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Judge rules in council's favor

| September 27, 2006 12:00 AM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

A judge ruled last week that the Libby City Council acted according to the law when it voted to remove Councilman Stu Crismore last month.

District Judge Michael Prezeau denied Crismore's request for a court order prohibiting the council from removing him. Crismore had argued that state law requires a two-thirds vote of the council to remove a member; the vote against him had been 4-3, with the council tied and Mayor Tony Berget casting the deciding vote.

Crismore cited a section of Montana law that says a city council "may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for improper conduct, and expel any member for the same by a two-thirds vote of the members elected."

In defending the council's actions, city attorney Chuck Evans pointed to another statute, titled "Determination of vacancy in municipal office," which lists a number of reasons for which an office may be declared vacant but makes no mention of a two-thirds vote. Among the reasons given — and the one cited by the council in declaring Crismore's seat vacant — is "open neglect or refusal to discharge duties." Other reasons given include a council member's death, resignation or conviction of a felony.

According to Evans, Crismore had missed eight of the last 12 scheduled meetings and that the council could deem that to be neglect of his duties. Crismore told the council he had been unable to attend the meetings because of conflicts with his job and that he had been unable to call anyone to inform them he wouldn't be making a meeting. He added that no one on the council had called him about the issue.

Earlier this month, Prezeau signed an order temporarily putting a hold on the council's decision while he took some time to review the issue. In a decision issued last week, the judge wrote that it would be impossible to interpret the law in the manner urged by Crismore without invalidating the statute cited by the city. Prezeau noted that one of the reasons for vacancy as listed in the statute used by the city is "the incumbent's removal from office," which would appear to include removal by a two-thirds vote under the statute Crismore had cited.

The only interpretation under which both statutes are valid is that a two-thirds vote is needed only when there is an allegation of improper conduct not otherwise listed in the law the council relied on to make its decision, Prezeau wrote.

"Death, resignation and felony conviction do not require a two-thirds vote, and, under the statute, neither does a councilperson's open neglect or refusal to perform duties," Prezeau ruled.