By Michael Howell
In the wake of Stevensville Mayor Lew Barnett’s recent resignation, the Stevensville Town Council began defining the process by which a new mayor would be appointed. At the September 12 council meeting a process was defined and a schedule of procedure established. It involved narrowing the field of six applicants down to those who would be interviewed, defining and scheduling the interviewing process, forming the questions for the applicant interviews, conducting the interviews and making the final selection.
The six applications for appointment to the Mayor’s office included Sarah Armijo, Susan Evans, Clayton Floyd, Paul Ludington, Gene Mim Mack, and current Council President and Acting Mayor Pat Groninger.
Public comment at the meeting centered around Council President Pat Groninger’s application and how the selection process would work.
Jan Perrin kicked off the public comment session by recounting Groninger’s activities as a member of the Stevensville School committee working toward passage of a building bond. Perrin was asked to chair the committee and Groninger asked to be included in the committee.
Perrin learned from the County Attorney that Groninger, without the knowledge of anyone else on the committee, had gone to him questioning the legality of the committee’s negotiations with the low bidder on the process. She said Groninger created a great deal of work for the County Attorney, the School Financial Officer, and herself, only to prove the committee was within its legal rights.
“Not only was he not a team player,” she said, “but he lost the trust and respect of all involved. I would ask that you give serious consideration before appointing him to any position. In my personal experience he not only lacks leadership skill, but is not a trustworthy team player.” She said she had plenty of documentation and records to back up her remarks.
Bitterroot Star publisher Michael Howell stated that although Mayor Barnett had resigned and was gone, the questions he raised in his resignation remained and needed to be answered, particularly the question of who the Town Attorney works for.
Howell raised the issue of Councilor Groninger’s accusations against former councilor Clayton Floyd that led to Floyd’s censuring by the Council. He noted that the Town Attorney had helped Groninger prepare that document on his own without approval by the Mayor or Council. Howell said his understanding of the law was that only the Council or Mayor could get legal opinions from the Town Attorney and that no individual council member had that authority.
Howell said that when the issue was subsequently brought before the Council, the result was that the Council passed a rule confirming that any employee or councilor could use the Town’s Attorney. But following a government workshop, Councilor Dan Mullan returned and said that he had been advised at the workshop that the rule they had passed was probably not legal, since a municipality cannot pass city codes that violate state law. As a result the council repealed that rule.
“This puts us back under state law,” said Howell, and he asked the Council to consider making a policy on the matter that was consistent with state law.
Groninger stated that Barnett requested through the town attorney that he (Groninger) proceed with that and that he did so at the request of the Mayor.
Town Attorney Keithi Worthington said that she was contacted by Mayor Barnett on the telephone because he was going out of town on vacation and had concerns about Councilor Floyd’s behavior that he wanted to convey and “directed me toward Pat Groninger in his absence.” She said that nobody had ever asked her how that transpired. She said afterwards Barnett refused to acknowledge that he had requested that work so in July she sent him an e-mail asking that in the future he put things in writing.
Former councilor Clayton Floyd spoke, defending his actions as a councilor and denying three out of the four allegations that Groninger, with Worthington’s help, accused him of. He said the Council owed him an apology.
Mayoral applicant Gene Mim Mack said that he hoped the interviews would be conducted in public. He suggested that the voting issues surrounding the appointment needed to be clarified. He said the fact that Groninger is an applicant and also interviewing applicants raised some questions.
Attorney Worthington said that the interviews would be open to the public. She said that each councilor is allowed to select one nominee to be interviewed and the appointment would be filled by majority vote. As a result the Council could end up interviewing up to four applicants. Or, if each councilor selected the same applicant, only one would be interviewed.
Councilor Mullan said that what he envisioned was a public meeting “where we publicly nominate whoever we want to fill the position.” He said he wanted to see as much transparency as possible.
It was noted that candidates would be sequestered from each other’s interviews. When the question was raised as to how that would work for Groninger if he was conducting the meeting, Mullan snapped, “He won’t.” Mullan noted that Groninger did have a vote according to Council rules.
