By Michael Howell
The resignations of three Stevensville Airport Board members –Paul O’Bagy, Jim Johnston, and Steve Knopp – were asked for and received at a meeting of the board held last Monday, December 5. Mayor Gene Mim Mack, after talking with each of the men individually after the meeting, accepted two of the resignations but declined to accept Knopp’s. After having his resignation declined, Knopp agreed to continue serving on the board.
The three board members came under fire for allegedly holding an illegal meeting, one not noticed to the public, or even to all board members, at a hangar at the airport to discuss several aspects of business at the airport including the performance of Airport Manager Don Misevic.
Town councilor Dan Mullan, who is the town council’s representative on the Airport Board, chaired Monday’s meeting although Airport Board Chairman Ron McCann was present. Mullan said that reports of the meeting at the hangar had been received. He literally read the open meeting law from Montana Code Annotated and then said, “I think we need to know what went on up there.” He said the allegations being made were very serious.
O’Bagy said that the topic of the hangar meeting was not on the agenda. But, he said, the hangar meeting was just a meeting to get feedback from the airport users.
Johnston said that several things were brought up at the hangar meeting such as the possibility of getting a public toilet installed and possibly acquiring a tractor mower. He said the biggest issue was the board’s meeting time at 2 pm in the afternoon. He said it was hard for working people to attend.
Mullan interrupted and said the topic at the moment was whether they were in violation of the law by having the meeting and he asked Knopp to respond.
Knopp said, “Obviously, since there were three members there, I would say we were in violation, if that’s what it reads. I wasn’t aware of that. If you are in violation, you are in violation, I am not going to argue with that.” But he said it was a lot less like a meeting than like a hangar party. He said it was a lot of one on one talk, like at a Christmas Party. But they did discuss airport operations and the dissatisfaction of many with the airport manager.
“It sounds like what we have here is a clear violation of the open meetings law by three members of the Airport Board,” said Mullan. He said as an appointed body the board was responsible and it was going to be his recommendation to the mayor to ask for their three resignations immediately.
Mayor Mim Mack asked who called the meeting and what protocol was followed.
O’Bagy said that he called the meeting and called everyone except for two board members, McCann and Delbert Schwaderer and the airport manager because of the “history” of things. He said he had heard too many complaints about the manager and wanted to hear from all the users. He said he wanted to know what someone besides himself was thinking about all this.
Mayor Mim Mack said, “This begs the question of where you got the authority to call this meeting.” He said only the mayor can call a special meeting. He said the fact that certain board members and the general public weren’t invited means it went against the open meeting laws and was “completely unacceptable.”
“You’re wrong,” said O’Bagy. He said it was just a meeting for him to gather ideas from the users.
Mullan interrupted and stated that the government must act transparently.
“This is the town’s airport. It does not belong to any individual. It does not belong to any specific group,” he said.
The discussion then disintegrated into a heated back and forth between Mullan and O’Bagy with Mullan finally stating he was ready to call law enforcement.
In the end O’Bagy still insisted that it was not a meeting. “When you say it was a formal meeting you are wrong,” he said. He said that they had learned some things recently from the Federal Aviation Administration and he wanted to share that information with the users.
Mayor Mim Mack responded saying, “The law considers it to be a meeting.” He said O’Bagy could have called the people individually and asked them what they thought.
“But you didn’t do that. You chose to involve two other board members, which makes it a meeting. It’s not debatable. It was a meeting. It was an improperly noticed meeting and the way it happened is of great concern to the town.” He added that nothing happened there that could not have waited for a properly noticed meeting.
Mim Mack went on to say that if different meeting hours were a concern, the way to handle it was to bring it before the board and decide as a body with proper public notice.
“It is absolutely necessary and it cannot be worked around. Period. Absolutely, never.” he said. “The fact that it wasn’t needs to be addressed.” He said it creates serious liabilities for the town.
“Ignorance is no excuse… You must understand your responsibilities and if not you must answer to the Mayor and the Council,” said Mim Mack. The mayor asked for all three to submit their resignations.
“When I came on this board thirteen years ago,” said Johnston, “I didn’t do it to represent the users. I’ve done it for the town.” Johnston said that airport manager Don Misevic was “stifling the airport,” and driving people away, such as the skydivers.
He said, “Several people have left the airport because of Mr. Misevic.” He said it was common in the past to have meetings where a quorum “happened to show up.”
Mullan said that any discussion of Misevic’s performance was a personnel issue and raised questions of individual rights to privacy.
Johnston said that under this interpretation that he and the airport manager and other board members have conducted meetings in the bar, because they had discussed various things that had happened at the airport.
Both the chairman of the Airport Board, Ron McCann and board member Delbert Schwaderer, who were not invited to the meeting at the hangar, said that they had not ever attended a meeting with a quorum outside the regularly noticed meetings and discussed town business.
Misevic answered a few of the allegations. He said that the airport has never adopted any minimum standards and he said the skydivers were not driven off the airport, but left on their own because they did not want to meet the Town’s insurance requirements.
Dr. Carl Shepp, an airport user, said, “Eliminating three board members who are users is the wrong way to go. I think we should move forward and learn from our ignorance about the law.” He said the meeting at the airport was simply an attempt by the users to organize themselves.
Later, when the agenda item concerning the airport manager came up, Mullan warned that personnel issues may require closing the meeting to respect individual rights to privacy.
Mullan then read the law about the exception to the open meeting law to protect individual rights of privacy.
O’Bagy started to discuss some issues about Misevic.
Mullan intervened and asked Misevic if he would waive his right to privacy for the discussion.
“I wouldn’t mind having it open if I could have the allegations before me in writing so I would not have to shoot off the cuff for any response I might have to any allegations,” said Misevic. “So for now I would not waive my rights to privacy.”
O”Bagy said that all the documents he was presenting were already public record.
Mullan said that the issues concerned Misevic and involved personnel questions and rights of individual privacy. He declared the meeting closed.
But O’Bagy said there was no reason to make everyone leave and said he would withdraw his agenda item so that other business could be conducted. The matter was then tabled.
In the end several members of the public spoke up in the public comment portion of the meeting about Misevic. Some defended him and recounted how much he had done for the airport over the last 33 years and how much the airport had been improved. A few said that the complaints being made about Misevic were based on a personal vendetta. Others stated great dissatisfaction and frustration with the way Misevic was managing the airport. A few complained about his use of foul language and said he doesn’t care about anyone else.