At a special meeting on Wednesday, July 22, the Stevensville Town Council approved the controversial agreement between the Town and First Call Computer Services for IT services. The non-binding agreement for $78,000 stretching over three years was signed last year by Mayor Brandon Dewey and is the subject of a recall petition against the Mayor for signing a contract without council approval. Dewey claims in a lawsuit filed to stop the recall vote that the council approved the agreement when it included the expenditures in the budget, and he did not need to get any further approval from the council.
The issue was placed before the council under unfinished business. Dewey reminded the council members that the work is considered critical for conducting town business and keeping the town’s data secure. He said when the job was originally advertised only a single response was received. When it came back to council it was again published in three newspapers for two weeks and again only one response was received from the same company. Two other inquiries concerning details of the town’s needs were received but no proposals were submitted from any other company. He asked the council to approve the contract.
Council President Bob Michalson and council member Robin Holcomb voted against the motion and council members Jaime Devlin and Dempsey Vick voted aye. Mayor Dewey broke the tie in favor of signing the contract. (For details about the trial over the recall vote see accompanying story).
Another hot button item under old business was the discussion of allegations of code of conduct violations by council president Bob Michalson. Council member Jaime Devlin has presented charges against Michalson alleging violations of the town’s Code of Conduct, oath of office violations and improper influence. Dewey told the council that the agenda item was an update on the situation involving Michalson’s behavior due to charges being filed by Devlin.
On June 20, council member Vick wrote to Devlin and Holcomb: “I am reaching out to you to request help in an issue that I have been having with Councilmember Michaelson since his return to the council in January. Since his return, he has made attempts to sway my vote in council matters while stating “I don’t tell you guys how to vote” and has followed that up with rude and uncalled for text messages in an attempt to bully and shame me because of how I voted. I have received numerous messages from him that could be construed as harassment or bullying.
“I have made several attempts to show Mr. Michaelson respect, but he does not show the same back to me. When I disagree with him on an agenda item or if I challenge his ideas, he becomes irate and is typically inconsolable.
“Again, I am reaching out in an attempt for all of us to find a way to come to a resolution so that we can all work together as one governing body.”
Vick highlighted certain sections of the town’s code of conduct. One states simply, “Do not disrupt Town staff from performing their jobs.” The two most recent town clerks to resign mentioned disruptive behavior by Michalson and friends as one of the reasons. Vick also highlighted the section that states council members have the same rights to information as the general public, “However, limitations to staff resources must be considered… requests that require substantial staff time must be approved by the Mayor.”
Also highlighted were the sections stating that council members shall not make any derogatory personal comments about other members and a section stressing that council behavior serves as a model for the community.
“Honesty and respect for the dignity of everyone should be reflected in every word and action taken by a Member, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is a serious and continuous responsibility.”
Vick also alleges violations of state law concerning threats and improper influence. Such a violation is committed when a person, “privately addresses to any public servant who has or will have official discretion in a judicial or administrative proceeding any representation, entreaty or argument, or other communication designed to influence the outcome on the basis of considerations other than those authorized by law.”
A memo from Mayor Dewey was included saying that “generic requests for information are beginning to hinder our already overwhelmed workflows.” He states directly to Michalson in the memo: “This is my final request that you send all requests for information and materials to me rather than interacting directly with staff.” He asks Michalson to be sure that he has exhausted all online resources before submitting a request and states that future requests that are not addressed directly to him will not be accepted or fulfilled.
An example was included of Michalson asking for the percentage of each employee’s wages that is coming out of each department and noting that he is still waiting on the last two years’ revenues out of Public Safety. Many other emails and social media posts were included in the complaint against Michalson as examples of code violations. In one social media post, Michalson tells a member of the public, “This is a culture that has been here long before I came aboard. Move to town and change it. Instead of standing on the sidelines like a little child that you are. And put the bottle down you look stupid on your posts.”
Dewey told the council that it was his hope that they could hold a conversation about the allegations and arrive at a solution that would not be a trial. He said his office was not equipped to handle such a process and with a baby on the way he was not ambitious to take on such a project. He said if the council was set on having a trial it might not be arranged until sometime in August.
“I am hoping for a conversation about middle ground or some other avenue of disciplinary action aside from a trial,” he said.
Council member Devlin, who submitted the charges, said, “I am actually not willing to budge. I would like to go to trial.” She said another email was sent that day by Michalson that was in violation of the code of conduct.
“So this behavior continues,” she said. “I think it is only fair to move forward with a trial.”
Michalson said that the council needed to follow council rules and that this item should not have come forward under old business because a motion to discipline Michalson was defeated in a tie vote at the last meeting and only the prevailing side can bring it back up for reconsideration, he said.
“Our attorney has already told us that we can bring it up for trial,” said Devlin.
Mayor Dewey stated that there was no motion for reconsideration before the council and no vote to discipline Michalson was on the agenda. He said charges were made by a council member and no council vote was necessary according to the rules, so they were moving forward with scheduling a trial.
Council member Robin Holcomb said that she didn’t find Michalson’s emails to be rude. She said he was just asking for information and in the past all council members were allowed to ask for information.
Devlin said that the stream of requests has been affecting the staff and that they don’t have time to deal with it and it hasn’t stopped.
Mayor Dewey said that his office would begin an investigation of the charges and that Michalson would be provided the results and be given an opportunity to prepare a defense and a trial will be scheduled.
In a separate action, both council members Devlin and Vick sponsored an item seeking to declare Robin Holcomb’s seat as council member for Ward 1 to be vacant. Councilor Devlin pointed out that Holcomb had missed the last two council meetings. She said that the first time Holcomb gave no reason for her absence and a motion to compel attendance was conveyed by Police Chief James Marble, but was not heeded. But the second time, according to Devlin, Holcomb did respond to the motion to compel, stating that she was refusing to attend. Devlin said this is in violation of the law which states that an office is determined to be vacant for several reasons, one of which is “by open neglect or refusal to discharge duties.”
