Although he had withdrawn his application during the public comment at a June 3 special meeting of the Stevensville Town Council, Jim Crews was unanimously appointed at the June 13 regular meeting to fill the Ward 2 vacancy.
The meeting on June 3 was to consider a single agenda item: “Discussion/Decision/Update regarding the Finance Officer and Town Clerk vacancies and completion of associated functions during the recruitment and on-boarding process.”
In his comments attached to the agenda, Mayor Brandon Dewey notes that since April 12, 2019, the Town has received resignations from two critical positions within the administration.
“Town Clerk Audree Tribbensee and Finance Officer April VanTassel both resigned, siting [sic] that bullying and harassment conditions created by the Town Council prevented them from continuing employment with the Town of Stevensville,” wrote Dewey. He said the positions are currently vacant, and that he had been administering the key tasks related to the position.
At the May 23 town council meeting, Mayor Dewey sought approval from the council to increase his compensation to accommodate the increase in workload and duties. The council approved in a 2-1 vote, to increase the Mayor’s compensation by $25.00 per hour for up to 30 hours per week.
Dewey told the council members at the special meeting that since that time, the town council has expressed concerns about the legality of that decision. Concerns have also been raised about the concentration of power between the offices of the clerk, finance officer and mayor.
In addition to the vacancies, he said the administration is preparing for the retirement of current Deputy Clerk Denise Philley. Philley’s current workload consists of utility billing functions, cemetery records management, airport records management, and training the newly hired Deputy Clerk replacement. Administrative Assistant Britnee Rhodes commits 20 hours a week to assisting with clerical functions in the office. Rhodes is responsible for collecting the mail, processing payments and fields public inquiries by phone and at the counter.
Dewey stated he has prioritized the key tasks that are most critical between the clerk and finance officer positions. These tasks include daily authorization of positive pay transactions, processing of claims, processing of payroll, processing of payroll liabilities, building council agendas and packets, public notices and vacancy postings. He said he is now the only person within the organization trained to complete the finance operations necessary to keep the Town’s operations running smoothly. He said the Town is currently behind in record filing, ledger entries and meeting minutes.
Dewey said that as of May 30, no applications or inquiries had been received for either the position of Town Clerk or Finance Officer. The Finance Officer position closed 5/31/2019 and the Town Clerk position closed 6/7/2019.
“With the lack of interest so far in the positions, and the Council’s reluctance to compensate the Mayor in administering the key functions of the Clerk and Finance Officer, the administration is seeking direction from the Town Council on how to address the vacancies and ensure that breakdowns don’t occur and lead to further challenges for the Town,” wrote Dewey. He outlined all the other duties and responsibilities that he was charged with as Mayor including producing a budget, the swimming pool opening, the visitor’s kiosk project, personnel on-boarding, personnel training, spring street repairs, water project planning and zoning/building reviews.
“The administration is interested in hearing solution-oriented direction from the Council that will address concerns relating to staffing, task completion, and most importantly assuring that service to citizens remains positive and that any impacts felt are minor,” Stated Dewey.
At the special meeting, Dewey said it had been brought to his attention that there is some anxiety or reluctance on the part of the council with its decision to increase his pay to compensate for the additional work. “Maybe some accusation that the Council was bullied into that position which was not the intention,” he said.
He asked for direction from the council on where his time would be best spent and how to handle the vacancies.
“It’s a lot of work, a lot of hours just to get essential things done. Something is going to have to give in how my time is invested,” he said.
Council President Bob Michalson stated that he had researched past emails from Town Attorney Brian West and found that a single person cannot hold two different jobs at the town. He said the mayor could not be allowed to do the clerk’s or the finance officer’s jobs.
“I don’t know what we are going to do about the clerk and finance positions. I know when Jim Crews was here we found help from Ravalli County. But that’s your call, you are the mayor. It’s your responsibility to call for a clerk and a finance officer,” said Michalson.
Dewey said that if he cannot do the work of the clerk or the finance officer in the meantime, who was going to do it?
“I don’t know, that’s your problem,” said Michalson. He said it was not his authority as a council member to resolve that issue, it was up to the mayor.
Dewey said he had advertised the positions and would continue to do so but that the work had to be done in the meantime.
