By Michael Howell
The Stevensville Town Council, which has been meeting regularly on the second and fourth Monday of each month, has changed its routine and will now meet on the second and fourth Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at Town Hall. Any person wanting to place an item on the agenda will have to submit the request to Town Hall by noon on the Friday preceding the next Thursday meeting. It was also decided to distribute the Council’s information packet to the North Valley Public Library and the Bitterroot Star.
New councilor Ron Klaphake, who proposed the changes, said that providing a council meeting information packet to the public library would make it more readily available to those people in town who work during the day, since the library is open in the evening after work hours. He said the Town should be encouraging the public to get informed and participate in governmental affairs. Klaphake said he spoke with library officials and that they were receptive to the idea.
The new procedures do allow the mayor to amend the published agenda so long as the amended agenda is posted on the bulletin board at Town Hall at least 48 hours in advance of the meeting.
Klaphake said, if it was up to him, he would leave that provision out.
“I certainly don’t think we should rely on that 48 hour notice. We should err on the side of public notice. If it becomes a constant,” he said, “I will try to change that.”
The changes were adopted in a unanimous vote.
Perrin new council president
The words had hardly left Mayor Gene Mim Mack’s mouth announcing that he was accepting nominations for Council President when Councilor Robin Holcomb nominated herself.
The Mayor asked for a second. But Councilor Klaphake noted that a second was not required in the nomination process.
Councilor Desera Towle then nominated Klaphake. But Klaphake declined the nomination and, instead, nominated newly elected Councilor Bill Perrin.
Town Attorney Keithi Worthington then intervened, questioning whether a second was required or not.
“Typically council actions require a second,” said Worthington.
Klaphake clarified, saying that Robert’s Rules of Order, the procedural rules which the Council has adopted, do not require a second in the nomination process.
After some discussion and a break to do some research, it was determined that the rules do not require a second in the nomination process.
The mayor then closed the nomination process and a vote was taken. Holcomb voted for herself and the other three councilors, including Perrin, voted for Perrin.
Small portion of Third Street right-of-way to be vacated
At the request of the Stevensville School District, the Town Council agreed to vacate a small wedge of right of way bordering the school grounds on Third Street. The small, wedge-shaped piece of land extends from the existing edge of the sidewalk eight and a half feet onto school property and then runs diagonally back toward the sidewalk edge until meeting it at the other end of the street.
The problem arose in part by two overlapping deeded road easements, one established in 1908 and the other in 1928. The two easements overlap but do not parallel each other, thus the road easement covers a much wider swath, almost 90 feet at one end of the street, but narrows considerably at the other end of the street. The problem was discovered when the school leased the land along the road to different businesses and had to verify the property lines.
After some discussion of the right of way encroachments on the other side of the street and possibly addressing the problem in totality, it was decided instead to focus simply on the school’s request since there was some urgency to act.
Clerk/Treasurer position split
At the Mayor’s recommendation, the Council decided to split the job of Clerk and Treasurer. Mayor Mim Mack told the Council that the current combined position of Clerk/Treasurer was untenable given the two huge infrastructure projects under way and the huge backlog of work needed to bring the Town finances into compliance with audit requirements.
Mim Mack said that there was some urgency in addressing the situation as other funding agencies were losing patience with the town over the delay in the Town’s audit. He said the Committee of the Whole had expressed a consensus about separating the Treasurer position form the Clerk and at the same time had expressed a desire to consider hiring a Police and Court Clerk.
He said that separating the Treasurer’s responsibilities from those of the Clerk and then rewriting the Clerk’s job description to include the duties of Police Clerk and Clerk of Court made sense.
After some discussion about the process it was decided, in separate motions, to approve the Mayor moving forward with the process of changing the Clerk/Treasurer job description by Ordinance and to begin advertising for a Treasurer.
At the request of the Mayor, the Town Council discussed two items dealing with the town attorney position but took no action. They considered the process involved in using the town’s attorney and discussed potential limitations due to budget concerns. They also discussed whether or not the town attorney should be required to regularly attend council meetings and work sessions.
Mayor Mim Mack proposed that use of the town’s attorney be restricted to the mayor and the council. He proposed that any other town employees and individual council members acting alone should either go through the mayor or the council to get legal questions answered or through the council president in the mayor’s absence, except in the case of emergency, in which case the Chief of Police, the Building Inspector, or Fire Chief could contact the attorney without prior approval and notify the Mayor as soon as possible.
