Veni, vidi, vexi: Snafus plaguing City of Dillon meetings

M.P. Regan
Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Closures and detours keep happening in downtown Dillon— though not just ones related to the streets and the ongoing waterline replacement project.

Numerous re-routings and delays during meetings this year over questions of proper procedure, or lack thereof, keep plaguing city government— which since the beginning of the year has operated under a new administration featuring a new mayor, a new city attorney, and two new clerks.

Procedural concerns caused the most recent meeting of the Dillon City Council to adjourn shortly after it got going--and before it even began to address the lone item on the agenda.

“The only order of business is approving the line item budget from the Finance Committee,” announced Mayor John McGinley after calling the noon Special City Council meeting to order.

“Mr. Mayor, I would like to start this meeting by saying these materials, these reports, were not provided to us 48 hours before this meeting,” interjected City Councilperson Mary Jo O’Rourke.

“We are clear on what constitutes an open meeting,” added O’Rourke, referring to the long established practice of public agencies providing agendas and access to public meeting materials at least two days in advance of those meetings.

“I think Mr. Nye tells the story especially well of an illegal, failure-to-be-noticed meeting which resulted in a majority of the council being recalled,” continued O’Rourke, referring to events in 2014 and 2015 that led to six of the eight members of the Dillon City Council vacating their positions, either through resignation or recall.

That culling of the council came amid an approximately yearlong controversy over a far more subtle open meeting violation—members of the council passing around and signing of a pair of letters to a pair of district court judges urging them to not let then-Mayor Mike Klakken call off the city’s legal cases against two residents who refused to pay for the installation of new water meters at their residences.

After a trial, then-Montana Fifth Judicial District Court Judge Loren Tucker ruled that that the signing of the letters— though each council member did it separately in his or her own home—did indeed constitute a public meeting and thus, a violation of Montana’s open meeting laws.

“So, I think that for those reasons, this meeting should be moved. Table these reports and reschedule this meeting,” urged O’Rourke, a suggestion her colleagues ultimately voted unanimously to endorse.

“I think it’s supposed to be in front of the public to be able to look at for at least 48 hours prior to the meeting, and that’s not happened,” said Dan Nye, the only then-councilperson who did not sign the infamous letter back in 2014.

“It’s an easy one to research. In the attorney general’s opinion, he says that everything has to be available for 48 hours,” added Councilperson Raymond Graham, one of the leaders of a petition drive begun in 2014 calling for the recall of four of the councilpersons who had signed the 2014 letters to the district court judges.

“The attorney general’s opinion—that is what all the Supreme Court rulings and everything goes back to, the attorney general’s opinion which happened back in 2004 or ’05,” recalled Graham. “And the Supreme Court has used it in several different decisions, and none of them has ever thown it out.”

“So, this could have been brought to the mayor’s attention two days ago,” interjected City Clerk Kami Hoerning.

“This has been brought up several times since the mayor took office,” noted Graham.

At a city council meeting earlier this year, O’Rourke complained that her meeting packet and that of her fellow Ward 4 Councilperson Dr. George Johnston did not contain supporting materials for an agenda item being discussed.

“This is, you know, so we can pay our bills. So, we can adjourn it until next Friday,” said Mc-Ginley of the lone item on the agenda of the recent Special City Council meeting.

“And let’s have the proper agenda, that says ‘March,’” requested Councilperson Russ Schwandt, referring to how the wrong month had appeared on some of the meeting materials reports.

“How many late fees are we going to have here, Kami?” wondered City Council President Don Hand.

“I don’t know how to do that— as far as how you get permission to pay bills that need to be paid,” replied Hoerning.

“I believe the Finance Committee last year was given authorization to expedite certain invoices for payments,” said Councilperson Russ Schwandt.

“It wasn’t just certain ones recurring, those are in there, but also what was in the resolution was if there was late fees that would need to be paid,” recollected former Mayor Mike Klakken, who attended the April 29 Special Dillon City Council meeting as a member of the public.

“But all claims have to be given to the Finance Committee. You just pay them before to make sure they don’t get late fees,” added Klakken of the council committee that reviews all claims submitted to the city for payment at its monthly meeting.

The city council also had to put off voting on its latest Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) at its April 20 meeting.

“It shows here that we have one action item, the CIP document. But I don’t have one in my packet,” noted Nye, when giving the report of the city’s Planning Board at the city council’s final regularly scheduled meeting of April.

“I didn’t put it in the packet. It’s 99 pages long, and you’ve had it before,” replied City Director of Operations Todd Hazelbaker.

“It’s the second reading,” said Schwandt, referring to the required council vote of a second reading of the CIP during a separate meeting from the one where its first reading passed.

“It’s only the first reading,” said Graham, recalling how the original first reading of the CIP had to be tabled at the council’s April 6 meeting because it came too soon after the conclusion of a required public hearing on the CIP.

“We cannot approve the Capital Improvement Plan, since we just had the public hearing tonight,” conceded McGinley.

“In that case, we’ll table that to another night.”

The Dillon City Council is set to next meet for a regularly scheduled meeting on May 18.