Government By And For The People Of Great Falls?

 

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Last year, we had the City of Great Falls’ Department of Housing and Urban Development/Community Development Block Grant funding conflict of interest debacle. Before that, we had the Electric City Power fiasco.

I think you get my drift. It’s important to be ever vigilant about the workings of our government, a government by and for the people. The Founding Fathers knew this and encouraged citizens to hold government accountable to the people. I just wish there were more people out there willing to be vigilant. It’s lonely at these city commission meetings.

The city commission voted at their November 7 meeting to suspend the Design Review Board for six months. City staff recommended the action because of current staff workload. The city planning staff is short on people. Apparently, working with the DRB with a planning staff shortage is more onerous than doing without the DRB for the time being.

I’ve interacted with a lot of people in Great Falls and through the years, I’ve heard nothing but complaints and grumblings about the DRB. Some people have told me it’s an unnecessary hurdle to development in Great Falls, particularly since we already have city building codes and zoning regulations. There were other comments too, including a business entity that told me they couldn’t use a supplier they wanted to use for a project.

I always take what I hear with some degree of skepticism. However, being both curious and concerned, I presented what I had heard from the public at the commission meeting and posited that there may be issues with the DRB. Additionally, I suggested that perhaps the DRB wasn’t necessary.

Commissioner Bronson (serving that night as Mayor Pro Tem) was verbose in expressing support for the DRB. To sum it up, he made it clear that he would agree to suspend the DRB for six months, but only to give the city staff “breathing room.” Bronson said he valued the DRB process and added:

“Quite frankly, the suggestion that this impedes development—I’ve always regarded as a myth,” he said.

Commissioner Houck insinuated that my comments were character assassination. Following the meeting when I approached her to assert that I was merely bringing up concerns and had no other motive, she doubled down on her vilification. She claimed my concerned citizen comments were “unfounded accusations meant to cause harm” and stated that I was “doing this for attention.” I told her in no uncertain terms that was not true. She then told me that I had no right to bring these concerns up during a public meeting.

Well, so much for transparency and government by and for the people of Great Falls!

Indeed isn’t this exactly what leftists/progressives in the resistance movement do to suppress free speech? Whenever someone says something that doesn’t fit into their world view, they re-characterize or re-frame the communication and ascribe a motive that attempts to shame, imply immorality or vilify the speaker in some way. In case anyone thinks that wouldn’t happen in Montana, I’m here to tell you that it has happened to me right here in Great Falls.

Further, Houck’s comment that I was “doing it for attention” couldn’t be further from the truth. I feel compelled to speak out but not for attention. In fact, in speaking out—I’ve lost what I thought were friends and I’ve lost work opportunities. It seems quite a few people in Great Falls can’t tolerate those who express a difference of political opinion or point out what they feel is an injustice. Though they claim to, they don’t really believe in civil discourse when the views stray too far from their views. It’s been a painful lesson but I’ve learned just who are the truly intolerant ones.

By the way, Commissioner Houck should know that privately meeting and discussing issues with citizens is the antithesis to transparency in government. She should instead be telling constituents to come to commission meetings to express their comments in a public forum. She should welcome it.

So it was something about the dichotomy between the Commission’s support of the DRB and what I’d heard around town that reminded me of the emperor-wearing-no-clothing parable. That and Houck’s nastiness to me about voicing my concerns compelled me to do some research.

A cursory search of meeting minutes from just one DRB meeting (by happenstance, the first one I looked at) led me to an example reminiscent of the city’s recent HUD-CDBG debacle.

At the May 22, 2017 meeting, DRB Vice Chair Tyson Kraft, also an employee of Nelson Architects, represented that firm by presenting on his firm’s Benefis Emergency Department Expansion project.

The Official Code of the City of Great Falls, 2.21.050 (G) states: No officer or employee, or any business organization in which he or she has an interest, shall represent any other person or party except the City in connection with any cause, proceeding, application, or other matter pending before any agency of the City of Great Falls; except in the process of collective bargaining for public employees or where any officer or employee or members of his or her immediate family shall represent himself, herself or themselves, in negotiations or proceedings concerning his, her, or their own interests; (emphasis added).

In addition, Montana Code Annotated, 2-2-12. (5) states: A public officer or public employee may not participate in a proceeding when an organization, other than an organization or association of local government officials, of which the public officer or public employee is an officer or director is:

(a) involved in a proceeding before the employing agency that is within the scope of the public officer’s or public employee’s job duties; or

(b) attempting to influence a local, state, or federal proceeding in which the public officer or public employee represents the state or local government (emphasis added).

The Official Code of the City of Great Falls 2.21.040 (G) defines advisory board members as officers. Granted, Kraft recused himself from voting on the project. So there is that.

But isn’t it still a conflict of interest to present your employer’s project at a meeting where you also sit on the advisory board that would vote to approve or deny that project? Even if you do recuse yourself? Should a board member discuss a project with which he/she is involved at a board meeting? Should a board member even attend a meeting where his/her employer is subject to a board decision?

I’ve already heard the excuse some folks will give. They say that this is a small town and it is inevitable that conflicts of interest exist on advisory boards. I would challenge that assertion. There are others qualified to serve on advisory boards that have been turned down in the past—folks without perceived or actual conflicts of interest.

So are there more examples of this with the DRB? It’s disheartening for me to see yet another instance of a city advisory board with perceived or actual conflicts of interest.

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Jeni Dodd
Jeni Dodd is a creative, multi-faceted, multi-talented, knowledge junkie. She currently utilizes her skills in a variety of business and artistic endeavors. Liberty, integrity, truth and critical thinking are among her most important precepts.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Great, informative article, well-written, too; I agree: an accurate assessment of government in Great Falls. Thank you, Jeni Dodd

    • Hi Dewayne. To answer your question, my understanding is that city planning will continue to review and approve or deny projects, but the city commission has suspended using the Design Review Board process for the next six months for most projects. Design Review Board and city planning department are separate entities and some folks in town feel having both involved in the planning process is redundant and impedes development.

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