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Questioning the parameters

| July 6, 2007 12:00 AM

By KYLE McCLELLAN The Western News

A former Troy city council member is taking legal action against Troy mayor James Hammons to prevent Hammons from annexing his own property as a way to continue acting as mayor.

Don Banning, who served on the Troy city council for six years, filed for a court-ordered injunction from Lincoln County Judge Michael Prezeau on June 22.

With it, Banning hopes to put the brakes on any efforts by city hall to annex Hammons' property and, ultimately, according to Banning, to remove Hammons from the mayor's seat.

Banning's legal action stems from ordinance 7-4-4301 (2) in the 2005 Montana State Law book, which states, "The office of mayor of a city or town is considered vacant if the individual elected as mayor ceases to be a resident of the city or town."

He wrote to the Montana Department of Justice in May. A clerk for the attorney general resounded that the matter is out of the department's legal jurisdiction because it lacks authority over local government. It suggested that Banning contact a private attorney.

"That's not enforcing state law too much by telling me (the attorney general) can't do anything," Banning said.

Hammons was appointed mayor in the summer of 2005 after the resignation of John Brown. He defeated Banning by a margin of more than 2-to-1 in the November election.

Banning, who resigned his city council position prematurely after losing in the mayoral election, said his efforts to remove Hammons from the mayor seat aren't personal and have nothing to do with his loss in the election.

However, Banning said he would still be interested in running for mayor.

"I'm doing this because I believe in the law, not somebody's whim," Banning said. "It's not legal what they're doing."

The annexation debate is complicated by the location of Hammons' new residence and the methods by which Hammons is attempting to become part of the city, both of which don't lend themselves to easy resolutions.

Hammons moved to the Valley of the Moon in March after a divorce. The Valley is a small, unincorporated cluster of homes surrounded by land that is, in fact, incorporated and that extends much further from Troy.

The Valley is bordered on the west by a cemetery, which is on city property, and to the east by railroad tracks, also on city property.

Also, a single home located near the heart of the city just blocks from city hall remains unincorporated.

U.S. Forest Service land, which sits almost a mile beyond the Valley, is incorporated, as well as undeveloped property lots nearby.

An argument against annexation wouldn't hold up if it derives support from the distance separating the mayor's new residence — which is no more than 90 feet in some places — from city boundaries, which are not uniform.

In terms of annexation method, ordinance 7-2-4601 in state law book reads that city government must proceed with annexation procedures if it receives a written petition "signed by not less than 33 and one-third percent" of the residents in the proposed area.

No such petition has been received by city hall.

Hammons is proceeding by attempting to annex only his own property. He said he knows residents of the Valley don't desire annexation and he is respecting that wish.

As the only resident requesting annexation, Hammons said he qualifies as 100 percent of the petitioning party.

"I've already talked to everybody else around there and they don't have a problem with it," Hammons said. "They don't want to annex but they don't have a problem with me annexing."

The mayor's office declined to comment on specifics pending the current litigation, but it said that the issue is less about annexation and more about the results of the 2005 election and the negative feelings Banning may still hold because of Hammons' wide-margin victory.

"Believe me, it's nothing to do with annexation," Hammons said. "Cities force annexation. I don't do it. But if we wanted to, we could force all that to be annexed."

He is aware that opponents will naturally direct their opposition to his position, the most visible one in municipal hierarchy.

Hammons has recently spurred significant improvements in Troy's infrastructure.

He has accelerated efforts to modernize the city's dilapidated water system. The change has brought increased water prices, road resurfacing and a few outspoken detractors.

"You have to put in infrastructure," Hammons said. "Whether they like it or not, it's the responsibility of the mayor and council to provide safe, clean drinking water for this town and fire protection."

Hammons also elected to purchase and renovate a cluster of run-down apartments, a move that vexed some residents. But the apartments now stand as some of the sharpest in the city and they house officials from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Tetra Tech, Inc. officials who are in Troy for the asbestos remediation project.

Libby Mayor Tony Berget said Hammons is facing difficult decisions confronting any person who must maintain city operations in the face of contrasting views and decreasing funds.

"The infrastructure in Libby and Troy is in such poor shape that we're mandated through state legislation to meet new requirements. Those things have to be done. He (Hammons) has a lot of tough calls to make."

And Berget said those calls are made without compensation.

"He doesn't get 10 cents. It's strictly volunteer. So what happens is you get a lot of crap for caring," Berget said.

Lincoln County Sheriff's Lt. Roby Bowe, whose law enforcement responsibilities bring him through Troy, said "He's (Hammons) doing good stuff for the town and trying to get it back on the fast track."