By Cathy Scholtens, Stevensville
The May 21, 2020 Board of Adjustment meeting in Stevensville was quite an eye opener. I have been loosely following the drama and angst the Stevensville Town Council seems to generate. Like many folks in Stevensville, I knew there were some problems between some of the town council members and Mayor Dewey. Despairing that our little town might not be the epitome of what’s right about “Small Town America”, I often rolled my eyes, shook my head and went on about my business.
I believed that most council members had our best interest at heart and took their oath of office seriously. After hearing the audio of that meeting my thoughts have changed, as will yours if you take the time to listen.
The first issue has to do with following the Montana Municipal Officials Handbook (Third Edition) guidelines. Of particular interest that night was the following section on inappropriate communication:
2.415 Ex Parte Communication by Council Members
“Finally, and upon advice of the city attorney, council members should be particularly sensitive to the potential for ex parte communication that might flaw their quasi-judicial decision. An example of improper ex parte communication would be any discussion outside of the formal public hearing before the commission or council’s final decision has been made, that might occur between a member of the council and a proponent or opponent of a developer’s pending land use application. Any such ex parte communication might well be used by an applicant, or by those who might oppose the application, as legal justification to set aside the quasi-judicial decision of the governing body. This will almost certainly be an expensive mistake for a council member to make.”
What I understand this to mean is that council members and the mayor are obligated to not have improper communication with anyone involved in a land-use application prior to any decisions being voted on by the Council or the Board of Adjustment.
It was revealed that Councilmembers Michalson (Ward 2) and Holcomb (Ward 1) have been having informal email communications with the land-use applicant for months prior to this meeting. Not only were Councilmember Michalson’s emails unethical, they were also unprofessional. In one he calls the mayor “cuckoo” and encourages the landowner to “start building” before the vote on land-use had even occurred.
Councilmember Holcomb went a step further by lying to the entire assembly prior to her vote. Just before her vote Councilmember Holcomb stated, “Yes, he (Councilmember Michalson) did send me an email, I did not respond to it, there was no other conversation. So how I am voting tonight is what I’ve heard at this meeting so that I am voting yes.”
It was revealed that Councilmember Holcomb had indeed been corresponding with the land owner for several months, when she had just stated to the assembly she had no other input to cloud her vote. She quickly jumped to blame the mayor for her indiscretions, claiming that the landowner “could not get any information from the mayor.”
Both councilmembers had originally voted “yes” in favor of the landowner. Once their digressions were obvious, they chose to rescind the yes votes and to vote no instead.
What is wrong with this picture? We have two councilmembers who seem to have taken the running of the city into their own hands using their own plans. Councilmember Holcomb flat out lied to the entire community, and then didn’t have the courage to take responsibility for the lie once she was caught in it.
I don’t know about you, but I know that I don’t want councilmembers who think it is acceptable to skirt the rules (putting the town at risk for lawsuits) or ones who have trouble telling the truth. I would suggest you to listen to the audio tape yourself (discussion starts near the 1-hour mark) and make up your own mind. If you aren’t appalled, you aren’t paying attention.