The Stevensville Town Council went awry last week when one of the two applicants for the vacant council position withdrew his application during the public comment period and the other applicant was, without an interview and without council discussion, unanimously rejected.
Before any agenda items were considered, the mayor read some email correspondence into the record from Mark Harris. He said that he attended the meet-and-greet for the two candidates and that applicant Jim Crews, “by virtue of his experience has some significant attributes of use in this Council position.” However, Harris was bothered by the fact that Crews didn’t acknowledge that there was a serious ongoing problem between the council and the mayor and office staff.
“I don’t see how he could improve the relationship between the office staff and mayor and the council because in order to solve a problem you must first admit to its existence,” wrote Harris. He said the problems were identified and documented by an attorney’s investigation.
“[Dempsey] Vick has general experience appropriate to this position and has expressed the desire to help on the relationship problem. Please choose Vick for this position,” said Harris.
Council president Bob Michalson emailed a response to Harris, stating, “Thanks for the input. The attorney doing the interviews found no wrongdoing on Jim Crews’ part. It comes down to an apology by me and [the Clerk]. The only source you got for this is the Bitterroot Star. And the town attorney backed this up.”
Harris wrote back, saying, “Regardless, Mr. Crews doesn’t inspire my confidence.” He urged them to vote for Vick.
The mayor also read correspondence from Headwaters Wellness Center signed by six downtown business owners. They referred to past letters of urgency that they wrote entreating the council to try and work with the mayor and staff “for the sake of the community.”
“Since the last letter,” they wrote, “we have lost another employee at city hall. April’s [Finance Officer] reasons for leaving were that outside influence made it impossible to do the work of the town.” They said the town needed someone who was open minded and fair and added, “We do not believe that Mr. Crews is the right person for this position.” They noted that in the last vote over filling a council position in Ward 2, Michalson cited a conflict of interest due to his relationship with Crews. They said they expected the same from him this time.
Council member Stacie Barker then read a letter that she had received from Jim and Leslie Tadvick endorsing Crews. They said he had the knowledge and experience needed for the position and that he was also a homeowner and property tax payer in the town and that it should be a requirement. They said that Crews was defeated in his bid to retain his seat as mayor but that it was because the vote was split by other good candidates. She said that she and her husband have been citizens of Stevensville for 40 and 60 years, “and that should count for something.”
In public comment, Joe Moore begged the three council members to resign for the good of the town. He compared the town to a sinking ship in which the crew was already jumping overboard.
“If you won’t change, I beg you to resign,” he said.
Business owner Gretchen Speiss urged the council not to vote for Crews.
“We need calmer, more thoughtful people on the council,” said Spiess. “Someone who can handle their temper. The last time I was here I did not like the vitriol that was directed toward me just because I had a different opinion. We need people who can agree to disagree and allow other people to have a difference of opinion.”
Russ Hanni said that he has lived in the Stevensville area for fifty years and knows both the applicants.
“You don’t need Jim Crews,” said Hanni. “He’s a hot-head. He pushes his weight and size around and makes a lot of threats. I can’t verify that he has threatened me, but he has been vociferous around me. He has not threatened me personally but I’ve talked to people who are scared to death of him.
“I know Vick. He’s a volunteer fireman and EMT, and he’s going to college to get a business degree. I think he would be a good fit… I’ve never seen him once lose his temper. I’m like Mr. Moore, the more I read in the Star, I think all of you need to resign. We need someone here who can listen to the people. I read the local paper. I think Mike is true and honest in what he says.”
Loey Knapp said that she too has expressed concerns. “You would like to be consulted. However, in turn you are not asking your constituents what they want,” she said. “There are no ward meetings and you are not representing my views… I look for you to represent me and you’re not.”
Applicant Jim Crews then spoke, saying, “Somebody seems to think that I threatened somebody. That’s an absolute lie. I have never threatened anybody. Am I forceful when I talk? Yes. I’m a military guy and that’s the way I do it. Sorry, that’s the way I grew up.”