Council member Stacie Barker asked about the extent of advertising that had been done.
She and council member Robin Holcomb stated that more advertising should go out beyond the town’s Facebook page and website. Holcomb also suggested that he could possibly hire someone from the county treasurer’s office to provide temporary help.
“You are the mayor and you need to be able to do your job, but we don’t need to be paying you more, because we can’t,” said Holcomb. “Yes, I changed my vote because you did bully us and threaten us that if we didn’t give you the money you would close down the town. Maybe if we quit being put in the paper and making us look bad, maybe somebody would apply. Maybe we need to stop this stuff that is going out in the paper and on the news and maybe someone would apply. You keep saying you want to work together like in your executive report at the last meeting you talk about a hockey game, but I don’t see it. Maybe we need to just start working together and maybe we need to stop putting stuff out in the paper. We need to stop putting stuff on the news. And quit bashing your council. I mean yes, I understand why they quit. But now let’s move forward. We need to start moving forward and getting this town back in order. But we keep hitting these breaks, moving two steps forward then moving back. I think we need to advertise broader. You are the mayor, unfortunately that is your job. You jump in and hopefully someone will apply and in the meantime, we just have to ask other towns and see if we can use their clerk or treasurer until we can find someone, at least for a couple times a week like we had to do when Mayor Crews was in office.”
“That didn’t happen,” countered Mayor Dewey and Michalson agreed.
Mayor Dewey then asked Town Attorney Brian West to address the legality of the mayor’s compensation.
West said, “I’m working on that right now. I understand council approved additional compensation for mayor at $25 per hour. Subsequent to that meeting, council president asked for review of that.” He said one issue would be whether the mayor was being hired as a clerk or treasurer, which would be illegal. “But if you look at the law, it is conceivable that the Mayor could be hired to run the whole town.” West emphasized that he had not had time to research the question and so could not offer an opinion yet at this point.
Dewey noted that the agenda item approving his pay raise did not mention hiring him as a clerk or treasurer.
Council member Barker said that she voted for it “just to move forward. I understand the situation that we’re in, but when people are asking you if its legal, you need answers.”
Dewey stated that the additional pay was a temporary band-aid solution to the problem.
Barker said, “I understand our position, but my problem is that everyone that has brought this forward thinks it’s the council’s fault, but I really don’t believe it is just the council’s fault.” She said if the three of them resigned as some had asked them to do at the last meeting, things would just be worse.
Michalson said, “The problem is, look at what you put in the [agenda] package, you not only put in there that the clerk resigned but also put in the treasurer, too. But there is no documentation of that. Her resignation letter said ‘due to outside influences’.”
“Her exit interview says otherwise,” the Mayor quipped.
Michalson said, “Well, unless you prove it, here we go again with you putting something in there in words that we see differently in the resignation letter. What are we supposed to believe when we see her resignation letter and you put in there that we are bullying her and harassing her.
“Plus, you barred us from coming in here to this town hall. And don’t say you didn’t. You changed the codes. We only come in here twice a month and we only come in here for business. There is no bullying or harassing. I haven’t been in that office for over a year. Yet you keep throwing it in our face. Every other meeting’s got that unfinished business: harassing, bullying, harassing, bullying and everybody looks at the Bitterroot Star and it’s all over. Of course, it’s no wonder that people don’t want to move to this town.
“I’m just saying, Brandon, that some things can change and that’s one thing that can change for the better. We might be able to get a clerk or a treasurer if you just leave that out of it.”
“I think the issue is that it happened,” said Dewey.
“And you failed to do your duty,” said Michalson. He said Tribbensee only had 10 days to file a grievance and it wasn’t filed in time.
Dewey countered that “it wasn’t a grievance, it was a complaint about bullying and harassment and we’ve been through that, but it doesn’t speak to this item tonight.”
Holcomb said, “But it does when people are reading the paper and all they see is this. Especially when the investigator that you hired came back and said there was no proof of this.”
Dewey said, “No, what she said was it wasn’t substantiated because the policy didn’t prohibit it. She didn’t say it didn’t exist. She said your policy doesn’t prohibit bullying and harassment, therefore the claim couldn’t be substantiated.”
