Following some blistering opening comments from the public and town staff at the beginning of last Thursday’s Stevensville Town Council meeting, a cluster of controversial agenda items presented by Councilmembers Bob Michalson and Stacie Barker either just fizzled out without a motion, failed to get a second, or were voted down.
The notion of abolishing the Park Board fizzled in discussion and no motion to abolish was made. The demand for establishment of a private office and library for council members fizzled and no motion was made. A motion was made by Michalson to abolish all social media and quit video-taping and broadcasting the council meetings but it died for lack of being seconded. A motion made by Michalson to require the Chief of Police, Chief of the Fire Department, the Town Clerk, all Deputy Clerks and the Finance Officer/Treasurer to be residents of the Town of Stevensville failed on a 3 to 1 vote, with Michalson casting the dissenting vote.
The public jumped in to comment on several of the agenda items in the general comment period even before they were actually taken up by the council.
In correspondence, one resident of the town called a few of the items “alarming,” stating that she had lived through the transition from closed door government to more open transparent government and called the proposal to abolish social media sites and quit live broadcasting the meetings “a step backward.” Regarding residency requirements, she said the law refers to “qualifications.” She wrote that she had looked it up and qualifications have to do with “a quality or skill that fits a person for an office, not residency.” About abolishing the Park Board, she wrote, “Why would you want less people involved in government?”
Six small business owners also submitted a joint letter of comment, stating they use the Town’s facebook page and rely on it for updates about crime, activity at the school and town events. They found the idea of residency requirements for town staff to be “irrational.” They said the town needed applicants who were qualified, not necessarily residents.
Town Clerk Audree Tribbensee told the council that several of the items directly or indirectly affect her and deserved comment. She said the supplemental material submitted with some of the items contained inaccurate, wrong information.
She contested the idea that the mayor allowed members of the public to belittle and bully members of the council to allow intimidation to be used against the council in order to influence decisions.
“Several members of the council initially chose Crews [for a vacant council position] and then rescinded it,” said Tribbensee. “The public spoke professionally, intelligently and rationally about their opinions. It is the public’s absolute right and civic duty to participate in their government.” She said it was “shameful” that the council was trying to get the mayor to repress the public’s participation in the process.
She said the accusations that the staff are monitoring and censoring the town’s Facebook comments was not true. She said Facebook has its own system for censoring profanity and they hide it, but they don’t delete it.
Tribbensee said that it was her, not the mayor as they alleged, who told Michalson that he could not access the Town’s original documents without supervision. She said she would help him with his research and give him copies of whatever he wanted but would not hand over any original documents.
Tribbensee told the council that she experienced a serious situation in September involving the deletion of over 500 documents important for the Town’s functioning that were stored in an online storage system called DropBox, where they can be shared with the mayor, staff and council. Only certain personnel and the council were authorized to use it. She said Michalson chose to add Jim Crews and Mark Adams to the list for unrestricted access. Although they have the right to view public documents, she said they don’t have the right to special access.
According to Tribbensee, when the deletions were investigated it was discovered that all the documents were deleted through Michalson’s home computer. She said it was important to note that Dropbox only allows files to be deleted individually. Each file has to be clicked on twice, once to delete it and once again to confirm that act. She said to delete the 500 or so files in question, the keys would have to have been hit over a thousand times. “This was no accident,” she said.
Tribbensee said that the law places the custody of documents in her office. She said fortunately the documents deleted from Dropbox could be restored.
“But once an original document is taken and changed it cannot be restored,” she said. “It has lost its integrity. I would be negligent if I did not protect the integrity of these documents. It would be a violation of my oath of office.”
Town resident Rich Marcus told the council that he did some research and found that out of 129 cities and towns in the state, 81 (63%) have links to websites while 48 (37%) do not. He said the average population of those that do not have links is about 503. He said Stevensville was about three times that size.
Town resident Jan Perrin said that after coming to meetings and being told that she and her husband were being intimidating, they decided to stay at home and watch it on the internet so they wouldn’t be accused of bullying.
“So, we stayed home to watch and you make a comment, ‘where are they all now?’ Well, we met your request and stayed home,” said Perrin. “I would like to challenge you to spend as much time representing the good people of the community as you do disrupting what you were voted to do, the process. It appears you are more concerned about being disruptive than with doing good things for our community.”
When it came to the agenda items placed by Michalson and Barker, Council member Robin Holcomb said that she actually put the idea forward to abolish the Park Board because it was difficult to find volunteers and last year the board only met twice.
Michalson said that Park Board members were continually coming in and asking for direction, but that they should be out finding things to do and bringing them to the Council.
Mayor Brandon Dewey said that in fact this is what the Park Board has been doing. He said the Park Board saw the need for a Master Plan for the parks and even found grant funding for it that would not cost the town a cent, but when they brought the project to the council it was shot down. He said that’s why they returned to the council to seek direction.
Council member Barker, who has been serving on the Park Board, agreed.
Council member Jerry Phillips said that the Park Board needed the support of the administration and the council to function properly and said he did not want to see it abolished.
It was agreed to leave things as they are and have the Mayor develop a draft ordinance that would establish meeting frequencies and possibly give the board some ability to make low-level decisions with the administration to keep things moving forward.
No motion was made, and the meeting moved on.
Michalson abandoned his proposed motion demanding that a private Council office and library be established with telephone, computer, meeting table and furniture, and no video or audio surveillance, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for council members to do research and have private talks with citizens. Instead, he said, he only wanted access to the Clerk’s office during working hours with a small desk to work at.
“I don’t need 24 hours or a computer, or a phone,” he said, “just a desk to sit down at and do my research.” He said he just needed access to documents, minutes, resolutions and ordinances to do the council’s business.
