At its March 14 regular meeting, the Stevensville Town Council declined to pay approximately $26,000 in claims to various local contractors who were hired for snow removal during the recent record-breaking snow storm. Mayor Brandon Dewey issued a proclamation during the storm, which was forecast to continue, for residents not to travel or park on the streets to allow for plowing and hired some private contractors to help the Public Works department to plow the streets. The Council rejected the payment claims primarily on the grounds that the Mayor did not go through proper process in hiring the contractors, leaving the Council out. But at a special meeting of the Council held six days later, on March 20th, the claims were accepted.
At the meeting on the 14th, after a motion to approve the claims died due to lack of a second, Council President Bob Michelson moved to pay all the claims except the ones, which he listed, that were related to the “snow plowing project.” He said the reason he couldn’t support the claims is because the snow removal project did not come before the council for approval.
Michelson referred to a couple of laws that he said required a meeting of the council to declare an emergency and authorize spending but no meeting was held. He also noted that state law allows for the recovery of unauthorized expenditures by local government officials by holding them personally responsible.
“I don’t think the taxpayer should pay for it. It was done without authority,” he said.
Councilor Robin Holcomb expressed concern that the checks had already been written.
Michelson noted that the meeting scheduled at which the council could have made the decision was cancelled by the Mayor. He claimed that too was a violation of the rules and that the Mayor had no authority to cancel a council meeting either.
Mayor Dewey asked, “Is your problem that we did not have an emergency?”
Michelson said that the Mayor needed to call a special council meeting to have an emergency declared.
“I most certainly have the authority to declare an emergency,” said Dewey. He said state law gives the “executive officer” of the town the authority to make a proclamation, to declare a local emergency and to issue orders.
“So, I asked everybody to stay home so we could get the streets cleared and you wanted me to put your own safety at risk to call a special meeting and give 48-hour notice when we had snow falling and no place to put it? This absolutely sounds ridiculous,” said Dewey.
Councilor Stacie Barker said, “You may say it’s ridiculous, but I’ll tell you in 1996 when we had snowfall this town never went under an emergency situation, we dealt with it. We dealt with the snow.” She said they never saw a contract, just a bill.
Mayor Dewey said, “I sent you all an email telling you what I was doing and didn’t hear back from any of you.”
Holcomb said, “Protocol is involved. When is this going to stop? You pretty much can’t do anything without Council approval. So, when do we start approving some of the things that happen in this town?”
Dewey said that a snow removal budget was approved by the Council annually which restricts them, “except when it snows more than three feet.” In this case the expenditure was in the budget, he said.
Barker said the bids for the contracts should have been brought to the Council. She accused him of “sliding it in under the carpet” and said the taxpayers should not be the ones to pay.
“They are driving down the streets, they should pay for it,” said Dewey.
When the topic was opened to public comment, Police Chief James Marble suggested that there were two issues that should probably be addressed separately. One was the procedural issue and the other was just paying the bills.
“You need to look at it compartmentally,” he said. “Look at paying the bills right now and maybe then address the procedural issue.”
Former mayor Jim Crews reiterated Councilor Michelson’s claims about the need for council approval in an emergency and that the mayor acted without authority.
“A special meeting of the Town Council is how it should have been handled,” he said.
Citizen Joe Moore said that he really appreciated getting the streets plowed during the storm and thanked the council for it.
A motion was then made and seconded to approve the bi-weekly claims with the exception of the claims made in relation to the snow removal project.
Councilor Jerry Phillips voted yes, and Michelson, Holcomb and Barker all voted no.
When the Mayor announced the results and asked what they wanted to do about the claims, Michalson made the motion again to approve the claims except for the ones related to snow removal and it passed on a unanimous vote.
