At a press conference on Friday, Stevensville Mayor Brandon Dewey issued a veto of the Town Council’s recent resolution appointing Jim Crews to fill the vacant Ward 2 council seat. The mayor cites potential violations of the public’s right to know and the right to participate in public decisions as his primary concern.
The Town Council suspended its rules at a meeting on June 13 and appointed Jim Crews to the Ward 2 position on the council left vacant by Jerry Phillips’ resignation. At a previous meeting on May 23, the council considered two applicants for the position, Crews and Dempsey Vick. Crews, who drew some strong public comments in opposition to his appointment primarily related to bullying, withdrew his application verbally during the meeting. Without any interview, the council voted unanimously against appointing Vick.
On Monday, June 17, Crews emailed Mayor Dewey stating, “after careful deliberation I hereby accept the appointment made IAW 7-4-4112 of the Montana Code with the understanding that it expires upon the election of a candidate in the next election.
Please advise as to the swearing in date and time. I have a fairly busy summer schedule so prompt action would be appreciated. I request that Judge O’Connor perform the swearing in.”
Dewey emailed Crews the next day, stating that the lawfulness of his appointment had come under question, specifically the adequacy of the public notice, and the question had been referred to the Town’s attorney.
“Until the Administration is convinced that the appointment took place in a manner that satisfies the public’s right to know, and provide input on the action, we will be taking no further action on Council’s decision,” he wrote.
Town Attorney Brian West said that he was researching the question and would respond that day and stated, “As clarification, I would note that there is zero concern about Mr. Crew’s ability to serve. Second, the Council can suspend its own rules – which have traditionally provided the process for appointment of a vacancy – and did so. The state and local laws do not dictate an exact process to follow (example requiring interviews, etc…) and so with rules suspended a motion to appoint a former applicant and passing vote of the counsel [sic] should qualify as appointment with Mr. Crew’s acceptance.”
The town attorney in a letter dated the same day confirms that in his opinion the Town Council acted within its authority under the law when it suspended the council rules and appointed Crews to Ward 2.
In terms of the public’s right to know and participate in government decisions, he concentrated on the issue of the public’s right to participate in the decision of the Council.
“In this instance, the question boils down to whether the language of the agenda items gave sufficient notice for the public to reasonably participate before a final decision was made. Two separate agenda items contain language that the Council would consider the Ward 2 vacancy for decision, though I concede neither name the candidate. The second half of New Item 10(a) specifically states after suspending rules and intent, ‘…[to] nominate and appoint a candidate to the Council from Stevensville, Ward 2.’ Both actions were carried out at a public meeting and with opportunity for members of the public to comment and therefore were sufficiently noticed for the action to stand,” he wrote.
He goes on to note, however, that a review of a number of prior agenda items indicates that in the past, the Town has noticed appointments as a single agenda item and typically referenced the individual who was to be appointed.
“Any time there is a departure from the normal protocol, there is an increased chance that the decision could be challenged leading to additional delay and administrative costs for the Town,” he wrote.
“I am not advising that it is mandatory, however if there is any lingering concern over the notice, the Council, at its discretion, could notice the matter for a future special meeting with the name of the considered candidate and re-affirm its decision, thus removing any question about the notice. That said, as it stands, I would state again that the text of the agenda did give the public notice of the Council’s intent to appoint a replacement,” he concludes.
In his veto announcement, Mayor Dewey stated, “Throughout the process to replace the vacancy created by the resignation of Jerry Phillips, there have been procedural inconsistencies and questions of legality surrounding the final appointment. As the top-elected-official of Stevensville, I insist that the process to fill the vacancy of Councilmember in the 2nd Ward be repeated in complete compliance with the procedures set forth in the Council’s adopted rules. Extra attention should be given to protect and guarantee our citizens’ rights to know and participate.”
Referring to the Town Attorney’s advice to hold another meeting to assure compliance, Dewey states, “As stewards of the public trust, the Council should take every possible precaution to protect the Town of Stevensville from additional cost, or worse, litigation because of malfeasance, failure to follow through on their adopted policies, and disregard for the constitutional rights of our citizens.”
“In conclusion, it is in the best interests of the Town of Stevensville, the Town Council, and most imperatively the citizens of Stevensville to confirm my veto, and undertake the process that they have adopted under their Council rules.”