“I don’t know that you have ever been denied access to the office,” said Mayor Dewey.
According to Holcomb, no other town she contacted had a lock on its office door.
“I feel we’re being locked out,” she said.
Town Clerk Audree Tribbensee said that right now nobody has unsupervised access to original town documents, but she will provide copies to anyone who needs them. She said the only time she had trouble with Michalson was when he made broad requests for documents without stating what he wanted in particular.
“Sometimes I don’t know what I’m looking for until I find it,” said Michalson.
Dewey said that the town was working hard to get copies of its original documents available on-line and in the office, but it will take some time. He said they hoped to have the last five years of records archived online in a searchable database that is accessible to the public up soon. But eventually they hope to have all the town records safely stored, but accessible online and through copies as far back as the records go, which is 1930, when all original town records were destroyed in a fire.
Tribbensee said that, in the meantime, nobody, not even a council member, can have direct access to the originals except under supervision. She said according to the County Clerk and Recorder, the problem is that all the original documents on file in the office should be filed in the county courthouse for safety purposes and copies could be kept on file in the town’s office. The town’s files could then be open to the public without such strict supervision.
No motion was made, and the discussion moved on.
The next agenda item was scheduled for discussion but no decision. They were to discuss the responsibilities of the Mayor to enforce council rules during Council meetings.
Michalson said it wasn’t really directed at the mayor. “It’s meant for all of us,” he said. “We need to run a tighter ship.” Then he said he was getting tired of the Mayor interrupting council members and members of the public when they are speaking.
He went on to point out that the mayor should have stopped the public from directing their comments to Council members Holcomb and Barker at the November 8 meeting when they were trying to appoint Jim Crews to the Council. He said if the public’s comments were so respectful, why were the two council members crying?
Michalson said the main reason he brought it up is that he didn’t want things to start out like they did last year, saying, “You put a smear on the town, you put a smear on us.” He said the Mayor may be having sleepless nights, but he was too.
“And then poor Audree gets thrown into the fire, in the middle of it,” he said.
None of us deserves that,” said Michaslson. “I’m not saying it’s your fault. It’s all our fault, but you are the presiding officer and I’m asking you to be a little more diligent.”
Dewey said that he would be happy to enforce the rules. He said he preferred to let people just try to talk things out, but, “I can be stickler,” he said. “But you, Mr. Michalson, just held a job performance review of me in public and I don’ think that’s fair either. I’m not necessarily accountable to the Council. I’m accountable to the public at election time. There is a separation of powers that needs to be made clear. You are not my boss.”
“We are your boss,” interjected Holcomb.
The Mayor shot back, “No, you set policy for the organization and there is a difference. I have a memorandum from town attorney Brian West if you need to see it.”
The council moved on to consider abolishing the social media websites and broadcasting of the council’s meetings.
Council member Barker said that she had the issue placed on the agenda because she had some concerns but that she was “not trying to get things taken away, so much as having some concerns over issues of freedom of speech.” She was concerned that comments were being removed from the site, not just filtered out for profanity by Facebook, but removed for some other reason. She believes they are a public record. She pointed out that a comment by Dewey and his mother were both taken off the record.
“You tell me that things are not being deleted,” she said.
Dewey said that he took his personal comment off and his mother took hers off. He said anybody posting comments on Facebook can go back and remove them.
Michalson disagreed. He said that comments on a public site like the Town’s are part of the public record and must be maintained.
Both Barker and Michalson suggested that the Town needed a policy about how it was going to handle social media.
The mayor asked why abolishing the use of social media was placed on the agenda if they really only wanted to make a policy. He said the council could not decide about any policy that evening because it was not on the agenda. “It is not what you told the public you would be deciding tonight,” said Dewey.
Michalson moved to abolish the social media sites and stop broadcasting the meetings until a policy is in place, but it died due to lack of a second.
When it came to the item about making residency a requirement for the positions of Police Chief, Fire Chief, Town Clerk, Deputy Clerks, Finance Officer/Treasurer, Michalson said he did some research and called some other towns and that Stevensville has never had a policy about requiring residency. He said he talked to the town attorney and was told that the town can set requirements for the offices and can require residency for good reasons.
Michalson said, “It does limit applications, but there has to be a limit of a mile or ten miles or fifteen miles out.”
Dewey said that no limits are really required. The Town has no such qualifications now and it is legal. He wondered what the reasons for having a limit were.
Michalson said a lot of times you do it for insurance or litigation purposes.
When the mayor asked what the insurance and litigation issues might be, Michalson said “timely responses to emergencies.” Michalson started to make a motion to modify the code to have certain offices have a boundary limit, but without affecting the fire department or the police department and then began asking questions related to it.
Dewey finally noted that his comments had gone on too long to make a proper motion out of it and asked Michalson to re-state the motion.
“I can’t restate it at this point,” said Michalson.
Dewey said some simple statement was all they needed.
Michalson then moved to “require Clerk, Deputy Clerks, and Finance Officer/Treasurer to be residents of the town or the surrounding area to be determined.”
Council member Phillips said that he was concerned about limiting the pool of applicants. He said there were a lot of talented people in the area. He said, “To get the best qualified people, we need to extend it out, not just a few miles, but even to Missoula.” He said if a boundary was going to be set then it should be determined before voting to have one, perhaps at a Committee of the Whole meeting.
Stevensville resident Joe Moore said that the town code already states that the questions of residency and distance from work are at the discretion of the council and are considered in the application process.
Jan Perrin said, “You are just looking for good quality people. Why do you have to dictate where they live?”
The motion to require the applicants for those positions to be “residents of the town or the surrounding area to be determined” was defeated on a 3 to 1 vote with Michalson casting the dissenting vote.