Sunday, March 26, 2017

Audience members confront Alderman Clayton Greer as he exits the Hardin City Council chambers following last Tuesday’s meeting. More than 30 people at the meeting expressed strong reservations on the city’s response to the June 1 flooding and the replacement of City Judge Deb Winburn by Attorney Jim Seykora.

Disgruntled audience descends on Hardin City Council meeting

Citywide flood addressed, City Judge Winburn replaced
We need to get rid of the mayor, the attorney, the [finance officer] and [superintendent of public works].” – Judy Eidem, Hardin resident
The state of last Tuesday’s Hardin City Council meeting was, in the words of Mayor Jack Lane, “pretty raucous,” though problematic meetings aren’t exactly an alien phenomenon. Gavels have been struck, tempers have flared and - on more than one occasion - audience members have called for Lane to resign.
 
In the event that he were to resign, he would be the third mayor in a row to do so, following former Mayors Joe Koebbe and Kim Hammond.
 
The crowd fell into two main camps with plenty of overlap. The first group were angry at the city’s handling of a June 1 thunderstorm, which dumped between 2.5 to 4 inches of rain on the city in about an hour, flooding basements and sending sewage from the tops of toilets. The second were likewise displeased with the sudden replacement of City Judge Deb Winburn by Attorney Jim Seykora without what they believed to be a clear reason.
 
If it weren’t so overt, one might say the underlying feeling of the audience was a general distrust in the top echelons of city government. Among the most vocal was resident Judy Eidem, whose husband Dallas was fired from his job as city building inspector in late October 2014 over an alleged shoving incident.
 
“You could save the city a lot of money if you would make a big change in leadership,” she said to the council during public comment. “Get back common sense, kindness, not showing favoritism and comradery to the leadership of Hardin.
 
“We need to get rid of the mayor, the attorney, the [finance officer] and [superintendent of public works]. I will echo what someone else once said: The workers are the only good part of the city and shame on you for making their work environment miserable.”
 
Addressing Eidem’s comment, Lane said he agreed that Hardin has a good city crew and was quick to praise their work during the flooding. The city, he said, was currently in negotiations with the Teamster’s Union in regards to the workers’ employment and pay in an effort to be fair with them.
 
“We’re going to try to treat them right and do the best we can for them,” he said. “This is not a rich city. There are things I wish we could do that we can’t.”
 
The city attorney’s contract will come up for renewal next year, Lane said, though the finance officer and superintendent of public works are city positions and not elected. His own employment, he said, could be decided by the will of the people.
 
“If they can find a mayor who’s better, that’s fine,” he said. “Elect him.”
 
Lane spent a significant portion of the council meeting trying to quiet an unruly crowd of over 30 citizens, who peppered the proceedings with side remarks and blatant interruptions after the public comment period. He responded by using the gavel on several occasions as a form of punctuation.
 
“Can I ask a question?” an audience member said during the meeting.
 
“No,” Lane answered.
 
“And why not?”
 
“You’re not on the council.”
 
Less than 15 seconds passed.
 
“Can I ask a question?” someone else said.
 
“No,” Lane repeated. “You’re not on the council.”
 
Hardin businessman Cory Kenney, no stranger to being gaveled down, started to speak less than 30 seconds later. This time, Lane talked over him.
 
“You guys are out of order. This is the council. This is the council,” Lane said in frustration as Kenney heard a familiar strike. “You’re out of order.”
 
After the meeting, Kenney described the gaveling as a form of censorship that allows Lane to pick and choose who to allow to talk. Resident Mike Martinsen, after being told to watch his language by Lane in regards to an alleged quote by the city attorney, was gaveled down three minutes and 50 seconds into his public comment. Martinsen, saying he hadn’t had the generally agreed-upon five minutes to speak, returned to the podium, where the mayor and he called each other liars in a tangential discussion, and the gavel was used once again.
 
Lane believes use of the gavel is necessary to allow the council to operate, as the meetings are the one time they can plan and make decisions.
 
“I understand that people are upset and want to be heard, but that’s why we have public comment,” Lane said. “We will, even when public comment is closed, sometimes open it up for comment from the audience, but there’s a problem there with people saying what they think and shouting down the councilmen, because then you can’t conduct business.”
 
Flooding problems
 
The flooding, according to former Superintendent of Public Works Larry Vandersloot, could have been alleviated through pumping sewage into the storm drains, normally a federal offense, but something he believes to be permissible in emergency situations. Tony Maxwell, also a former superintendent of public works, said during the meeting that he and Vandersloot had, for the past 32 years – including the 2011 floods – used a system of “act now, ask for forgiveness later.” The Environmental Protection Agency, Maxwell said, had never penalized them for bending the rules in the town’s best interest.
 
The fact that current Superintendent of Public Works Russell Dill didn’t allow city workers to pump the sewage, Vandersloot said, caused homeowners to have to pump sewage of their own.
 
“We put it wherever we could put it,” Vandersloot said, as the audience clapped. “I understand that you pumped nothing – you refused to start the pumps – which caused all these people to flood. The excuse is ‘I’m going to lose my license if I put it in the storm sewer.’ In an emergency, you do whatever the heck you need to do to save these people.”
 
Dill, speaking during a June 2 city council meeting, expressed sympathy for those whose basements were flooded and said that he believed they made the right decisions at the time. Lane said while he wasn’t going to order a city employee to commit a federal offense, the city was currently working with Maxwell to strategize an effective workaround to the problem. Despite the strategizing, he talked with members of Stahly Engineering & Associates, who said that – regardless of preparations – there is no guarantee flooding won’t occur again.
 
“I asked them if there were things we should have done differently,” Lane said. “Their response was that there’s nothing. When you get that amount of rain, that amount of water in that short amount of time you’re going to have flooding.” 
 
Winburn replacement
 
The council voted 3-2 to appoint Seykora as the new city judge, though many thought the reason for the new appointee wasn’t entirely clear. Aldermen who voted for Seykora were Kenny Kepp, Harry Kautzman and Clayton Greer. Those who voted against were Jerry Wemple and Karen Molina.
 
When Lane called for a vote soon after naming the nomination, Molina interrupted to ask why he decided to replace Winburn and whether hiring Seykora would cost the city more money.
 
“I’m not saying Jim’s not qualified, he’s overqualified. He’s my neighbor, I worked with him in the county attorney’s office – he’s a perfectionist at his work,” Molina said. “I’m looking at money. How much more is it going to cost us to run the city judge’s office when we’re trying to save money for law enforcement and we say we don’t have money?”
 
Winburn, she said, worked as a clerk as well as the judge. Lane said he would look into whether Seykora could also work in a clerk position, but didn’t necessarily answer the “why” segment, other than that Winburn’s two-year term was up.
 
When asked later, he said the firing of Carla Colstad, his appointee to the City Government Study Commission, by Winburn’s husband Eric had nothing to do with the new appointment. According to Lane, Seykora was simply the better choice.
 
“He’s well-qualified,” he said. “He used to be county attorney, he used to be a U.S. attorney, he’s a member of the State Bar, he has worked with city courts up in Billings and he knows the procedures.”
 
Following Dill’s admission that the storm drains hadn’t been utilized during the flooding, the majority of audience members left the meeting chamber and discussed the proceedings outside. 
The next city council meeting is scheduled for July 7.
 
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