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Troy council, mayor challenges continue

by Canda Harbaugh & Western News
| October 7, 2010 1:55 PM

The atmosphere and effectiveness of a work meeting next week may be a litmus test for how well the Troy City Council and mayor will collaborate in the future.

The parties agreed at a training session last week to move beyond disputes of the past, but the introduction last Friday of proposed legislation by a member of the council may have already become a stumbling block toward reconciliation.

“I had high hopes,” Mayor Don Banning said. “I no longer have high hopes. Now I’m waiting for the next thing to happen.”

The mayor and councilmembers have experienced a turbulent nine months since taking office in January, but agreed to participate in training sessions to learn more about the process and their roles in government in order to form a better working relationship.

Problems have cropped up for months but the feud came to a head in August when the four councilmembers refused to pay the city’s financial obligations. They said they were protesting the mayor’s refusal to include them in discussion of city business or allow them to place items on meeting agendas. Banning said the council was too controlling, interfering with affairs that should not concern a legislative body. He explained that he wouldn’t put items on the agenda that fall under his administrative jurisdiction.

In an effort to facilitate dialogue, the two sides agreed to receive training last week from representatives of the Local Government Center at Montana State University in Bozeman and the city’s insurance carrier.

“We’re going to try to work together and basically that’s what it’s about,” said councilmember Gary Rose. “But we won’t know anything until we actually go to the meeting (next week).”

The mayor and council participated in separate training sessions last Wednesday and Thursday and then met together for less than an hour. They didn’t converse about their past issues, but agreed to try to follow a new model at next week’s meeting.

The theme of the training, according to councilmember Loretta Jones, was that both sides must work together – that the mayor has the authority to make the final decision in many cases, but that he should be informing the council and receiving input along the way.

Part of the protest in August concerned Banning creating a new court clerk position without telling the council, the governing body that holds the city’s purse strings.

Banning said he left the training with good information.

“They enlightened me a little bit more on how to handle things,” he said. “I can understand how they (the council) would think that I should be getting permission from them before I do anything, but that’s not the way state government is set up.”

Some councilmembers were disappointed that Dan Clark, director of the Local Government Center, didn’t give clear-cut answers to questions of how the mayor and council are, under law, supposed to conduct business. Clark didn’t spell out who has final say in agenda-setting, for example.  

“I wanted some answers on interpretation and we really didn’t get anything,” councilmember Phil Fisher said.

Instead, Clark kept on the theme of working together, Jones recalled.

“There weren’t any magic bullets but the suggestions were how to get things accomplished at the work meetings,” she said.

The agenda for Thursday’s monthly work session, which occurs the week before the regular meeting, is light so that the council and mayor can try a new model. The meeting should be a time for department heads and the mayor to give updates, Jones said. Then, based on those reports and input from the council, the mayor and council should form the next regular meeting’s agenda together.

The training also informed the council that, in some cases, it is more appropriate to create policies as opposed to passing resolutions or ordinances.   

Members of the council had previously put together a number of proposed resolutions meant to exert control over the mayor, but had introduced only one until last Friday.

“We had a bunch of resolutions that we were going to think about proposing if things didn’t go the way we’d like them to go,” Rose said.

The day after the parties agreed to try to work together, Fisher brought in two measures to be reviewed by the city attorney. One is a resolution to establish an alley maintenance schedule, and another is an ordinance to amend or clarify – depending on one’s interpretation – the portion of the city charter that outlines the mayor’s role in appointing and removing city personnel. The ordinance would change the charter to clearly read that the mayor may not make personnel changes – hire, fire, promote or demote – without the council’s consent. 

Banning perceived the proposed legislation as a threat.

“I am getting flooded with resolutions,” he said. “They’re trying to take away the powers of the mayor and give them to the council.”

Fisher said he introduced the measures on behalf of the council as council president.

“I would have like to wait, but the rest of the council wanted to do it as a resolution,” he said.

However, Rose and Jones said Monday that they weren’t aware of Fisher’s actions.

“I understood that they were going to let those resolutions sit aside until we had decided if we could work together,” Jones said.

The fourth member of the council, Fran McCully, did not return calls for comment.

The mayor and council suffer from a case of clashing personalities and disagree on many things, but they state the same goal – to do the best for the citizens of Troy.

It will take time to rebuild trust, Rose said.

“Feelings are a little spongy,” he said. “There are some raw nerves hanging around. Things aren’t going to be resolved right away.”

Jones is cautiously optimistic. 

“It will be a learning process,” she said. “There’s not going to be one cure. I’m hoping we can all be reasonable and work together.”