Misinterpreting state law, the Stevensville Town Council abruptly adjourned its latest town council meeting without conducting any business last week, claiming that council cannot meet without the Town Clerk being present. Town Clerk Audree Tribbensee recently resigned due to what she called a hostile work environment created by council members. The Town’s Chief Finance Officer, April Van Tassel, has also resigned, effective last Friday, May 17. She too, told the Bitterroot Star that her resignation had to do with a hostile work environment created by some council members. Remaining Deputy Clerk Denise Philley has also submitted her intention to retire in October.
“I could bail them out, I suppose, but I’m not going to,” said Philley. “They brought this on themselves and they will have to deal with it.” She said the current Council members have had ample opportunity to correct the situation but have apparently chosen not to.
Although applications are being accepted for the recently vacated job of Finance Officer, Mayor Brandon Dewey has refused so far to advertise for another town clerk.
“I can’t see putting anyone else in the position while the hostile work environment goes unaddressed,” said Dewey.
At the last meeting, Council president Bob Michalson moved immediately to adjourn the meeting “on account of the fact that we don’t have a stated Clerk as required by state law and after being in Bozeman last week for three days we were told by every member of the MMIA staff that we cannot hold an official meeting until you have a stated Clerk here or Denise.”
“I’m sorry Brandon, but that’s the law,” he said. “We are only going by what Dan Clark and Angela Simonson told us. You should call Angela in the morning, she’s waiting for your call.”
Mayor Dewey responded, saying, “So, the business of Stevensville grinds to a halt because our clerk left under hostile circumstances.”
Councilor Robin Holcomb said she had to agree with Michalson.
“From what we were told we cannot hold a meeting without a clerk taking minutes. We asked if audio would work and were told no. We were told that as soon as roll is called and the Pledge of Allegiance is made, we must adjourn. We cannot have a meeting by law without a clerk,” said Holcomb.
Michalson chimed in, saying, “This is not on us folks, this is state law.”
Mayor Dewey asked for public comment on the motion but Michalson insisted that the vote be taken. The three councilors then voted to adjourn and the meeting was over.
The Bitterroot Star contacted Dan Clark at the Local Government Center at MSU immediately following the meeting to inquire about holding meetings without a clerk. According to Clark, there are several options. “The deputy clerk, staff member or city council member can take minutes of the meeting,” wrote Clark in reply. “The important thing is that minutes of the meeting are recorded and accurate.”
Dewey also contacted Clark at the MSU Local Government Center for clarification. In a written response, Clark denied having told the council members that they couldn’t meet without a clerk.
“I must clearly state that in the past 11 years, I do not recall ever being directly asked if a town should cancel its council meeting because the town clerk is unavailable. I have often stated during training sessions, that by law (7-4-4511 MCA) it is the duty of the Clerk to attend all meetings of the council and record and sign the proceedings thereof.” This is done in the context of closed or executive sessions of the Council. Town clerks are important to the function of city government and its operations, but by no means are they a lynchpin of town government and in their absence all operations stop. I am unaware of any reference in the MCA prohibiting town council meetings when the clerk is absent or unavailable. The law states it is the “duty of the clerk to attend all meetings,” not a requirement that meetings must have a clerk present to take minutes in order to proceed,” wrote Clark adding, “I have not been asked nor given technical advice to the Mayor or Council members regarding this procedural question.”
Clark urged the mayor and council to consult their attorney about such issues. He also denied the claim made that the Local Government Study Center uses Facebook.
“The Local Government Center does not and has not used Facebook as a means of addressing technical assistance questions or communicating to cities and towns, nor will it do so in the foreseeable future. I would suggest that any claim otherwise is misguided,” he wrote.
“Lastly, as stated above, I am very concerned with my name and the reputation of the Local Government Center being used as a means of justifying behavior and to advance a particular position. This is not the purpose or aim of the Local Government Center, and I believe that from this point forward it is in the best interest of the Town of Stevensville that the Local Government Center support the Town of Stevensville with technical assistance only through its City Attorney, Brian West. Having one point of contact will prevent further misunderstandings and disputes regarding what advice has been given,” concludes Clark.
Mayor Dewey has rescheduled the council meetings that were cancelled due to the council’s claims that it was illegal to meet without a clerk being present. He added an agenda item to the next meeting scheduled for May 23 for the council to consider temporarily appointing one of their own members to take minutes.
Also on the agenda is an item regarding temporary compensation for administration during the Finance Officer and Town Clerk recruitment, hiring and onboarding. The agenda also includes conducting interviews and potential appointment to fill the Council Ward 2 vacancy.