Airport Manager Don Misevic wondered about emergencies at the airport and at the water and sewer facilities. Then he said that there hasn’t been an emergency at the airport in years and that if there was, emergency personnel with the authority to call for legal counsel would probably arrive quickly.
Road Superintendent Ed Sutherlin said that he had probably called for legal advice twice in his whole career. He said the new rule would not make any difference to him.
Attorney Keithi Worthington said she did not have much contact with employees. She said the current practice of allowing anyone to call her was not being abused.
“And do I have to go through you to talk to them?” she asked the mayor.
Worthington recommended that at least all department heads should have the authority to call her. She also stated that the proposed resolution would limit the council’s ability to act.
“The Council would need to put it on an agenda and then hold a meeting. I think it’s contrary to statute,” she said.
Councilor Bill Perrin said that a single council person could contact the Mayor and get approval. He said there needed to be some control over the budget and so you need some control of access to expensive legal consultation.
“It’s the Mayor’s responsibility,” said Perrin. “The Mayor should have the ability to control expenditures.”
Worthington said that the Mayor could act unreasonably and deny access.
“Then you could bring it to the Council,” said Perrin. He said leaving it wide open for anyone to use the town attorney makes it impossible to control the budget because there is no way to predict or control the amount of use.
Councilor Towle said, “It’s more of a political context than a business context. From what I’ve witnessed I could say that I would respectfully disagree. It seems like whoever gets to the attorney first gets control of the attorney and then everybody else is left out in the wings. That’s my concern. It can get lopsided real quickly.”
Worthington said that the open door approach has been working and not been abused. She stated again that she felt the resolution limited the power of the council and empowered the mayor.
Councilor Klaphake said that individual councilors had no power or authority at all.
“Our power is as a whole council. We can’t do anything as individuals,” he said.
Councilor Towle suggested that the issue be researched.
Worthington said they would be heading down a “slippery slope” if they adopted the proposed restrictions.
Mayor Mim Mack asked Worthington if anything in his proposed resolution was in violation of Montana statutes.
“Is it per se illegal? No,” said Worthington.
Klaphake suggested they contact the Local Government Center for an opinion on the matter.
Town Clerk Sue Gibson said, “No other town in Montana has this limitation.”
Worthington said this “looks like nickel and diming the budget” to her. She said she could work based on a contracted wage and not by the hour if that was the Mayor’s concern.
“We could discuss a flat rate,” she said.
The matter was tabled to February 9 and the Mayor was going to research the issue.
Later in the meeting the Mayor brought up the matter of the attorney’s regular attendance at all meetings and questioned whether it was necessary or not.
Councilor Holcomb said, “I want the attorney here. Not necessarily at work sessions. But at council meetings you don’t know what will come up.”
Councilor Perrin said that there are times when an attorney is needed and times they are not. He saw no need for an attorney on a regular basis. He said the Mayor could decide on an as needed basis based upon the agenda.
Councilor Towle agreed with Perrin.
Councilor Klaphake said there were times when an attorney is needed at work sessions, depending on the topic. But there are times when they are not needed at work sessions or council meetings.
“We can’t set a fast rule,” he said.
Mim Mack asked Worthington how much it cost the town for her to attend council meetings. She said her pay is $90 per hour and it takes her five to six hours, including preparation, $450 to $540 per meeting. Mim Mack said he just wanted the council to be aware of the cost involved in the decision.
Councilor Holcomb said, “I want the attorney at all council meetings, you never know what will come up.”
This issue was also tabled until February 9.
In other business the Town Council:
• approved a contract with HDR Engineering for Phase 2 of the Sewer Project engineering services, which includes updating the original Preliminary Engineering Report and applying for grants to fund Phase 2 projects;
• approved payment of $13,699.02 to Shannon Industrial Contractors;
• approved the request of Chief of Police to increase the reserve officer force from six to eight members;
• approved the placement of stop signs on College, Pine, Church and Spring Streets where they intersect with Third Street. These would replace the current “Yield” signs which are apparently not very effective;
• appointed Councilor Towle to serve on the Planning and Zoning Board; Councilor Holcomb to Park Board and Cemetery Board; Councilor Klaphake to the Airport Board; and Councilor Perrin to the Tax Increment Finance District Board. All will serve as voting members;
• received a letter from the Montana Department of Commerce stating that the agency had made a tentative decision to approve a CDBG grant of $400,000 to the Town to be used for installation of sewer infrastructure to serve the Tax Increment Financing District on the north end of town. Up to $380,000 may be spent on the infrastructure and up to $20,000 on administration.