by Victoria Howell
At the July 22nd Stevensville Town Council meeting, Karen Wandler was sworn in and seated as the newest member of the council. Wandler will represent Ward 2 and is replacing Dempsey Vick who abruptly resigned in June. Wandler was the only applicant in this second round of advertising for the vacancy. In the initial advertising, former mayor Jim Crews and Sue Devlin, mother of council member Jaime Devlin, had applied for the position but the council decided that neither of those candidates were suitable and decided to re-advertise.
Wandler retired from the U.S. Forest Service in 2020 where she worked as an administrative assistant for 35 years. In her application she wrote, “I am concerned about happenings in the town I grew up in. I hope to provide support to all citizens in our community and have always been involved in the community and would like to do more as an advocate for the locals as a team player.”
When asked what she hoped to accomplish, Wandler said, “I’d like to see a little more stability in the community and listening to both sides… I’m not on any side, I’m on the town’s side.”
“I think the biggest thing is to listen to what people say,” said Wandler. “I think one thing that’s really important is that yesterday’s gone. We’ve got to build today and tomorrow… I’ve lived in this community since I was born, and all the mayors have made mistakes but we go on from today. We realize the mistakes we’ve made and we deal with each other and quit throwing stones.”
The council voted unanimously to appoint Wandler. Mayor Brandon Dewey administered the oath of office and Wandler was seated. With the previous appointment of Sydney Allen and this latest appointment of Wandler, the council now has the requisite four members.
Prior to Wandler’s appointment and swearing in, a group of old claims was presented to the council for approval. These were claims that were paid out of cycle at the end of 2020 and included some major expenditures using CARES Act funds to buy computers and other equipment for public safety and administration. Council member Jaime Devlin brought up a concern that those expenditures were never reported to the council or brought to their attention in any manner at the time. “Am I missing something?”
“…It is our responsibility to bring these expenditures to your attention…,” said Dewey. “Despite that, we were still given a deadline by the state to have this money spent by December 30. We didn’t have an opportunity to call a council meeting and say this is what we want to do. We had to really rapidly pull these proposals together. That doesn’t diminish council’s expectation that the finance officer and the administration should be reporting on these matters to the council.”
“I’m just kind of shocked that we didn’t hear from the person in charge of our finances making the decision to spend over $92,000,” said Devlin. “It’s pretty unsettling. And what was the back-up plan if that money wasn’t going to be paid back by CARES?”
“We were certain that CARES was going to approve it because we had received indication from them of pre-approval,” said Dewey. “…We were in the 90th percentile in terms of confidence… In the off chance that they didn’t approve it, then we were prepared to seek council’s approval to spend reserves.”
“We kind of set a precedent when we talked about the $12,000 [an unapproved claim for the mayor’s legal fees that was paid by the Town and then reimbursed by the mayor] and investigating that,” said Devlin. She said that would cost the town about $6,000 for an investigation. “Considering $92,000, I would welcome a financial review or a financial audit at this point.”
Council member Paul Ludington said, “All I will say is, I will never again approve paying claims out of cycle.” He said that they needed to figure out another way to deal with the payment of claims so that they were not being approved out of cycle without council review.
“I combed through these wondering why I’m approving something from November,” said council member Sydney Allen. “Our tactics must change. My goal is transparency. This doesn’t feel transparent to me.”
In earlier public comment, Bob Michalson said, “The town has a culture of buying big ticket items in November and December of every year when the out of cycle claims have been pre-approved… It goes on and on, dump trucks, police cars, computers, and now on tonight’s claims, last December the town paid $64,000 for computers, laptops, pagers, everything for the fire and police departments… This all came out of the CARES Act, and the town paid $28,000 for computer equipment for the administrative staff… without council approval or public input… I think this culture needs to change, it really does. It really is irresponsible spending on all of our parts. It has to change, folks, and it has to change now. There’s almost $100,000 in computer equipment here that the town bought out of cycle in November and December of last year and it’s just coming before the council now. I guarantee it, I don’t think the purchasing policy gives anybody the authority to make that kind of purchase without approval.”
In their packets, council members were provided with a narrative by the mayor in which he outlined the justification for the purchase of the computers and equipment that were paid for with CARES Act funds. He said that the new systems would allow better service in the field by emergency workers, and would also allow staff to work separately from co-workers or from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The mayor also sent the Star a copy of the Declaration of a State of Emergency that was implemented on March 31, 2020 and is still in effect. The declaration gives the mayor the authority to take any action necessary to respond to COVID-19, including entering into agreements and contracts and making purchases and expenditures “without adhering to state and local procurement requirements, including those in Titles 7 and 18, MCA and to the Town’s purchasing policy.”
In the end, the council voted unanimously to approve the old claims, with the exception of the claim for the mayor’s legal fees, which they had previously decided to set aside until an investigation into the matter is completed.
In his executive report, the mayor addressed a public comment by Pat Groninger, 3rd Street resident, who had said that he and other neighbors were not notified about the current construction work on 3rd Street. “It’s totally unprofessional, with total disregard for the citizens of this town,” said Groninger.
“The administration did a fully inadequate job in notifying those residents that the construction was coming,” said the mayor. “We just weren’t able to get notification out like we wanted to.” The mayor also said that the town used robo-calls through the utility billing system to notify residents of the work and many of the phone numbers on file are land line numbers that are no longer in service. The mayor said residents should contact Laura at the town hall to provide their current phone number.
In council comments, Devlin told the mayor, “I want to be very clear that, when I was bringing up those claims, I’m not faulting you solely on that. There’s at least two people who were involved in that…”
Devlin also said she has been seeing on social media that people are feeling like their voices aren’t being heard. She said she wanted to hear from people in either ward. She also encouraged people to participate by serving on a board, going to meetings, or volunteering for events like Creamery Picnic.
Ludington announced that the Planning & Zoning Board was holding a public meeting on revising the Town’s subdivision regulations on Wednesday, July 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the North Valley Public Library community room.
In other business, the council:
• witnessed the opening of a bid for the Stevensville Airport gate project from Pavlik Electric of Missoula for $117,002
• approved the special event and alcohol use permit for the Stevensville Creamery Picnic
• approved free open swim at the town pool on August 7 from 12 to 4 p.m. during Creamery Picnic.