Let’s not sugar-coat this:
Wednesday night’s Council of Commissioners meeting was an utter embarrassment and a disservice to the community.
Council chambers in the courthouse were packed for the meeting, because a presentation on the Butte Hill consent decree was on the agenda.
Many of those who came wished to comment to the full council about the consent decree.
Most expected that they would be able to speak at the comment period at the start of the meeting. But that agenda item was initially ignored by Chief Executive Dave Palmer, who was running the meeting.
And later, after people had waited through the two-hour presentation and a short recess, Palmer and County Attorney Eileen Joyce offered a barrage of technicalities to justify a decision not to allow the public to speak at all on the issue Wednesday.
Joyce said the initial comment period at the top of the agenda was reserved for items “on the consent agenda.” The Superfund presentation was not on the consent agenda. But it was on the regular agenda. And so the ending comment period, for items “not on the agenda,” wouldn’t apply either, she said.
What a nifty little Catch 22. Are we comfortable with a chief executive and a county attorney who rely on this maneuver to prevent a crowd of people from talking to the council? Are they seriously trying to say it would have been illegal to listen to the public?
Predictably, many of those present were not impressed. Neither are we.
For the record, longtime council watchers could not remember another time when the “rules” were used in such a way as to stifle comment.
This defensive and misguided decision badly frays the county’s tenuous hold on credibility on this matter, which is arguably the most important to come before the Council of Commissioners in many years. The Council will ultimately be asked by county staff to evaluate the 1,100-page draft decree and appendices, and authorize Palmer to sign it on behalf of the people of this county.
On. Behalf. Of. The. People.
Several commissioners, to their credit, were distressed.
Representatives of Atlantic Richfield, the state of Montana and the Environmental Protection Agency were all present. They should have been distressed as well.
What better opportunity for the public to interact with all of the Superfund negotiators? In front of the entire council, which has to make the operative decision on the decree? Small meetings with individual commissioners are great, but they are not a substitute for a public meeting with an opportunity to give the entire council feedback at one time, on the record.
Former District Court Judge Brad Newman, who waited for hours to speak, got up unbidden and told county officials it would behoove them to schedule a public council meeting at the earliest opportunity to take feedback. He correctly pointed out that the council is “at the outset” of their consideration of the decree, and that is a good time to hear from people.
After that reminder of the county’s responsibility to be transparent, silence from Palmer and Joyce was the only response.
It’s great that something will be scheduled later allowing for the public to address the council. But many in Wednesday night’s overflow crowd, which backed up into the hall, may be sufficiently disgusted not to return.
Of course, another public meeting should be scheduled ASAP. But the damage has been done.
In the simplest terms: Any time a crowd of people attends a council meeting and is denied an opportunity to speak, something has gone very far wrong. The public knows this. It will not dispose people in Butte to look favorably on the consent decree. Or the county leadership.
This is, after all, an election year. It's quite possible that memories of Wednesday evening will last until November.
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