Following the meeting, the Mayor asked the Town’s attorney for an opinion about the claims and received the following response:
“You asked for my opinion about denied vendors claims of approximately $26,000 that were disapproved by the Town Council at the last meeting. This email is not meant to review the process leading into the formation of any contracts or retention of services, but I will state that my opinion is the Town is facing legal liability if they fail to pay for services rendered. Any litigation would possibly subject the Town to a claim for fees and costs, which individually or collectively, could exceed the underlying claims for payment. I understand that the Council and Mayor are in disagreement about the process taken to retain the services, but my feeling is that the private vendors will have a claim against the municipality for services rendered if the claims are not paid. To your question about a special meeting with council Wednesday night, I am slated to be in Helena and cannot attend in person. If that changes, I will let you know.”
That special meeting was held on Wednesday, March 20.
Mayor Dewey said that the snow events and the recovery efforts were “an opportunity to learn.” He said that one thing he learned was that “in a crisis, this community comes together at any cost to take care of it.”
Dewey said the steps were taken for a number of safety reasons. He said the city’s Public Works crew assessed the amount of snow and found sight lines at many intersections were obstructed. He said that 26 inches of snow had fallen and that an additional 6 to 8 inches was being forecast. He said with a Public Works staff of two and equipment in repair the staff was working long hours. He said it was an urgent situation because of the flooding potential. He also referred to a few past actions by mayors where the administration skipped council approval and acted.
Dewey said that he understood their expectations now, but that he had a few of his own. He said the council needs to communicate.
“In the days leading up to this crisis no help was offered by council. I emailed you about what I was going to do, and I got no response… I haven’t mastered mind reading,” he said, “Show me a Town Council that is not the mayor’s boss but a team ready to help.”
He said the money could come from the gas tax fund to pay the claims.
Councilor Barker said those funds had been set aside for a Third Street project.
“With Council approval you could change that,” said Dewey.
Dewey said that there was time to replenish those funds before the Third Street project was set to start. His office was also currently looking at a $27,000 grant for that project.
Councilor Holcomb said that she feared that Third Street will actually need more work than what the current project is covering. She said it was “falling apart” as well as some other streets in the area.
The Mayor said that Third and Spring Streets were priorities and that was not going to change.
In public comment, citizen Loey Knapp said that she was familiar with conditions in Colorado when the snow gets so high that it blocks the view at intersections.
“Tonight’s decision is an easy one,” she said. “The other decision you could be facing is what do we do because there was no snow removal and [someone] was killed at an intersection. Will you take responsibility? You would have to tell the mayor it’s his dereliction of duty.”
Former council member Ray Smith said that the town could be sued to get the money back.
“The real issue,” he said, “is what is the council going to do about an action that shouldn’t have been done. There are laws that govern this situation and I expect that to be done.”
There was no subsequent comment from the Council members and the vote in favor of accepting the claims was unanimous.
At the meeting of the 14th the council did not discuss any further action to the independent investigative report into the complaints submitted by Town Clerk Audrey Tribbensee other than to discuss a proposed Code of Conduct for council members. That item was considered, and a draft Code of Conduct was presented. It was agreed to place the draft on the agenda of the next council meeting for possible adoption.
Police Chief James Marble said that 28 of the 67 calls for assistance in February were snow related. He said the police department cruised the town looking for people who might need assistance. He said he observed lots of citizens out helping their neighbors who were snowed in and citizens digging out fire plugs so they would be accessible.
“We saw lots of citizen support this season,” he said.
The town also received letters of thank you from citizens and from business owners and employees along Main Street for the work done to clear the streets of snow.
The council also approved some after the fact budget amendments to cover some unexpected, unbudgeted items in last year’s expenses.
The council adopted procedures and policies for amending, rescinding or repealing a resolution. Councilor Michelson noted that there is no law requiring a resolution to repeal a resolution. He moved to adopt the policy of repealing or amending resolutions by a simple council motion and decision with the time and date noted in the book of resolutions. He said using the time and date, a person could look up the decision in the minutes and video/audio records to find out what the reasoning was and what the discussion pertained to.
The council also approved a Special Events Permit and Alcohol Use Request for the Highland Games scheduled for March 30th at Lewis and Clark Park.