“Mr. Mayor,” he continued, “you have an obligation to enforce council rules. Any person making impertinent or slanderous remarks or who shall become abusive or obstructive to council shall be barred from the council. I’ve been slandered in here. I’ve been defamed by people I thought I knew. I don’t need this. I withdraw my application.” He and a few of his supporters then walked out of the meeting.
When it came to business, council president Michalson moved to suspend the council rules and, instead of considering the next agenda item of whether to interview the candidates, moved to skip right to the selection process and make an appointment. But when it went to a vote, he and Barker voted against the motion and only Holcomb voted for it.
When it reverted back to the original item on the agenda about selecting a candidate to interview, Michalson realized he had made a mistake and asked to have the motion to suspend the rules revisited.
“I don’t think we are going to get another candidate in time, so I am going to change my vote,” he said. This time he and Holcomb voted yes and Barker voted no. So, the motion passed and they skipped to consider choosing an applicant.
A motion was made and seconded to appoint Dempsey Vick, the only remaining candidate, to fill the Ward 2 position.
Barker said that she understood that Crews had resigned but she “had hard feelings about it” because she had been contacted by people who supported both candidates.
“I just wanted to let you know that in my decision tonight I will be thinking of both candidates. Tonight will be on how I felt about both those candidates,” said Barker.
Without any further comment, the three council members then voted unanimously against Vick filling the vacant council seat.
“You’ve boggled my mind here,” said Mayor Dewey. “Council really should take some sort of action.” The council took a break so the mayor could consult with the town’s attorney.
The town’s attorney said that the position could be re-advertised even though they were bumping the 30-day deadline for filling a vacancy. According to the Mayor, the attorney said some member of the public could possibly file a court action to force the council to appoint someone, but since that effort would already be underway he was not that concerned about it.
The council then approved re-advertising the position.
In public comment, Jan Perrin said, “You have a quality candidate so why are you re-advertising? This is not about you. It’s about your community and what’s best for the community. Are you re-advertising just because Crews resigned?”
The motion to re-advertise the position was approved unanimously.
Also on the agenda was a proposal to provide temporary compensation to the mayor to do the work of the Clerk and the Finance Officer until they could get replacements on board and trained. The mayor said it was not an appointment to a temporary position, but just a motion to compensate him for added duties on a temporary basis.
Someone suggested that former clerk Nancy Lowell should have been asked. During the discussion, former mayor Lew Barnett, who was in the audience, contacted Lowell and she indicated that she was not interested in the job.
Mayor Dewey said it’s a temporary situation of extenuating circumstances with two positions empty and the remaining clerk busy training her own replacement.
Holcomb moved to pay the mayor $25 per hour for up to 30 hours per week to do the other jobs.
The mayor asked them who was going to write the checks if he doesn’t do it. He said the bills had to be paid the next morning.
Hattie Farrell said, “The three council people sitting at that table is the reason we lost two good employees in the office. I think it’s time they stepped down and took responsibility for what they did.”
Michalson protested that the discussion was off the agenda item.
Michalson and Holcomb then voted against the motion to pay the mayor and Barker voted for it so the motion was killed on a 2 to1 vote.
Mayor Dewey said, “As much as I would like to move on from this item and carry on with our evening, I can’t. What are we going to do tomorrow to cut checks? Without compensation I’m not sure I’m going to do it. It’s that simple. If you don’t value my time, and you are going to piss on it, then I’m not going to do it. We are in a very precarious situation here.”
“Might as well re-vote,” mumbled Michalson.
This time it passed on a 2 to 1 vote with Holcomb and Barker approving the deal but Michalson still voting against it.
The town is now re-advertising the council Ward 2 position. Applications will be accepted through Monday, June 3 at 5 p.m. For more information contact Town Hall at 777-5271.