An effort to move forward in putting Stevensville Town Council President Bob Michalson on trial by fellow council members was sidelined at the last council meeting for further discussion in a Committee of the Whole meeting.
On July 9, 2020, council member Jaime Devlin preferred charges against council member Bob Michalson alleging Code of Conduct violations, ex-parte communication, and improper influence of an elected official. Following Robert’s Rules of Order, this initiated a process in which the Mayor was required to investigate the allegations and schedule a trial before the Town Council to address the charges. Mayor Dewey issued the results of his investigation on September 11, 2020 in a memo in which he “outlines a pattern of unprofessional and disruptive behavior by Michalson in his official capacity as a Town Council member.”
Michalson’s conduct as a council member came under scrutiny previously when former Town Clerk Audrey Tribbensee filed a complaint with the Mayor alleging she was being bullied and harassed. An independent investigation was conducted by a Missoula attorney that found, after interviewing all council members and all town staff, that Michalson’s conduct met the definition of “bullying and harassment” contained in the Town’s Personnel Policy. However, the policy did not include any penalties for such conduct. A lawsuit filed by the former clerk seeking close to $500,000 reparations is still in litigation. Michalson later resigned but then was elected to serve again and took office again in January 2020. The current investigation and report conducted by the Mayor only considered allegations about Michalson’s conduct since taking office again this year up through July 9.
The report includes examination of a couple dozen emails and Facebook posts by Michalson, a letter of resignation from Town Clerk Monica Hoffman, an open letter to the public by town employees and an affidavit from council member Dempsey Vick.
Mayor Dewey put Michalson on notice back in March, emailing him a “courtesy reminder” that he must adhere to the Town’s Code of Conduct. “The Code of Conduct exists, in part, because of your past interactions with staff that have caused disruption and expense to the organization. One of the Town’s efforts to rectify those situations was the implementation of conduct guidelines, which are contained within the Code of Conduct.”
By June, Devlin had submitted a letter of complaint to the Mayor about Michalson’s conduct and it was accompanied by a short statement from Vick, saying “since his [Michalson’s] 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.”
The current report includes an affidavit from Vick stating that Michalson “uses his official title and positions to improperly influence how I feel about Town of Stevensville, Town Council business and how I chose to vote on agenda items. If I disagree or chose to vote differently than Mr. Michalson, he becomes upset with me and progressively uses varying degrees of bullying tactics and threats in order to get me to vote his way and influence the outcome of the vote. He also engages his friends and family to put additional pressure on me for the same reasons.”
“Most recently, I asked fellow Council members Jaime Devlin and Robin Holcomb for help to address Mr. Michalson’s bullying behavior,” said Vick.
Former Town Clerk Monica Hoffman’s resignation letter was also included in the report which concludes, “I can no longer work in unhealthy working conditions created by the Council President and his family and friends. I believe you, as the Mayor, have tried to help, but understand that you have no control over what Council President Bob Michalson or certain citizens say or do.”
The mayor states in his report that the above collection of interactions and statements by Councilmember Michalson “at the least confirms that a culture of bullying and harassment exists because of Councilmember Michalson’s actions and behavior. The volume of incidents in just 6-7 months is significant. The violations undoubtedly occurred based on the evidence submitted by the victims and witnesses in each incident.”
“At the most,” he states, “this timeline reveals a pattern of behavior that is harmful to those both inside and outside the organization and is further damaging to the community. The incidents need to be considered in the collective to fully understand the impact to the organization. Individually, they may seem to be easily explained away. But collectively, they show a consistent pattern.”
Councilor Devlin placed an item on the council meeting agenda to discuss the possibility of using an attorney to guide them through the trial process. She clarified that she was not looking to spend any money on an attorney, but simply getting some advice on how to proceed. She said that the town could probably benefit from some legal direction. Robert’s Rules of Order calls for a trial by council members but does not include attorneys.
Council member Vick said that it was never his intention to have a trial. He said the things Michalson has said to him and about him did hurt him, “but I forgive you for that.”
“But my question to the council and for everybody else in this town is, after going through the minutes and the history of this, how many times are we going to have to lose clerks, mayors, council members? How many times are we going to stab ourselves and bleed until we finally stop and do what we ought to do, just talk.”
Vick then moved to have the issue of Michalson’s conduct moved to a Committee of the Whole meeting for further discussion.
Michalson said he was in agreement and would also like to see the Code of Conduct itself examined. One part he doesn’t like, he said, is the requirement to go through the Mayor in order to contact any town employee. He would like to see that changed, he said.
Devlin said that if the issue goes to a COW meeting the public must have a chance to comment and weigh in. She said it was not just about the Code of Conduct, it was about Michalson’s conduct. She said that she had sought to have discussions with Michalson but got no response. She said recently she reached out to work on a project and got no reply.
“Why now are you willing?” she asked. She wondered if it was simply in response to his attorney’s advice or because he really wants to work things out.
Michalson said, “Because it further divides the town. This town is bleeding for us to come back together. This whole town wants us to do that” and he was willing to talk now because “the town is bleeding for us to come back together. The whole town wants us to.” He said the last time a town council member was put on trial was in Conrad in 1913 and it died on a 2 to 2 vote. He said the same thing would happen here because the Mayor cannot break a vote on the trial.
Michalson said that in his opinion he’s done nothing wrong and his email was just stating facts about the Mayor and his illegal activity. He said “it got so toxic between him and her and Vick” that he didn’t imagine there was any reason to reach out.
“You guys have come after me six times to get rid of me,” he said. He said if they try to come after him at a trial that it will end up 2 to 2 and they won’t win. He said going through with a trial would only deepen the divide in the town. He said it was time to heal and to get together. He said he made some mistakes but did it in the best interest of the town.
“I just want to say that I will do my best to do a better job for my constituents in this town.
Devlin said, “I want to make one thing perfectly clear. We do not have a relationship. The charges that I brought forth are not about me. They are about you and your behavior that were brought to my attention.” She said she didn’t go searching for anything. “I reached out to you and you did not reply months ago so please do not put this back on me.”
“It isn’t about me. I don’t know you,” said Devlin. She said they had only two conversations outside the council chambers since January.
Michalson wondered why she didn’t try anything else, like censuring him, rather than “full bore removal.” He said that he could have brought an ethics charge against her, but he didn’t and accused her violating the law by accepting gifts.
Mayor Dewey intervened, saying they were not there to discuss any allegations against Ms. Devlin.
Michalson said, “I will say right now that I apologize to each and every one of my constituents in this town. This is heartfelt, it’s not hard to do. I’m a man about it. If my actions are wrong to you people, I apologize, and I will do my best to try and be a better man and a better councilman. And if that means working with you, Jamie [Devlin] I’m willing to reach out to you at any time.”
Mayor Dewey said he also wondered why Michalson was saying this now, when he had overheard an encounter between Michalson and a town employee just the day before that spurred another arriving employee to retreat and take another entrance way to avoid the situation. He said Michalson often apologized after events and wondered why this apology was going to make any difference.
Michaslon said, “Because Mayor, you’ve made it so toxic down there for me.”
“Don’t blame this on me,” said Dewey.
“It is on you,” said Michalson.
“No, it is not about me,” said Dewey. “My conduct is documented, and your conduct is too, in the report we have released to the council. I’m not buying what you’re selling.”
“I don’t believe the trial is about removing you from office. It is about your conduct and holding you responsible for it.” He said the council found no other way to address the issue than to go to trial because the town’s policies do not include any form of enforcement.
A motion to move the issue of Michalson’s conduct to a COW meeting was amended to include consideration of the Town’s Code of Ethics as well and approved unanimously.