Butte-Silver Bow’s chief executive has removed a retired engineering professor from the Historic Preservation Commission, saying a letter he submitted to commissioners about a demolition dispute violated a county ethics code.
J.P. Gallagher said the letter from Butch Gerbrandt was “very demeaning” to county department heads and property owners involved in the demolition matter but his removal was based on ethics requirements for fairness and objectivity, among other things.
Because Gerbrandt is also the preservation commission’s appointee to the Superfund Advisory and Redevelopment Trust Authority, he is now off that board, too. He is a retired engineering professor at Montana Tech.
Gerbrandt declined comment on the matter, as did Historic Preservation Officer Mary McCormick. The Montana Standard left phone messages with Steve Hinick, a Butte architect and chairman of the seven-member commission, or HPC, that were not returned.
But Hinick said briefly during an HPC meeting Tuesday night Gerbrandt's membership would be missed, and member Mitzi Rossillon said Gerbrandt was an asset to the board for many reasons, including his love of historic buildings and eagerness to restore rundown properties.
She said she did not want the "last word" of Gerbrandt's tenure "to be that he was let go for a breach of the code of ethics" and was no longer a member.
The letter took general sarcastic jabs at support for tearing down the so-called Blue Range prostitution cribs and singled out owners of Staack’s Motor Sports and Community Enrichment Director Ed Randall, calling the latter “Demolition Ed” who “don’t cut no slack with them history huggers.”
The missive was addressed to “Butte honchos” and words were deliberately misspelled throughout.
Numerous people sent in email letters with their opinions on the demolition and Commissioner Cindi Shaw read all of them into the record during a Feb. 17 council meeting. When she was reading Gerbrandt’s missive, Gallagher cut her off and ruled the letter out of order.
“We need to stop this. This needs to stop,” he said. “That was an inappropriate letter that should have never been admitted into this.”
Later that night, commissioners reduced a 90-day stay of demolition that Gerbrandt and other members of the HPC had imposed on the “cribs” to 45 days. The county has since taken a step that will allow partial demolition of the building at 56 E. Mercury St. to move forward.
The letter violated an ethics policy that applies to all members of voluntary county boards and commissions, Gallagher said, as did a subsequent discussion with Gerbrandt about it.
“You stated to me that by the nature of being appointed to the Historic Preservation Council that you could not be unbiased and fair in decisions regarding historic preservation,” Gallagher wrote in a letter to Gerbrandt about his removal. “The policy directly addresses fairness and objectivity.”
Gallagher says the HPC is an advisory board whose members are appointed by the chief executive, and given that and the ethics violations, it is within his power to remove him. He said he told County Attorney Eileen Joyce he was considering the move.
Joyce said removal procedures for some county boards are spelled out in the municipal code, and aren't mentioned on others, including the HPC. But the ethics policy applies to all members of voluntary boards and says violations may result in remedial actions, including removal.
If Gerbrandt believes his freedom of speech rights were violated, it would be up to him to pursue legal challenges for a court to consider, Joyce said.
Gerbrandt was appointed to the HPC in 2015 by then Chief Executive Matt Vincent and he was reappointed during Dave Palmer’s tenure. His current three-year HPC term expires in July.
The letter was one of many regarding demolition of the cribs. Larry Hoffman, the building’s owner, and Staack’s Motor Sports were appealing the 90-day demolition stay the HPC had imposed a week earlier. They have a buy-sell agreement on the property.
Although Gerbrandt sent the missive via a private email account and did not mention his membership on the HPC, Gallagher said the two can’t be separated.
He acknowledged HPC members “are very much tied to preservation,” but on matters before them “they have got to be able to look at all sides.”
“You can’t rule on it as an HPC member and then write in as a private citizen about your decision,” Gallagher said. “They can’t be independent of each other.”
Gallagher pointed to several provisions in the ethics code he believes were violated. One requires that board members show respect and consideration and are committed “to listening to the ideas of others.”
Others require members to leave personal prejudices out of all discussion and represent “the board or commission in a positive and supportive matter at all times and in all places.”
Gallagher said he did not think that removing Gerbrandt from the HPC was too drastic a step.
“I think it’s a statement to all boards that you have a responsibility that when you’re on these boards, you’re not just independent of your own opinions,” he said. “They’re appointed to represent the community, not themselves.”
Gallagher said he would hold other board members to that, too, and would speak on the issue during Wednesday night’s council meeting.
At Tuesday night's HPC meeting, neither Hinick or Rossillon offered opinions on Gallagher's decision and his rationale behind it, though Hinick said it was difficult to discuss "disposition of our membership" to the board.