Council rejects mayor’s appointments

Faceoff continues over city attorney, treasurer slots

In this photo from the Dec. 18 meeting of the Dillon City Council, City Attorney Duke Gilbert (far left) is shown with council members (left to right) David Spehar, Bob Cottom, Lynn Westad and Derek Gore. Last Wednesday, the four councilpersons voted against Mayor Michael Klakken’s appointment of Jim Dolan as city attorney. J.P. Plutt photo

The stormy dawn of a new era broke for Dillon’s City Council Jan. 15, when an overflow crowd packed City Hall and watched the Council reject new Mayor Mike Klakken’s two new appointees to his staff.

Though Klakken beat three-term incumbent Marty Malesich by 10 percentage points in November, his appointments of Jim Dolan as city attorney and Neal Straus as city treasurer were turned back by the Council, which preferred the retention of Malesich appointees Ty Cobb and Duke Gilbert, and consented to the re-appointment of five other holdovers from Malesich’s staff.

Returning Councilpersons Lynn Westad, Bob Cottom, Derek Gore and David Spehar voted against both of Klakken’s new appointments.

The lone Council member to vote for both Straus and Dolan was Dan Nye, who collapsed on the sidewalk just outside City Hall shortly after the meeting (see related story in Top Local News).

Council newcomers Dick Achter and Bill Shafer also voted in favor of Dolan’s appointment, but Swede Troedsson abstained to make the vote 4-3 against Dolan, who has served the city for the past five years as deputy city attorney.

The Council unanimously consented to Klakken’s re-appointments of City Director of Operations J.S. Turner, City Clerk Jani Olsen, Chief of Police Paul Craft, Fire Chief Mike McGinley and Fire Marshal Rick Later—all of whom held those positions during the Malesich administration.

Malesich, who served three terms as Dillon’s mayor, quietly watched last Wednesday’s meeting from the back row of the public seating area.

But many in the audience did not remain silent, venting their frustration at what they saw as the Council’s obstruction of the will of Dillon’s voters.

“I’ve made some phone calls in the past several days and talked to some Council members, and I just want to go on the record as saying I believe that this whole thing was orchestrated and manipulated. I believe that there are people on this Council that do not have the city’s good intentions at heart,” contended Dillon resident and former City Councilperson Jean Bergeson.

“The fact you are not willing to move forward from the election that occurred in November is absolutely appalling,” added Bergeson, whose comments were greeted with applause by some in the audience.

Former City Councilperson Jim McIsaac rose to ask Cobb and Gilbert to “be the gentlemen that we think you are, hope you are, and ask that you step aside from these positions so that this Council isn’t further polarized and so the city can move on with its business which the voters have told us they want.”

Peter Tomayrn asked the Council members who voted against Straus and Dolan to at least explain their votes.

“I would think it would behoove members of the Council to at least express their opinions when they are going to vote ‘no’ on something that the mayor has asked for,” said Tomaryn.

“To just hide behind a ‘no’ vote without giving your reasons why you disagree with our duly elected mayor, I find to be rather cowardly.”

None of the Council members responded, except Westad.

“My decision is based on a Butte lawsuit that cost their taxpayers one million dollars,” said Westad.

“You cannot terminate someone who is employed and doing his job without just cause, and in this situation there is not just cause. An employee cannot have a job one day and be fired the next day, and that is exactly what the lawsuit said,” commented Westad.

“There seems to be some difference of opinions on how those people arrived at those positions and whether they are exempt or non-exempt, but basically the federal court case addressed all those issues, and it doesn’t matter.”

But Klakken and Bergeson, an attorney, disagreed with Westad’s legal analysis, saying those issues do matter.

“I do not believe that case is like the City of Dillon,” said Klakken. “In the Butte case, those employees started at the bottom and worked their way up to the top to the last position, and that is where they were appointed. At that point, they had been full-time, lifetime employees. You cannot just remove them, I agree. But what we have here though is different. Both of these gentlemen started at the city in appointed positions; they were appointed every two years.

