At the June 25 Stevensville Town Council meeting, a hotly disputed motion to suspend Council President Bob Michalson and give him until 5 p.m. the following day to resign his seat on the council or face a trial by council members was approved in a tie breaking vote by Mayor Brandon Dewey following a split vote of the council in which Councilors Dempsey Vick and Jaime Devlin voted in favor and Councilors Michalson and Robin Holcomb voted against. Michalson, who strenuously objected to the legality of vote at the time, sought legal advice from the Town’s attorney the following day. Town Attorney Scott Owens issued a summary of his opinion that in essence reverses the outcome.
“Simply put, the mayor’s vote should not count based on the matter involving disciplinary actions of the legislative branch,” wrote Owens in an email to councilors, but adds, “However, this is arguable.”
Michalson’s ability to vote on a disciplinary issue involving himself was also questioned at the time and a motion to strike Michalson’s vote was passed also on a split vote down the same lines with the tie being broken by the mayor in favor of striking Michalson’s vote. In the Town Attorney’s opinion, however, “Mr. Michalson’s vote should count because he is a member of the legislative body and Robert’s Rules of Order provide rationale for this ability to vote.” But once again Owens cautions, “This is also arguable.” Owens notes that there are no clear statutes or any case he could find that directly addresses these issues.
Despite the arguability of the legal points, Owens concludes, “Based on my review, I do not believe that the motion to suspend has passed; nor can it be enforced at this time.”
When Councilor Devlin learned from a Facebook post that the attorney had sent an opinion to Michalson, she contacted the attorney herself. At this point, Owens sent an email out to all the council members and the mayor reiterating his opinion.
He stated additionally that with respect to the proposed trial, in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order there does not appear to be a voting requirement, instead, he writes, “Under Robert’s Rules, there must be 1) a confidential investigation by a committee; 2) a report to [council]; 3) formal notification to accused; 4) trial; and 5) review of findings. From the findings, the council would be required to vote on sanctions in the event of a ‘guilty’ determination. Again, this vote would require 2/3 vote of the council.
“The accused in a trial has a right to due process – to be informed of the charge, given time to prepare his defense, to appear and defend himself, and to be fairly treated. Also, keep in mind that many provisions of Robert’s Rules run contrary to Montana law. In conflict, Montana law would control.”
At the council meeting on the 25th, the agenda item stated it was about Code of Conduct violations, Oath of Office violations and improper influence, all conducted by Michalson against Councilor Dempsey Vick.
Michalson made the opening remarks, stating that since he had returned to the council he had been trying hard to work with the mayor and Vick and that everything went fine until he discovered a contract signed by the mayor without council approval. Then, he said, he was attacked. He said, “They chastised me. They tried to put me on trial. They tried to suspend me and send me home. They accused me of harassing staff. None of it was true.” He claimed Mayor Dewey orchestrated the whole thing.
Michalson also denied allegations of having ex parte communications in relation to a recent Board of Adjustments issue.
“No, that was a personal email and it is still under investigation,” he said.
Michalson then noted that some of his personal text messages to Vick had been presented as addendums to Vick’s claims about him, and said, “These are not public documents. These are not things that should be read at a council meeting. What would you do if I got a Freedom of Onformation request about all the messages and emails between the mayor and the council members?”
“It’s O.K., I’m not going anywhere,” he said. He said everytime he tries to reach out, he and Holcomb get slammed. “It feels like you two are trying to get rid of us. That’s how I feel but I’m not going anywhere.” He said, “That’s pretty low, Mr. Vick, when you have to take personal emails and bring them out. Yes, these were my comments and they should have been kept private. For you to bring these out and try to smear me in public, I should hope in the future that you would come to me first.”
Councilor Robin Holcomb said that she was disappointed in having to find out about the issue on Facebook before she received any email from the attorney.
Councilor Devlin said that she has not seeing any accountability. “If a drug deal is done behind closed doors it is not legal. These actions clearly show violations.” She made a motion to suspend Michalson and give him until 5 p.m. the next day (Friday) to resign or face a trial.
Councilor Vick said that besides the text messages, Michalson had also tried to influence his vote. He said Michalson had told him that he didn’t know how Jaime was going to vote but that Holcomb always votes with him.
The vote was then taken and came out a tie with Holcomb and Michalson voting no. When the mayor voted in favor, Michalson objected, stating, “You are out of order.”
The mayor responded, saying, “I am the presiding officer and you are out of order.” He said the vote would stand until they could get a legal opinion.
In other business, the council approved a task order for HDR Engineering for the 3rd Street pavement project. Michalson questioned the validity of the town’s Master Service agreement with the company because he could find no record of it ever having been adopted by the Council. It is believed that it was approved under past mayor Paul Ludington’s tenure, but no record of council approval could be found.
The mayor noted that it has been in use for a long time and not one project awarded under the agreement has been challenged in court.
The council also unanimously approved the sub-lease and operating agreement between the City and Rural Fire District.
The Council extended the suspension of collections and late fees for utilities due to the COVID-19 emergency.
Councilor Holcomb made a closing statement about the allegations of harassment made by town staff, saying she was “disappointed at having her name thrown into this.” She said she does not go to town hall and does not deal with town hall except in response to inquiries or emails. “I don’t contact employees,” she said.