The Stevensville Town Council spent a portion of its August 12th meeting listening to former mayor Jim Crews tell them that they were operating under an illegal emergency declaration. The result was that the council will hold a Committee of the Whole meeting to discuss the issue and decide how to proceed.
Since losing to Brandon Dewey in a mayoral election in 2017, Crews appears to have spent a considerable amount of time researching and filing complaints alleging that the current mayor is not following the laws regarding his legal authority as mayor. According to Mayor Dewey, Crews filed nearly 30 complaints in six months, so many that it prompted the Town to develop a special online portal for citizen complaints so that Town staff could more easily manage them.
In this case, Crews maintains that the mayor and council have been operating under an emergency declaration that should have been terminated some time ago. Dewey had declared a disaster emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 31, 2020. The declaration was retroactive from March 12, 2020, the date that then-Governor Steve Bullock declared a State of Emergency. Although current Governor Greg Gianforte lifted the State of Emergency on June 30, 2021, the declaration by Mayor Dewey has never been rescinded.
The declaration states, among other things, that the mayor is authorized to “enter into agreements and contracts and make 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. This authorization is limited only to agreements, contracts, purchases, and expenditures reasonably necessary to implement the Declaration and to no other agreements, contracts, purchases, or expenditures.”
Another section states that the mayor has the authority “to administer all affairs and departments of the Town, including, but not limited to, implementing orders for employees to work from home and self-quarantine.”
The declaration also states that termination of the declaration will be by “subsequent order from the Mayor.”
Crews believes that the mayor should terminate the declaration immediately since a disaster emergency doesn’t exist. He says the council should request that the mayor rescind the declaration immediately, and “restore the Town of Stevensville to its constitutional form of government, resume normal meeting schedules and locations.” The council meetings have been held at the North Valley Public Library community room since March of 2020 in order to allow for social distancing.
Crews also recommends that a list of all agreements, contracts and purchases made while the Declaration is in effect be compiled for public review. At the end of 2020, the Town purchased approximately $92,000 of computer equipment with CARES Act funds. According to Mayor Dewey, the state had given a deadline of December 30 to spend the funds and the council wasn’t going to meet again due to the holidays. He said that he and the former finance officer quickly pulled a proposal together and ordered the items. The claims for these purchases did not come before the council for approval until July 22, 2021, at which time the council approved the claims unanimously.
Crews asked that the council schedule a “Council of the Whole” meeting to review and determine the validity of all agreements, contracts and purchases made during the Disaster Emergency Declaration. “The review is necessary as the current administration has shown a propensity to procrastinate bringing claims before the council,” said Crews. “This has been shown to be the case as indicated during the council meeting of July 22, 2021 when approximately $92,000 worth of claims for computer purchases were presented approximately seven months after the purchases. This was noted by council member Allen who did not, nor did the remaining members of the council, take formal actions to stop this sort of activity by the current administration. This is necessary to restore and validate the checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of our local government. The Declaration of Disaster Emergency did not include this provision in order to protect the citizens of the Town of Stevensville and their assets and best interest.”
Finally, Crews says that although the Town’s Purchasing Policy states that the policy may be suspended during a declared emergency or disaster, only the council has the authority to make that decision, not the mayor. “The council gave the mayor powers that are reserved and assigned to the town council, which I believe is not legal as the council cannot assign powers to a mayor that are not assigned by the state legislature.” He asked the council to pass a motion requiring the mayor to comply with all provisions of the Town’s Purchasing Policy and recognizing that the council has not suspended the Purchasing Policy.
Crews spent the rest of his presentation giving the council a lesson on the powers and duties of a mayor. Crews maintains that Dewey has greatly overstepped his legal authority and the council has been complicit in allowing it to happen. He said the council needed to pass budget amendments for any expenditures not in the budget, including those related to funds coming to the Town for COVID-19 relief, and that had not been done.
Council member Sydney Allen said that asking the mayor to rescind the emergency declaration might be premature, due to the current rise in COVID-19 cases. Crews responded that the council needs to have that declaration terminated so that they can take back their legal authority, regardless of any emergency. “You need to enforce your own rules and your own laws… you need to take control.”
Mayor Dewey said that although the governor has said that there is no statewide emergency at this time, there can still be a local emergency. He also said that the declaration is required to be in effect in order to qualify for FEMA funds to respond to the pandemic. He said the wording of the declaration was provided by the Montana League of Cities and Towns whose general counsel reviewed it. The local declaration was also reviewed by the Town’s attorney. “They found no issues with it whatsoever,” said Dewey. Dewey said the mayors of many other municipalities in Montana, which have the same form of government as Stevensville, also issued the declaration. Dewey said the declaration gives him authority to make purchases related to the pandemic, but not general purchases.
The council voted unanimously to hold a Committee of the Whole meeting to discuss developing a COVID-19 recovery plan. Discussion would include an analysis of the mayor’s Declaration of a State of Local Disaster Emergency that remains in effect. The meeting is scheduled for August 26 at 6:30 p.m. at the library community room, right before the regular council meeting at 7:30 p.m.
In other business:
• Under claims, council member Jaime Devlin questioned the increase in the cost of the Town’s liability insurance. Last year the cost was $23,000; it has gone up 130% this year. According to Mayor Dewey, the insurance rate is based on the last five years of losses which were $288,000. Dewey said a good share of that was from sewer backups that occurred mostly in 2017. In addition, recently settled lawsuits brought by former clerk Audree Tribbensee against the Town of Stevensville and (former) council member Bob Michalson were covered by their insurance carrier. “Those amounts add up to six figures,” said the mayor and will be considered in the insurance rate calculation for the next five years.
• Wendi Planty, the new finance officer, reported that she is currently working on bank reconciliations which are a year behind and need to be done before the 2020 audit can be completed.
• Fire Chief Jeff Motley said the department is on track to break a yearly record for requests for service with 442 to date this year. Motley said Marcus Daly Ambulance Service currently has 17 unstaffed shifts and calls during those times are being covered by fire department volunteers. Motley said the fire department also needs more volunteers. He also reported that the fire department raised $6,500 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association during its recent “fill the boot” campaign before the Creamery Picnic parade.
• Parks and Rec Director Bobby Sonsteng reported that 103 patrons took advantage of the free swim offered during Creamery Picnic. He said the pool would be closing for the season on August 26. He noted that Burnt Fork Veterinary Clinic had donated two pet waste stations for the bike path.
• Police Chief Mac Sosa reported that from his standpoint, Creamery Picnic was “a huge success for an event that had two parades and two stages with bands several blocks apart. We had zero arrests. That’s a credit to the department, the employees of the town, the volunteers and the citizens. That’s unheard of for an event of that size.”
• Paul Ludington was elected as council president.
• Paul Ludington was appointed to the Planning & Zoning Board.
• Jaime Devlin was appointed to the TIFD/TEDD Board.
• Sydney Allen was appointed to the Park Board.
• Karen Wandler was appointed to the Airport Board.
• Sydney Allen was appointed to the Climate Action Advisory Board.
• The council approved a construction bid of $117,200 for the Airport Gate Project. The project will be 100% funded by FAA and Covid funds.
• The council approved a contract addendum for Town Attorney Scott Owens.
• Budget workshops were set for August 18 and August 25 at 5 p.m. at the North Valley Library community room.