Groninger said he had nothing to do with the process and was not making any suggestions. He said that he would do whatever Council and legal advised on the issue.
Howell asked Groninger, “How could you meaningfully and responsibly vote if you were not at the interviews with the other applicants?”
Groninger said, “I’m going to do what I’m told. If I’m told I’m not going to be there, I’m not going to be there. If I can vote, I’ll vote. I might not even nominate myself. You don’t know that.”
“Let’s just say that you are allowed to vote but not to attend the other interviews, “ said Howell. “How can you meaningfully vote without having interviewed the other candidates, or witnessed their interviews?”
“I would vote in so far as record and knowledge of that person,” said Groninger.
Mullan called it a “cumbersome process, but if it came to a vote he could abstain.” The remark drew a round of applause.
In response to a question, Worthington explained that Groninger would have a vote as councilor but would not be able to cast a vote as acting mayor to break a tie in this situation.
Roxanne Stout expressed concern over the notion expressed earlier that each councilor could make one nomination and that if they all nominated the same person only one person would be interviewed for the position.
Dan Severson said that with six applicants for mayor and some of them really good, that the council had the opportunity to go in the right direction.
“It looks like you have some latitude in the way you go about this process so why don’t you develop a procedure so you can interview all six applicants,” said Severson. “You are throwing away a great opportunity if you just come up with one.”
He said the council needed to appoint somebody with leadership ability. He said that he served on Jan Perrin’s committee and “for a committee to be undermined by just one person, that really did happen. That’s the kind of leadership we don’t want.”
Mullan told the audience, “It’s nice to see your faces. Unfortunately I don’t see you very often. It always seems to happen, when there is blood in the water, the sharks show up. When the blood goes away, so do the sharks.” He said personal agendas and personal dislikes had no place at the table.
Mullan said that bullying was unacceptable, but that he had not seen any bullying at the table.
“At this point I have not had the opportunity to be made aware. So if those things are happening I think the council should be made aware of that,” said Mullan.
Mullan then criticized Councilor Desera Towle, without naming her, for stating publicly that she was resigning and then taking it back. Towle had verbally stated that she was resigning effective September 1 and then had verbally withdrawn her resignation on August 31 after accepting a job locally. In an interview with the Bitterroot Star, Towle said she was relocating because she couldn’t find a job here. She also told the paper that she was tired of fellow council member Pat Groninger’s tactics, saying he was “untenable to work with” and “a bully.”
“It becomes an issue when a person says I am resigning and blames the council for letting bullying happen,” said Mullan. “If there are any incidences of bullying then I’d like to be made aware of them so council can take action.”
“I have to agree with Dan,” said Councilor Robin Holcomb. She criticized Towle for talking to the press and said the public hasn’t had a chance to hear the other side.
“I think it’s wrong to publicly humiliate someone instead of bringing it to council so we could work things out,” she said.
Victoria Howell said that she had been at many meetings and seen the pattern of humiliation, disrespect, and intimidation aimed at Councilor Towle.
“I find it difficult to believe that the three of you can’t see it,” she said. “I think it’s brave of her to come back. She’s in the minority on a number of issues, but that is no reason to disrespect her.”
Michael Howell said, “About the allegations of intimidation, I’ve got a bunch of them here from when Groninger was Mayor. Citizens outraged at his behavior started a recall petition and submitted 22 allegations of misconduct which included allegations of harassment, threatening behavior, intimidation, and other displays of anger. The Council should ask him about these allegations when they interview him for Mayor.”
Howell noted more recent allegations of intimidation from Justice of the Peace Marty Berkeneder, Groninger’s actions in driving Councilor Clayton Floyd from the council, and then Mayor Barnett.
“How many times do you have to hear the word ‘intimidation’ to realize that there is a problem, of perception if nothing else, but it is a very serious problem and somebody needs to address these numerous charges of intimidation on this man’s part,” said Howell.
Mullan said he had been on the Council for 14 months and has seen lots of rude behavior but if he is going to clean up his own house then he will clean it up.
“But I don’t need to get blamed, not in the newspaper, let’s try to fix things here ourselves,” said Mullan. “Maybe I’m all wet, I don’t know.”
