By Michael Howell
Municipal election forums, sponsored by the Bitterroot Star and KLYQ Radio, were held last week in Hamilton and Stevensville. An old fashioned debate format was used and each candidate had the opportunity to ask his or her opponent some questions and the opportunity to answer questions from the media and the public.
This week we focus on the Stevensville mayoral debate. The forum was held at the Senior Center on September 18 and drew a nearly full house. The race for mayor is between incumbent Gene Mim Mack and former Town Councilmember Clayton Floyd.
Clayton Floyd Jr. was born in Durango, Colorado and has lived in Montana since 1960. He is married to Paulette and the couple has one daughter and two grandchildren. They have been residents of Stevensville for the last eight years. Floyd is a veteran of the Army Special Forces and has six years of Council experience on the Missoula and Stevensville Councils. He is 65 years of age.
Gene Mim Mack was born at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the oldest of six sons. He was raised in California, moving to Alaska in 1973 where he founded a residential construction company, built cross-country ski trails and eventually returned to school to receive training as a family therapist. He has been married to Robbie Springs for 28 years. They moved to Stevensville in 2004 and over the past nine years opened the Stevensville Hotel, the 5th Street Motel and the 5th Street Guest House. They also own the Kohl Building where Valley Drug and several offices are housed. Their daughter Alison attends Stevensville High School. Mim Mack has served as Mayor of Stevensville for the last two years.
The debate began with a question from Floyd to Mim Mack about the water and sewer rates.
“You have been told loud and clear that water/sewer rates are too high. At a recent meeting Ms. French asked if the rates were going to go up again. You responded, ‘probably’. What actions do you envision to arrest and/or reduce the current rates?”
“Are the rates going to go up again?” said Mim Mack. “The answer is, ‘of course.’ The reason the rates went up 40% is that no one took the initiative to incrementally raise rates in keeping up with inflation, so consequently when it came due it all came due at one time. That’s tremendously unfair to rate payers and poor management.” Mim Mack said the raises to come will be incremental. He said the sewer rate has gone up a small portion each year for the last two years.
“As far as arresting the rates, we manage every project diligently and look for ways to reduce costs, especially through grants,” said Mim Mack. “The current rates were set by Town Council during Mr. Floyd’s term on the council. I had no control over that and I inherited those rates.”
He said the town has partnered with the LIEAP program for rate reductions for low income water users that need help and a budget billing system and a time payment system have been created.
“The mayor is right that these rate increases were voted in by myself and others,” said Floyd. He said public safety was the first reason. He said the Town does not have capacity to fight much more than a residential fire. He said a big fire in downtown would be hard since there is simply not enough water. He said doing nothing was no longer an option. But, he said, the rates currently being charged are higher than the ones originally set.
Mim Mack said the rates being charged are the same as the rates that were originally set and there has been no change. The rates were set by council in consultation with bond counsel and are directly tied to the required bond payments.
Mim Mack pointed out that he had been appointed Mayor following the resignation of Lew Barnett. Floyd and Susan Evans were also nominated at the time. He asked Floyd to state what actions he had taken in his last two years as mayor that Floyd would disagree with or would have done differently.
Floyd characterized himself as “one of the most conservative individuals from a budget standpoint that there is.” He said the increase in budget implemented by the current mayor led him to want to get involved.
“I think the reason you put your name out there in public in the first place is because you feel you are the best qualified individual to do the job. I felt like I was then. I feel like I am today,” said Floyd.
Mim Mack responded, saying the town’s budget had grown with two multi-million dollar infrastructure projects going on. He said the funding for the operation and maintenance of the water and sewer systems increases with everything else. He also said the general revenue has slightly increased.
More important, he said, is what was done within the budget, re-allocating resources to make the town more efficient. He said that by changing procedures, the cost of legal services had been brought down from $51,000 to $15,000 by making structural changes in how the town’s attorney was being accessed. He said savings had also been made in office supplies through recycling and more conservative purchases. He said those savings were being redirected to essential services for the public.
Floyd said that he had generally been staying away from town council meetings. But at a recent one, he said, the Mayor indicated a savings due to an amendment of the bond terms which implemented a lower interest rate and lower annual payments.
“While I appreciate that, the fact is the project cost has almost doubled,” said Floyd.
Floyd stated that the mayor has not met the state mandated requirement to annually audit the town’s books for three years. He asked, “How does that make you effective, because three years is a long time?”
“It is a long time,” said Mim Mack, “but what is even longer is how long the town stayed out of compliance with state law on their bookkeeping.” He said when he took office no revenues had been posted for seven months or longer. He said the disarray in the town’s bookkeeping was extraordinary and extensive.
“It wasn’t criminal, it was just poor,” he said. He said it took a long time to bring the books up to date so that an audit could be performed. He attributed the most recent delays to reorganizations in the audit company beyond the town’s control.
Floyd said that five years of audits were completed during his two years on the council. He praised the work of previous clerk/treasurer Roni Kimp and said the books were perfect when she left, and the books were balanced and records were up to date when former Mayor Lew Barnett resigned. He said the problems really only went back to the clerk/treasurer after Kimp and before the current treasurer.
Mim Mack said, “Mr. Floyd said he stayed away from town for a reason and that reason is he doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about. That’s a fact.” He said state officials could be contacted to confirm that they insisted that the town not go back beyond 2009 in the books in their current efforts because books from those previous years simply did not balance. He said the books were not in order and he points to the audit for the year 2009 when Floyd was on the council.
Mim Mack noted that during Floyd’s 18 months as a councilperson, he was investigated by the town’s prosecuting attorney for entering the judge’s office and searching the judge’s desk, and publicly apologized for interfering with then Mayor Lew Barnett’s supervision of the clerk/treasurer. He stated that Floyd was also censured and reprimanded for exceeding his authority as a council member and subsequently resigned as councilor.
“How do you explain this record during your time on the council? And how does this record qualify you to be Mayor?” asked Mim Mack.
Floyd said, “First of all, I wasn’t investigated by the town’s prosecuting attorney. The town’s attorney at that time was Keithi Worthington. I did enter the judge’s office. But I did not enter the office by myself. Roni Kimp was with me as well as Keithi Worthington. Certainly if there was anything improper about it they would have brought it to my attention.” Floyd said he was simply looking for a form that was going to be discussed on that night’s agenda. “Could I have done that a little better? Absolutely, with 20/20 hindsight. But there was not an investigation contrary to what’s been stated here. The other matter involves four allegations made against me by Mayor Pat Groninger.”
Floyd said he countered all the allegations but the last. He said that he broke a confidence with the Mayor about an employee and spoke to the employee when he probably shouldn’t have. He said he apologized for the action and said he would not do it again. He said that he left the council because the situation with Groninger was not going to get better.
“Why should anyone trying to do the right thing and get things done be subjected to constant badgering by another council member?” concluded Floyd.
“There is documentation showing that the town’s prosecuting attorney at the time was Jeffrey Hays, not Keithi Worthington,” said Mim Mack. He said Worthington was the town’s civil attorney at the time but nothing in the record shows that she was present when Floyd searched the judge’s desk. He said the unauthorized entry was investigated by the Stevensville police chief and the report was forwarded to Hays.
Mim Mack said Hays wrote the town, saying they should change the locks to preclude entry by unauthorized personnel. In the report it states that Floyd was looking for the judge’s jury questionnaire because he thought some of the questions were unconstitutional.
Mim Mack said Floyd’s decision to leave the council was his own. He said as Mayor he has taken some heat and been misrepresented. “But you must have staying power,” said Mim Mack. “You must not quit.”
The election is by mail-in ballot with ballots set to be mailed to voters on October 16.