“State law says ‘employment is terminated by, one, the expiration of its appointed term, which is what happened here. Both of these gentlemen—and I’m not commenting, I’m not knocking them, they are both good gentlemen—but their term has been terminated, that happened, it’s over,” continued the new mayor, who has said he is not firing Cobb and Gilbert, but simply choosing not to reappoint them.
“Two years and two weeks ago, they were appointed. That ended. So those cases are not the same case.”

Bergeson cited “very distinct dissimilarities between the City of Dillon and Butte-Silver Bow County.”

“Butte-Silver Bow County is city-county government,” said Bergeson. “They have a charter that’s for a first-class city; Dillon is a third-class city, our charter provides for appointment of attorneys and treasurers. Silver Bow does not have appointment of the city attorney or county attorney or the treasurer. They are both elected positions. The two people that were fired – and they were firedwere department heads,” continued Bergeson.

“They were not appointed positions. The city attorney in the Dillon statutes has always been an appointed position of the mayor and the fact that we’re running scared of a potential lawsuit — I don’t think that’s where we should be.”

Dillon resident Norma Duffy was the lone audience member to speak in favor of retaining Cobb and Gilbert.

“I’ve watched this city go from no money in the bank in 12 years to money in the bank and probably the second-finest financials regarding the people that are already sitting here,” said Duffy, proprietor of a local taxi company.

“Whether you guys like them or not is inconsequential—if something’s not broke, you don’t fix it.

But other members of the audience contended that the meeting showed that something more fundamental about their city’s government than its accounts was out of balance.

“I have a lot of problems with this,” said Edith Fletcher. “Why did the majority of us vote for a new mayor, and the new mayor is stuck with a Council that’s put in staff in favor of the old mayor, and now is forced to continue with the staff that the old mayor appointed. I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

”It’s also called elections,” answered Troedsson, who earned his current stint on the Council as a write-in candidate, and earned a sharp responses from two audience members for suggesting earlier in the meeting that the mayor’s salary and benefit packages should be reviewed by the Council.

“I’d like to point out that we did elect a new mayor by a fairly good margin, almost ten percent,” said Raymond Graham, a former Dillon City Councilperson.

“And for the Council to come in now and start nitpicking and taking away the mayor’s benefit package set by the Council a year ago just because they’re sorry and sore about who won the election, that shouldn’t be giving them an excuse to come in and say, ‘well, we’re not gonna pay him because we don’t like him.’ The city residents of Dillon voted. We wanted Mr. Klakken to have a chance.”

Dillon resident Rich Wassall noted that three of the current members of Council gained their seats after receiving less than 30 votes as unopposed write-in candidates in November.

“Looking at the members of this Council, a substantial number of you guys didn’t receive that many votes in the last election,” he said.

“The reason that you didn’t is because you were write-in candidates, and the reason that you were write-in candidates was because the citizens of this town didn’t want to run for this Council. And the reason they didn’t want to run for this Council is because of what’s happening here tonight. You guys are the most dysfunctional, contentious, agenda-driven representatives.”

On the other hand, he added, Klakken "won the election as mayor of this city.” Wassall went on to say that Dillon has traditionally favored a strong mayor, but was now seeing its City Council try to weaken its mayor and assert more authority.
“And now because of hurt feelings or political agendas or whatever, the people that backed the prior mayor who lost that are sitting at this table don’t like that, and want to take it out on this guy,” Wassall said, motioning toward Klakken.

“He deserves a salary, he deserves health benefits,” continued Wassall. “He deserves the support of the Council on his staff that he needs to form his administration to run the city. And that’s what all of us want. We need to get rid of the ill feelings and let this guy be mayor.”

The Dillon City Council will next meet Feb. 5, when Mayor Klakken could again ask for the Council’s consent in appointing Straus and Dolan.