Howell responded, “If you were unaware of all these allegations then what does it take to make you aware? The public is aware and has been for a long time. We watched him beat up on Clayton Floyd till he quit. We watched him beat up on the Mayor till he quit. We watched all of this, and where were you?”
Roxanne Stout reiterated that Groninger had been recalled as mayor and then elected as council person.
“Shame on us for electing you to the city council,” she said. “We don’t want you for Mayor again.” She said that if the council picked him for Mayor that a recall effort would begin immediately.
“People are going to start signing those and we are going to start asking you not to be mayor again,” she said.
Ken Bransby, a Stevensville attorney, said that a person with a perceived conflict of interest usually recuses himself from voting. “Your sitting on the council and also running as an applicant seems like a conflict of interest.”
Christa Wortman said that she had been to a majority of meetings in the last 15 months and not seen any bullying or any evidence of what people are talking about.
“I would support you to sit in that chair again,” she said to Groninger.
A few more pleas were made to interview all the candidates. A move was made by Councilor Towle to suspend the rules and interview all the candidates, but the motion died due to lack of a second.
“The old saying is, don’t believe everything you hear, or read,” said Groninger. He said that Roxanne was “a nice, upstanding person” but that she had failed to ask him if “the lies being put out there are true.” He said his door was open 24/7 and he was available to talk at any time.
Groninger said that he was not here to bash Lew Barnett. “I still cannot say anything bad about Barnett,” said Groninger, but then proceeded to say that Barnett was a liar.
“Here’s the facts,” said Groninger. “You want to believe the lies? Believe the lies. Because that’s what they are. You want to believe the press? That’s what they do, they write. For the record, I did not forcefully pursue Clayton Floyd.” He said that he was asked by the Mayor and legal counsel to do it.
He said that the only thing he has done as interim Mayor is, “I’ve allowed our police department and our clerk and any council person to notify legal counsel anytime they see fit.”
“It’s embarrassing that the only time we have a packed house is when there’s blood. You want to believe the lies? Believe the lies. You want to ask me about the lies? Ask me. But don’t judge me if all you want to do is sit back there and do your thing. And I say this to all, not specifically to any individual, have the respect for this table, have respect for our clerk and our office and our employees. That’s all I want to say and I will not take any questions.”
Later in the meeting Town Clerk Sue Gibson asked if she could speak and said, “I’ve been sitting here listening to this crap all night and I have been quiet.” She remarked how petty the discussion seemed compared to the serious events of 9/11 which were just celebrated.
“And so I just want to say, as a recovering alcoholic, that you have to forget about what happened in the past and you’ve got to move forward because you are going to have your opinion and no one is going to change it. So let’s move forward,” said Gibson.
At a subsequent meeting on September 13, Groninger, as acting Mayor, scoffed at the need to do a roll call for council attendance, but relented when the clerk insisted.
Councilor Towle raised the issue of the limit on each councilor to nominate only one applicant for interviewing. She noted that the Council Rule that defined the policy for filling a vacancy did not include such a limitation.
Attorney Worthington disagreed, saying that the issue had already been discussed and decided. She said the interpretation, though not actually spelled out, was a “reasonable” interpretation of the rule.
Towle said simply, “You gave us false information.”
Then, without discussion, each councilor announced the name of the applicant they chose to interview. Councilors Mullan and Holcomb both named Gene Mim Mack. Towle selected Clayton Floyd. Groninger nominated former mayor Susan Evans to be interviewed. Groninger also resisted taking any public comment at the meeting, stating that none was required since the business was over and there was nothing to comment on. Groninger finally relented and said, “O.K., let’s chat.”
Howell said that, without getting into questions of intent, the limitations set on selecting applicants to interview were presented incorrectly at the last meeting, because the limitations are not in the rule. He said that allowing each councilor to make two selections would be just as logical.
The interviews of Mim Mack, Evans and Floyd were to be conducted on Monday, September 19. The appointment of a new Mayor will take place on Wednesday, September 21, at 6 p.m. The swearing in of the new mayor is scheduled for Thursday, September 22, at 10 a.m.