The Stevensville Town Council held a “workshop” at its regular council meeting on October 22 in which it considered Council President Bob Michalson’s conduct in relation to the Town Council’s Code of Conduct.
Mayor Brandon Dewey produced a memorandum for the Town Council in September outlining “a pattern of unprofessional and disruptive behavior” by Michalson, in his capacity as a Town Council member that has occurred since his return to the Council in January 2020. The Mayor’s report is based on his investigation into allegations made against Michalson by Council members Jamie Devlin and Dempsey Vick. The charges, including code of conduct violations, ex-parte communications, and improper influence over an elected official, were first made against Michalson at a July 9, 2020 Town Council meeting in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order.
The report contains a timeline that includes dozens of emails, Facebook entries and other incidents, including a letter from a citizen and a resignation letter from a previous Town Clerk.
The summary of the report states that the above collection of interactions and statements by Michalson “at the least confirms that a culture of bullying and harassment exists because of Councilmember Michalson’s actions and behavior.” The Mayor found the volume of violations in just 6 to 7 months “significant” and that they “undoubtedly occurred based on the evidence submitted by the witnesses in each incident.”
“At the most, this timeline reveals a pattern of behavior that is harmful to those both inside and outside the organization and is further damaging the community.” The Mayor notes that it was the many incidences of similar behavior by Michalson in his previous term on the council that led to the adoption of the Code of Conduct that is now in place.
Councilor Jaime Devlin kicked off the discussion by saying, “The report speaks for itself.” Devlin has been pushing for some action regarding Michalson’s violations of the Town’s Code of Conduct. Since the Code of Conduct does not include any punishments for violation of the code, she requested a trial under Robert’s Rules which could lead to removing him from the council. She asked Councilor Dempsey Vick what his intentions were.
Vick said instead of a trial that he thought maybe they could just talk things over together and “put this behind us and then make some better policy.” He said if it did go to a trial that the council should “outline the process by which we would proceed.”
Devlin asked Vick if he had read the initial report on Michalson’s behavior during his previous term based on an investigation by a Missoula law firm. She said it contained recommendations concerning policy and a Code of Conduct. She wondered what policies he thought needed changing.
Vick said that he thought the town needed a better Human Resource policy as far as how council members are to communicate with each other, with the public, with staff, and with the Mayor.
Mayor Dewey said that the current Code of Conduct does all that.
But Vick said that the policy was lacking because it didn’t adequately address newer forms of communication like email and social media. He also said that if you just read Michalson’s emails, “It could appear that he was trying to breathe down people’s necks and trying to run rough shod over everybody when, in fact, he is just asking a simple question… I’m just saying that it’s a possibility,” he said.
Councilor Robin Holcomb said that she didn’t find any of Michalson’s emails to be rude. She also objected to the requirement that council members seeking information from the clerk needed to get permission from the mayor. She said all her time on the council they have been able to just call the clerk and ask for information.
Devlin said that it was not about being rude. She said the Code of Conduct outlines how a council person will deal with staff. She said Michalson just kept disregarding this and that it shows a pattern of not following the Code of Conduct.
Holcomb disagreed and said that they did not go over everything in the Code of Conduct before adopting it because she would really have disagreed with the need to get permission to ask for information. She said Council members have always been able to get information without “being run through the coals.”
Mayor Dewey said, “Candidly, Ms. Holcomb, it’s not up to you to say whether those emails are rude or not. The recipient gets to say how they perceived them and you can’t change that.” He said that was the issue they were dealing with, that regardless of Mr. Michalson’s intentions, there is a “documented history of people perceiving it another way and we can’t just change that….Neither you nor I get to say whether he was rude or not. The victims in these cases get to say how they perceived it.”
“The bottom line is that the employees are perceiving his behavior as rude or however they describe it,” said Dewey. He said that previous councils and previous administrations didn’t need a Code of Conduct, “but then a pattern of behavior got so over-bearing and got the Town into such a situation that it got to the point that we had to take steps to protect the employees from working in a hostile workplace.”
“Well then, I’m in agreement with Dempsey [Vick],” said Holcomb. “We need to go into these things in the Code of Conduct and make some changes. I don’t know where.”
Mayor Dewey said that what he was hearing was let’s make some changes to the Code of Conduct “in order to dismiss the conduct that has been demonstrated to be unbecoming. We are just going to change the rules so we don’t have these issues anymore. We are going to get rid of the rule that says a council member should not misbehave and say rude things to employees so that no one can complain about it and we won’t have to come back to a Committee of the Whole meeting.”
Councilor Devlin quoted Alan Greenspan from his book “The Speed of Trust” saying, “Rules cannot take the place of character. Integrity has no need of rules. To most people integrity means honesty though some people don’t consciously realize it. Honestly includes not only telling the truth, but also leaving the right impression. It is possible to tell the truth, but leave the wrong impression, and that is not being honest.”
She said that some people came forward, some on multiple occasions, and made complaints about Michalson’s behavior and “we are now deciding if their feelings are valid.”
