County officials canceled a Thursday meeting with Action Inc. and several Uptown businesses about a possible homeless shelter after questions were raised about the meeting's legality under Montana open meetings laws.
County attorney Eileen Joyce said she wasn’t sure whether the planned meeting violated the letter of those laws, but it appeared to skirt their spirit and provisions regarding public participation.
“I can’t unequivocally say there isn’t an issue,” she told The Montana Standard, which questioned the meeting.
The meeting was called to discuss the idea of using the vacant Homeward Bound building at Quartz and Main streets as a temporary homeless shelter with possible financial help from the state.
The building is owned by Action Inc., a nonprofit social services agency, and its executive director said late Thursday afternoon that its board hopes to open it as a shelter quickly because homeless people could die in the cold without it.
The organization was inundated with requests for motel vouchers a few weeks ago when it got quite cold and snowed, Margie Seccomb said, and it paid for 22 motel rooms for homeless people. Action Inc. can’t sustain that financially, she said, but more importantly, lives are at stake.
“We are faced with a situation where people could potentially suffer and die outside, and that is 100 percent our motivation,” she said.
Many Uptown residents and businesses strongly opposed the Homeward Bound location earlier this year when the Butte Rescue Mission wanted to buy it after its shelter was shut down.
Action Inc. used to house homeless people and run programs in the building, but it rejected the mission's purchase proposal in part because of opposition from residents and businesses. The mission now has a new proposed shelter location. (See related story.)
Dave Palmer, Butte-Silver Bow’s chief executive, said he did not believe the meeting set for 1:30 p.m. in council chambers fell under the open meetings law. But he said Joyce thought it was questionable, so he called it off.
“I didn’t want to take any chances,” Palmer told the Standard, which had questioned the non-noticed meeting Wednesday night and asked Joyce – via a message on her voicemail early Thursday morning – to weigh in. She did that later Thursday.
Palmer said there was a possibility Action Inc. could get state money to improve the building so it could be used as a “warming house” shelter through May so homeless people could escape the cold. The meeting was called to discuss the idea.
The county, through an email from Community Development director Karen Byrnes, invited several other county officials to attend, two commissioners, several Uptown shop owners, Ray Ueland, Paul Babb with NorthWestern Energy, and Standard editor David McCumber, among others.
“The discussion will focus on homelessness and emergency shelter needs during the winter months in Butte-Silver Bow,” the email said. “Please share this invitation with others that may be interested.”
A Standard reporter, upon learning of the meeting late Wednesday afternoon, questioned whether it met the letter or spirit of the open meetings law, which among other things requires public meetings to be noticed 48 hours in advance.
Only two commissioners were invited, certainly not a quorum that would clearly require public notice, but the invitation was on county email letterhead and invited numerous county officials but only selected people from the public.
Palmer said no secrecy was intended, he just wanted to run the new idea for a homeless shelter Uptown past some previous opponents to quell fears and gauge their reactions before it got “everyone fired up.”
The meeting was to be was informational only, he said. No decisions were to be made, and it was uncertain whether state funding would even be available. It was no different than him meeting with contractors about a proposed project, he said.
But if there were any doubts about the meeting’s legality, it wasn’t worth holding, he said, and Joyce told him it was questionable depending on interpretations of Montana law.
Joyce said Commissioner Cindi Shaw, who was invited to the meeting, told her Wednesday night she had concerns about it meeting state laws. Joyce said that was the first she learned of the meeting.
Joyce said she looked into it and although arguments could be made either way. The meeting was seemingly organized by Palmer, it was to be held at the courthouse, and some but not all members of the public were invited. Those factors gave her pause, she said.
Palmer said a future meeting on the issue might be held, but he would probably leave it to Action Inc. to call and organize. If the county had any part, it would be publicly noticed, he said.
Seccomb said she was the one who asked for the meeting, hoping to explain Action Inc.’s desire to open a temporary shelter to neighbors and business owners in the area.
“I wanted to be able to have a conversation with them and say, ‘This is what we are doing, and what are your concerns?’” she said.
She said it was possible that temporary state assistance might be available, but the Action Inc. board was intent on pressing forward with a temporary shelter because there was no other option, given the onset of winter.
She said she and others in a Continuum of Care group working on Butte's homeless problem planned to discuss the issue further on Friday.