked.”
Dewey said it was recommended as a way to provide security for staff and protection for public documents.
“We saw no need for anyone to be in that office unless they were invited,” said Dewey. He said a council person, or any citizen, could step up to the window and state their need and then be let into the office.
Councilperson Robin Holcomb said that she didn’t think she had ever threatened anybody.
“As a council, we have been degraded from day one in the newspaper, the radio and the news stations,” said Holcomb. “Yes, I agree we have to change our policy and work together with the community. But several times I sent you [Mayor Dewey] emails and you never responded or if you did it was in a very harsh way.”
Holcomb said it would be hard to go forward with the degrading things showing up in the press like the accusations that were made in the report about Michalson drinking. She said most of her interview was taken up with questions related to putting Jim Crews on the council and how all the staff might quit and file lawsuits. She said she would like to move forward because what matters is the town and the people of the town.
“Since last January we have done nothing productive in this town except bicker, with things going in the paper, things going here, and we are bad people,” said Holcomb. “How did that happen? How can we move forward? I don’t know if we can. If we have to do a policy to make sure this doesn’t happen, then that’s what we have to do.”
Councilperson Jerry Phillips said that his thoughts after reading all the information led him to do a little research into other communities that have set rules of conduct for elected officials and executive staff. He said right now the town’s policy did contain some rules and regulations that apply to the executive staff and that these could be worked with to apply to council members as well. He suggested they move forward with developing a Code of Ethics.
“I agree” said Michalson, “but that doesn’t mean that you should get beat to death over personal things.” He expressed outrage at the accusations against him of drinking when he has been sober for 32 years.
Councilperson Stacie Barker said that she was asked about Crews in her interview with the attorney and pressured about the potential of all the clerks quitting and filing lawsuits. She reiterated her claim that she was “bullied” by the public at that meeting to not appoint Crews.
“I felt I was bullied, not persuaded, by the public at that meeting,” she said. “That was a bullying tactic by several different people.”
Mayor Dewey said that the agenda item was not about staff bullying or public bullying, it was about the council members and their conduct. He said there was no reason to be defensive at this point because the allegations had been substantiated.
“This is your opportunity to own up and correct your policies,” said Dewey.
Councilmember Phillips read a portion of Missoula City Council rules in which unacceptable conduct by a council member such as loud, abusive or threatening language was prohibited.
Dewey said developing such a policy would make dealing with these kinds of issues more expedient and make it clearer what kind of conduct is allowed and what kind is not allowed.
Attorney West suggested they appoint a council member to work as a liaison with the Mayor’s office in reviewing the town’s policy and other municipal policies and reporting to a Committee of the Whole. The Council agreed and appointed Phillips as the liaison.