“When we have patterns, they are patterns,” said Devlin. She said the rules governing conduct have been in place since December 2018 and no one asked for any changes. “We have Code of Conduct violations that have already occurred. We have to deal with these for the sake of the people who brought these to us. If we don’t like the rules we can go change them, but you have already existing violations.
“You don’t get out of a speeding ticket by changing the speed zone afterwards. You are still guilty of speeding.”
Vick said that the real reason to change the rules is to add punishments to the code so they are effective. But as far as Michalson’s behavior goes, he said, he would possibly consider issuing a formal censure instead of a trial. He said going to trial was not possible because it wasn’t in the by-laws, it was only in Robert’s Rules of Order.
Devlin said that she had consulted an attorney and that they could proceed with a trial under Robert’s Rules of Order and potentially even remove Michalson from the Council.
Mayor Dewey agreed, saying that the Council’s hands were not tied as long as they proceed according to the law and give Michalson due process.
Michalson said, “We agreed at the last meeting that we wouldn’t do a trial because it would just be a 2 to 2 tie.”
“How do you know that,” asked Devlin.
“It’s pretty obvious,” said Michalson. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it, I don’t believe Robin [Holcomb] is going to vote against me.”
Mayor Dewey said they were just trying to hold Michalson accountable for his behavior.
Michalson accused the Mayor of trying seven times to get him off the council.
Devlin said that there were more than seven documented violations of the law in the report and that Michalson needs to be held accountable.
Michalson then accused her of a violation for yelling at the public.
Mayor Dewey intervened, saying, “This isn’t a ‘tit for tat’ or a ‘he said, she said’. If you want to bring up issues about Ms. Devlin, we could do that, but not now. It’s your behavior we are considering,” he told Michalson.
Michalson said that he wants to get the rule taken out that he has to get permission to ask for information.
Mayor Dewey said that the rule is there because when it wasn’t he had staff coming to him and saying they didn’t like the way Mr. Michalson interacts with them. He said it doesn’t matter how Michalson intended it, his actions were taken as rude by many of the staff.
“This is what it comes down to,” said Dewey. “I spend more of my time addressing the results of your behavior or by-products of that than I do doing the fun work of getting our streets rebuilt. I have had to set aside 20 hours of my time next week on a lawsuit that resulted because of your behavior.”
“You are accusing me of something,” snapped Michalson.
“It’s not an accusation. It’s a pattern of behavior,” responded Dewey.
Michalson complained about having to pay for information as a council member.
Dewey stated that the request Michalson made stated that he specifically wanted copies. Dewey said that if the information was delivered electronically there is no charge, but the council passed a fee for hard copies and Michalson had specifically asked for hard copies. He said to remedy that Michalson would have to get the council to change its resolution.
Michalson said in response to an inquiry from Devlin about the differences he referred to between him and her, “We have different ways of thinking. I said before that I was going to try and be a better man and I am trying.”
“A zebra can’t change its stripes at 65 years old,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here and try to justify my actions. That’s up to you guys.”
Devlin responded, “So saying that a zebra can’t change its stripes, is this what we have to look forward to for the next three years?”
“I said I’ll try to be a better council person and I’ll try,” said Michalson. “If you look at the charges, a lot of them, I wasn’t even on the council, I was a citizen.”
“So you think that behavior is OK?” asked Devlin.
Michalson said that she had her mind made up about him before the meeting and that she got on the council just to get rid of him.
Mayor Dewey asked Holcomb if she was OK with Michalson interacting that way.
“Not in that way. No,” she said.
Former police clerk and current Town Clerk Jenelle Berthoud described how she felt when typing the minutes of the last meeting when a lot people came from Michalson’s house to town hall where she and a couple of other staff were during the Town’s Zoom meeting. She blamed Michalson for allowing the crowd to gather at his house and then let them come to town hall to protest.
She said law enforcement had to be called and she was given an escort home. She said it was all very disturbing and frightening.
Michalson said he didn’t have control of other people and what they did and did not participate.
Mayor Dewey said that Michalson was always putting employees in the position of having to defend themselves.
“This is our fourth clerk in three years, all with the same stories,” said Dewey. “When are we going to change the story?”
Holcomb said that they need to stop attacking Michalson. She said she has been attacked by a person at a council meeting and the mayor let it happen. She said everybody was doing it and it was just horrible and had to stop.
“If we are all going to do this we can’t just pick on one person,” she said. “We need to make it for everyone.”
“We are not talking about all of us,” said Devlin. “We are talking about the confirmed violations by Michalson.” She said that she had not heard any bad things about Holcomb’s behavior from the public, nor anything about Vick’s behavior.
“But I hear it on a regular basis about Michalson’s behavior. I’m not trying to remove you,” she said to Michalson, “but I am trying to hold you accountable. This is a repeated pattern. So, what are we going to do about it?”
Vick said that he heard from lots of people saying please stop trying to remove Michalson. He said a lesser crowd wants blood. He said part of him felt like agreeing with the minority, “but I am taking removal off the table. Because it’s not what the majority of the people want.”
The consensus was to place two separate issues on the next council meeting agenda. One to discuss Michalson’s conduct and one to make some decision about what to do.