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Council eliminates controversial four-vote rule

| March 8, 2007 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Editor

Libby City Council voted Monday to change a controversial rule that had required an affirmative vote by four council members to pass any measure.

The rule was central to a recent court decision invalidating the council's removal of member Stu Crismore. The council had voted 3-3 on removing Crismore for his failure to attend meetings, citing a state law allowing municipal offices to be declared vacant in the event of an officer's neglect or refusal to perform duties. Mayor Tony Berget cast the tie-breaking vote, as allowed by state law.

District Judge Michael Prezeau determined that the council violated its own rule, however, in allowing the mayor to break the tie.

The meaning of the rule and the possibility of changing it had been debated by the council last year, several months before the council voted in August to remove Crismore. Crismore had argued in favor of changing the rule and requiring a simple majority to pass measures as long as a quorum is present. A vote on changing the rule was planned last summer, but the issue was tabled due to Crismore's absence from the meeting.

Changing the rule was again proposed last month, but the matter was tabled again after the council failed to agree on proper wording. At Monday's meeting, a draft change to the rule presented by City Attorney Charles Evans was amended somewhat before being approved on a 5-1 vote.

The new rule proposed by Evans defined a quorum as four council members, then called for an affirmative vote from a majority of council members to pass any measure. At Councilman Bill Bischoff's suggestion, the word "present" was added after "council members." Following discussion by the council on how to make it clear that the mayor can break a tie, a clause was inserted into the rule specifically giving the mayor that power.

Crismore supported the change.

"I think that gets us where we want to be," he said.

Councilman Doug Roll, who had previously expressed concerns about the possibility of a minority of two council members, along with the mayor, being able to pass a measure, voted against the change.

Roll added after the vote that he would like Evans to prepare a draft rule allowing the council to vote to suspend its rules in certain circumstances.

In other matters, Crismore questioned Evans' attorneys' fees for representing the city in the court case involving his removal from the council.

When Crismore initially challenged the city on the matter, Prezeau ruled that the city had acted within its authority and rejected Crismore's request for an order permanently barring the city from removing him from the council. Crismore appealed the case to the Montana Supreme Court, which ordered Prezeau to review the issues of whether Crismore had received due process and if he had neglected his office or refused to perform his duties.

The case went before Prezeau in January, when the judge found that the city had violated its four-vote rule.

Evans' January bill for work on the case was $1,116.27. Crismore said the council should know if the city plans to pursue the case any further.

"If we're going to continue to fight it, we're going to have to continue to fund it, and that should be a council decision in my opinion," he said.

Berget said it's "premature" to make that decision yet.

The city filed a motion last month asking Prezeau to reverse his ruling, but Prezeau has not yet ruled on the motion. The city can still appeal the case to the state Supreme Court.

In addition to Evans' fees, the city was ordered by Prezeau to pay Crismore's legal fees. Attorney Amy Guth, who represented Crismore, submitted a bill for $6,348.20 in fees and costs.

Crismore was elected to the council in November 2003, and his term expires this year.