Paradise sewer accepts agreement amid dispute
March 31, 2022
The Paradise sewer board voted on Monday to proceed with the newest version of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) defining the roles in a possible agreement to purchase land on which to put the proposed sewer. The decision will allow the board to pursue a buy/sell agreement with landowner Bridger Bischoff to purchase just over six acres of land. However, there is concern over the legitimacy of the vote, according to two of the five board members and the Sanders County Attorney.
Issues amongst the board arose after Board Chairperson Janice Barber attended the special meeting on Monday night in spite of putting in her resignation at the end of the previous meeting. According to Board Member Don Stamm, during the special meeting, Barber supposedly rescinded her resignation in the time between the two meetings. The board did not vote to accept the resignation.
The board bickered during the meeting about the validity of Barber's resignation. Board members Terry Caldwell and Dewey Arnold, who are vocally against accepting the MOU in its current form, were of the opinion that the chair was sitting illegitimately in this week's meeting. Their reasoning was that during the meeting the board accepted the minutes from the previous meeting, which said that Barber resigned.
According to Dan Clark, Director of the Local Government Center at Montana State University, this is not proper board procedure, as accepting the minutes does not equal an action on an item. Clark's department does board training for numerous county and city boards across the state. According to him, the ultimate decision on the legitimacy of the resignation should lie in the board's elected bylaws, if they have them. He explained that the board is responsible for creating their own bylaws to govern their operation. "The state code is silent in governing this process," said Clark, referring to the official procedure on accepting a resignation. He is currently going through Robert's Rules of Order, which he says provides guidance on board processes. He has been contacted by Sanders County Attorney Naomi Leisz for another opinion on board procedure interpretation regarding the same issue in Paradise. According to Leisz, these issues have been ongoing and could result in legal ramifications.
Sanders County Commissioner Claude Burlingame was asked to attend the special meeting to discuss portions of the new draft of the MOU before a vote was to be held. Burlingame was barely allowed to speak as Barber did not officially ask him to do so, nor did several board members allow him to. Barber remained mostly silent throughout the meeting, aside from several verbal outbursts toward members of the board and the public in attendance. Burlingame tried to go ahead with his statement multiple times. He was interrupted by board member Caldwell, who said ,"It appears that you're taking a personal interest in driving this sewer through, regardless of what the people of Paradise want." Arnold then read a section from a letter they collected from Leisz, the county attorney, that seemed to support their position that Barber's resignation stands as official.
Board members Stamm and Janie McFadgen were of the belief that the rescinded resignation should stand, since it was given before an action was taken. However, there does not appear to have been written record that the rescind took place.
The new MOU voted on during this week's meeting had little time for discussion as the group continued to argue amongst itself, and with the community attendees, about the chairperson's legitimacy. After some time, Stamm put forth a quickened motion to accept the MOU. The motion was seconded and passed 3-2, with Barber and McFadgen voting to accept the MOU and Caldwell and Arnold voting against it. As soon as the vote was made, and before the meeting officially ended, Barber walked out. Caldwell, who repeatedly during the motion exclaimed that the board was not ready for a motion, announced numerous times that the meeting was "illegal" and the decision "illegitimate." He and Arnold then walked out of the meeting.
Caldwell and Arnold said they plan to contact Leisz again to challenge the decision, while Stamm wants to move forward with the MOU as if it were official. In a later interview, Caldwell voiced that one of his concerns was that this was the second time Barber resigned and rescinded. He felt as though she returned simply to pass the vote to go forth with the sewer. "If it's something that continues to happen, but she keeps coming back, how can we take her seriously?" asked Caldwell. "Our biggest argument is that this whole thing hasn't been transparent."
Stamm said after the meeting that the board is nearing the April deadline, at which point the grant funding available to the town to do the sewer, or make any such improvements to the town, will dry up. Caldwell disagreed, saying that the board could receive another 30 days if they asked. According to Stamm, the grant as well as other funding sources are one-time, and will not be granted again once their timer runs out. "The county attorney didn't have all the information," said Stamm. He explained how the town is dying and how he wants to create a better environment for growth. "I would like to bring in young families to help the town grow!" McFadgen weighed in. "What we all want is something reasonable and feasible and affordable," she said, referring to the whole board. Though this point seemed to be echoed by both sides of the board to a degree, neither side has been able to come together for a proper discussion on the matter.
According to County Attorney Leisz, "It needs to be mandatory that these board members take board training." Leisz referred to the unprofessional way the Paradise sewer board, among others in the county, have been operating. According to her, they are not following basic board procedures on either side. This could lead to a lawsuit against the county and the board, and their decisions may not be legitimate. "If there is a question, someone withstanding can contest it," said Clark. This contest may come in the form of an "appeal to the local judicial branch of government to render an opinion." Clark explained that if there is enough weight behind the contention, it may have to come before a judge, which Clark referred to as a "nuclear option."