Holcomb said, “Well, I just think the only way we can move forward is if this stuff stops. This has to stop, this stuff in the paper every week.”
“I don’t print the paper,” said Dewey.
Holcomb said, “If we are to move forward we need to stop this bickering. We need to start working as a team and you need to advertise it broader.”
“So, it needs to be more broadly advertised. How does the council want to address the issue of workload and compensation?” asked Dewey. He said it was not two salaries, it was a temporary increase in his salary over his base pay.
Michalson said that wasn’t what he heard at the meeting.
Attorney West noted that he could not offer an opinion on the issue of the legality of that pay agreement without vetting the laws first.
“It sounds like we should go along with this until we hear back from our attorney,” said Holcomb.
Mayor Dewey confirmed that the aim from here was to establish a priority list of the tasks, advertise the open positions more broadly, and wait on the attorney’s response. He also noted that they had not received any applications for the council position in Ward 2 since the previous two applications were withdrawn.
At the beginning of the regularly scheduled June 13 meeting, Mayor Dewey announced that the town had received one application for the finance officer position and six applications for the town clerk position.
Second on the agenda was a discussion/decision about the Ward 2 council vacancy. Dewey announced that there were no applicants yet for the council seat since both the previous applications were withdrawn.
Council President Michalson stated, “Since it went past 30 days we can, according to council rules, appoint a candidate and we have it under New Business tonight under Item A.” That item was to suspend Council Rules in order to appoint a candidate for Ward 2 Council.
Dewey said, “You are saying you are going to appoint a candidate, but we have no applications.”
“Don’t need one,” said Michalson. “We appoint one.”
Dewey read the Council Rules that state the council will use the application process.
Michalson responded, saying, “I make a motion to suspend council rules and appoint a candidate since it’s been more than 60 days.” Holcomb seconded the motion.
In public comment, Raymond Smith said, “We had two applicants, Jim Crews and I forget the other man’s name.” Smith said the other candidate did not meet the residency requirements and so there was actually only one qualified candidate and that was Jim Crews.
Mayor Dewey clarified that Mr. Vic, the other candidate referred to, did meet the residency requirements in the law. He said both applications were withdrawn, however.
Lesley Tadvick said her husband sat on the council and was appointed but had never made an application. She said budget time was coming on and “the only other person is Jim Crews. He needs to come in and get this town in order.”
Michalson made a motion to appoint Crews to the Ward 2 seat.
Holcomb said that Crews knows the law and the ordinances and doesn’t bend the rules.
“We need someone to come and put this town back in order,” she said.
Michalson said it was shameful the way Crews was treated at the council meeting.
“Yes, Mr. Crews is boisterous, yes, he’s loud, and some read him differently, but when it comes to laws and ordinances you won’t find a better candidate,” he said.
Hattie Farrell said, “Jim Crews ran for office and was elected out. That’s all I have to say.”
Smith urged the council to follow the law.
A couple of others said Crews was a kind and loving person who loves the Town of Stevensville.
The council voted unanimously to appoint Crews to the Ward 2 council seat.
The council then voted to rescind Resolution 281 and Resolution 281A, the resolutions governing the use of the Town’s attorney. The resolutions require any council member wishing to get a legal opinion from the town’s attorney to submit the question to the President of the Council who will then confer with the Mayor to determine if there is a record of that question having already been asked and answered by a town attorney. If not, the question is then referred to the town attorney for an opinion.
Councilor Holcomb said the reasoning behind rescinding the resolutions was “it is time that we need to talk to our attorney. It’s time to get rid of this so that when we need an issue we can talk to our attorney and get answers.”
Ray Smith commented that having five different people calling the town attorney with questions at $85 per hour for the research could get very costly.
“Even our attorney has asked us to get rid of this,” said Holcomb. “Our attorney has asked us several times to have us look at this. Even our attorney said he wants us to squash this.”
The motion to rescind the resolutions was approved unanimously on a 3-0 vote.
In other business, the council consented to the Mayor’s appointment of Christa Wortman to the Park Board.
The council also approved the audit services contract with Strom & Associates P.C. for FY2019, FY2020 and FY2021.