After years of review, the Hardin Study Commission recently released their final report, presenting a unanimous recommendation for an alternative form of municipal government within the City of Hardin. The study commission, elected in 2014, includes Eric Winburn and Laurie Tschetter.
The report summary states that citizens are frustrated and upset with the current Mayor-Council form of government, saying they feel “disenfranchised” by it. The Hardin Study Commission ultimately recommended a City Manager-Commission form of government to replace the current Mayor-Council.
“Most people wanted some kind of a change,” said Hardin Study Commission Chairman Eric Winburn, “There’s a lot of people that are unhappy with the way the city is running.”
The report summary lists popular concerns and opinions reflected in discussions, public hearings and nearly 300 citywide surveys. Each of the points addressed in the final findings summary exhibit frustration and dismay within the surveyed citizenry, frequently advocating changes to the current form of government.
“Overwhelmingly, citizens are frustrated with the current form… of government,” Point 1 of the commission’s findings states. “It was found that citizens feel…as if they have no power or voice.”
Although the final report frequently indicates citizen frustration and disbelief in city government, Hardin Mayor Jack Lane insists this isn’t the case.
“The citizens I’ve talked to haven’t said what is said in the [final report],” Lane said. “The feedback I get from citizens is more focused and pretty positive. Most citizens I talk to think we have a good city crew.”
Multiple cities in the United States, including Billings, currently use a City Manager form of municipal government.
“City Manager systems can work pretty well,” Lane said. “Most cities the size of Hardin have a Mayor-Council form of government, like we have, and I think ours works fairly well.”
For Lane, the cost of hiring a city manager is a concern, referring to West Yellowstone’s city manager position that, according to Lane, has an annual salary of $80,000 to $100,000.
“City government is pretty complicated,” he said. “I understand the need for a city manager but, so far, I’ve been able to get the specialized assistance that a city manager would provide.”
“I don’t have a huge problem with the recommendation. My main concern is that it adds cost to city government,” he continued. “I’m not sure that the cost would be justified, because I think the city is well served, by combining our personnel, we’re able to handle all the specialized duties that come through.”
Although Lane insists proficient officials fill prominent city positions, the Hardin Study Commission differs in several points of their findings.
“You’re stuck with the [elected officials],” Winburn said, referring to term lengths enabled by the current form of government. “If you don’t like them, you’re stuck with them for four years. A lot of times, voters don’t hold them accountable, so they could do a really poor job and they just stay in office.”
In Point 4 of the summary, the study commission states that citizens are upset with the city’s spending, “constant” tax increases and “record number of lawsuits” brought to action against the city.
“There’s been a lot of lawsuits against the city since our mayor has been elected,” Winburn said. “Taxpayers are going to be paying out big bucks because of the incompetence of our officials.”
According to Lane, referencing Point 4, the four lawsuits against the city this year do not reflect a “record” number. A member of the study commission, he added, also brought one lawsuit against the city to action.
“The city, at least in my experience, has always been involved in a number of lawsuits,” he said. “There seems to be ongoing litigation from people suing the city for this and that.”
Discussing lawful requirements, Lane also noted that a prerequisite to the statutory study commission initially required three elected members. Questioning the validity of the unanimous decision, he noted only two of three members signed their name on the final report.
The third member, Carla Colstad was voted out in 2015 during a closed session of the study commission.
“By law, I can’t fire them,” Lane said. “I can’t go out and pick somebody I like better and put them on the local study commission; we selected three commissioners on the basis of a vote, as far as I know, no one has the authority to kick her out.”
In Point 5, the study commission reports citizens feel city hall administrators are “secretive” and not forthcoming with information. They also stated that city administrators were “unwilling to work with or provide information to the commission readily.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever refused information,” Lane said. “There are requests that come in for information we don’t have, but we’ve always tried to meet requests if we have the information.”
According to Winburn, the city’s cooperation was either futile or did not occur.
“The city was fighting us the whole way. They didn’t want us to put an alternate on the ballot,” he said. “They weren’t very cooperative through this whole thing up until now. The voters are going to decide and with all that work we did; if they vote no, it all goes out the window.”
The commission-manager form is a system of local government that combines political leadership of elected officials in the form of a commission or other governing body, with managerial experience of an appointed local city government manager.
The Hardin Study Commission has recommended the proposed government reform to be listed on the Nov. 8 general election ballots for voter consideration.
For more information, contact 12Winburn at (406) 665-4154. Copies of the final report are posted at government facilities in Hardin and can also be viewed online at bighorncountynews.com.