Devlin said that Holcomb’s refusal to attend the meeting was a clear violation and quotes Holcomb’s email to the mayor stating, “I have thought long and hard about this and if Michalson can’t be there to defend himself then I will not be there tonight. I will not be a part of a witch hunt and not have the person there to defend himself. This would not be right for anyone.” Devlin said that the previous vote on sanctioning was Michalson was not considered under code of conduct violations and that discussion of allegations of violations of the code of conduct “does not appear to be the same issue.” She noted that Holcomb had been sent an email from the town’s attorney telling her that he “would not advise intentional absence from a town council meeting.”
Devlin said that Holcomb’s refusal to attend a meeting because she disagreed with an agenda item was a clear violation of the law.
“We don’t have the choice to choose what we are going to deal with or not,” said Devlin. She called Holcomb’s choice “very neglectful.”
“It is our duty to be at town council meetings. There was a motion to compel. She didn’t answer the door, or the phone and did not come to the meeting,” said Devlin. Devlin, who also holds a seat in Ward 1, said that she was hearing from constituents that Holcomb was not responding to their emails.
Holcomb said that she was in bed with a headache the first meeting but that the second time she didn’t attend because she “didn’t think it was right.” She said the mayor knew that Michalson wasn’t going to be unable to attend with the issue of his behavior matter on the agenda that night.
“When we have a council meeting where we bash another council member I don’t think I needed to be there, and I didn’t feel like walking in there because of all the hate going on in this town right now,” said Holcomb. “I just felt that once he (Mayor Dewey) knew Michalson wasn’t going to be there, why not delay a day or two.” She said she did not check her email and did not see the attorney’s advice about attending the meeting.
Devlin said that all the council members receive criticism or hate mail. “It’s a part of the job,” she said. She said that Holcomb’s refusal to attend the meeting for the reasons stated was being neglectful and not doing your duty.
Michalson said to Mayor Dewey, “Since January you have been on a witch hunt against me and Holcomb. But it is difficult to remove someone from office, to go and attack a council member.
“You have some valid points but to try and remove someone from office sets a bad precedent.
“We could do it to you,” he said to council members Vick and Devlin. “I feel like you and Vick are hell bent on removing me and Holcomb from office.”
Vick said that this wasn’t an act of censure by the council, it was charges of violation of state law. He said courts have already determined that to determine an office has been vacated is not a disciplinary measure like censure. He said he has had times where people wanted to drag him out in the parking lot and pull his toenails off. “But I show up,” he said.
Devlin said, “No part of me wants to be part of a witch hunt. It’s about accountability. She said people need to be held accountable but that it hadn’t been happening at the council for a long time.
“I am very much about right and wrong and that won’t change. But a witch hunt? No, these are facts.” She said if something like this happened in a business the person would lose their job.
Michalson said, “I don’t believe you can remove a council member like that. It won’t pan out with an attorney.”
Mayor Dewey stated that town attorney Scott Owens consulted other attorneys and the Local Government Center in Bozeman as well as case law on the issue and that Holcomb was not being removed from office by the council. He said the council was simply determining that a vacancy does indeed exist according to the law.
“If the allegations are true, then Holcomb has removed herself from office by her own actions,” he said.
Michalson asked if the mayor had that opinion in writing. He said something of this magnitude should get a written opinion.
Counselor Vick said that he had a legal opinion from Missoula city attorney Nugent that a council member can be found to have vacated their office if they neglect or refuse to carry out their duties and that a tie vote on the decision could be broken by the Mayor.
Michalson said he would like to have a written opinion about that, too.
Before the vote Dewey gave Holcomb the opportunity to resign.
Holcomb refused saying, “No, because I don’t believe I did anything wrong.” She said she did email the first time and was in bed with a headache and the second time, “I apologize. I was not there. I just felt that with Michalson not being there to defend himself that it was wrong.”
The vote to declare Holcomb’s seat vacant failed on a two to two tie vote split down the usual lines.
Mayor Dewey declined to break the tie, saying, “Ms. Holcomb you have put me in a very awkward position, frankly… For the past two and half years you and Michalson have done everything in your power to remove me from office – and now I’m in a very awkward position because of your actions. So, I can vote and remove you from office.
“But then on the other hand, if I vote no, are we going to deal with another two years of this? When does this end?
“You say we need to come together and removing someone from office is a very difficult thing. But they were elected to office. If the citizens have trouble with someone in office a recall is not the way to do it. Political stunts are not the way. You show up at the polls.
I feel like I’m in an impossible position. I am going to upset half the council tonight no matter what I do. You say you want to come together, then I see two council member’s signatures on a petition to get my head. Our citizens do deserve better.
“I’m not going to break the tie tonight. This isn’t where we should be in this community. We can generate excuses all day long but I’ve had enough of the obstruction by two members of city council. It needs to stop. Enough is enough.
“Robin, I’m not going to break this tie tonight. I want you to have the opportunity to recognize how close you came to losing the very precious gift that this community gave to you, that is representing them. Do not screw that up because I guarantee that if we get back into this position again I am not going to rehash the last 10 minutes of stuff that I just pronounced. The decision will be clear and I believe that it will be clear at the polls going forward. In the interest of not dividing the community any further and allowing you to retain your dignity and perhaps prove yourself to this community, I will abstain from breaking a tie… At the very least Ms. Holcomb, you owe the community a written apology and public one and you owe the rest of us the same.”