Missed a Donnybrook

As often happens, real life interfered last night with my efforts to watch the whole City Commission meeting. It sounds like it was quite a show, with a near-arrest of local lawyer and City Commission candidate, Stuart Lewin.

After Lewin accused City Manager Lawton of "double talk," Mayor Stebbins said she was tired of Lewin's "groundless accusations," his "accusatory tone," and his "nasty attitude."

Excuse me? Groundless accusations? If anyone wants examples of double talk from our City Manager, there are numerous examples. Just read the archives. (On the other hand, maybe our Mayor was calling Lewin's accusations "groundless" on an etymological basis. Technically, I think our City Manger is more often prone to dissembling than double talk.)

But wait a minute, did the City Commission amend its speech code again? I knew that we were banned from saying things that are "vulgar, profane or impertinent" and I knew that "racist, discriminatory and incitingly violent speech" is banned, but now we have to refrain from "accusatory tones" and "nasty attitudes?"

Look, I disagree with Lewin on just about everything, and I agree that there might be better ways to make your point than accusing people of wrongdoing. The fact, however, that I might disagree with what one says does not in any way limit that person's right to say it. How ironic that on the day of a lengthy post about the First Amendment, we find it again challenged.

Then, later in the meeting (and I did see this part), Mayoral Candidate, Ed McKnight, began to ask some questions about the economic feasibility of the City's long-term commitment to public power. Several times a woman off-camera (Mayor Stebbins? Commissioner Jovick-Kunz? Coleen Balzarini?) said they didn't understand his question. Then he was told to address his questions to Ms. Balzarini at her office. Then he was told, quite forcefully, by Commissioner Jovick-Kunz that the City Commission meeting was not the appropriate place to ask these questions, and that he could not expect Ms. Balzarini (or anyone else for that matter) to have all the information he was seeking readily available.

I did understand Mr. McKnight's question. He pointed out that, in round numbers, the City spends about $3,000,000.00 for electricity. Some portion of this sum is spent on transmission, a cost that is fixed by Northwestern Energy. In other words, no matter who provides the power, we'll still have to pay the costs to NWE to transmit it. He first asked what percentage of the $3,000,000.00 goes to transmission. Apparently no one at the meeting knew the answer to this (yeah, right).

He then estimated the transmission costs to be roughly 50% of the total. That means that the City is presently paying about $1,500,000.00 annually for power, according to his estimate.

Since the City will pay something for its power under its long-term contract with Electric City Power, the savings from switching to ECP will be some fraction of $1,500,000.00. For example, if ECP's rates are 5% cheaper than PPL, the City will save $75,000.00 per year. McKnight asked what percentage this savings would be. Again, no one at the meeting knew the answer to this question. At this point, McKnight was not quite shouted down by Commissioner Jovick-Kunz.

His point, though, is obvious. The City has already spent over $1,500,000.00 on SME's development costs, and is indebted to SME on its water credit for well over $1,000,000.00. Maybe a $2-3,000,000.00 up-front investment to save a possible $75,000.00 per year is not the greatest thing since sliced bread? Is that not a reasonable point? Is that not something that should be considered? Is it not reasonable to suggest that staff, who has advocated the City's entry into this whole transaction, should have performed such an analysis?

But no, McKnight was told to get this information later from Coleen Balzarini. I hope he is in her office at 9:00 this morning, and I also hope he will share with us the information that he receives, if any.

Finally, might I suggest that both sides need to step back and take a breather here? To the members of our local government, I would ask that you recognize that your fellow citizens feel passionately about these issues, that they have the right to feel passionately about these issues, and they have the right to forcefully express their opinions. You don't have to like it, but you do have to listen to it. That is, in fact, the very job you signed up for.

And to the coal-plant opponents, don't act like nuts. Just because a government body made a decision you do not agree with, that does not mean a) they're crooked, b) they're inept, or c) they smell funny. Such is the nature of government; sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. (I would suggest that those losses are why we need less, rather than more, government.) Calling staff names, approaching everything from an attitude of confrontation, and similar tactics will get you nowhere. You will simply marginalize yourselves.


Anonymous said...

Last night Stebbins marginalized herself in the most unprofessional manner I have ever witnessed. Well, I've also witnessed her similar actions in prior meetings.

High school debates are run by 16 year olds is a more professional manner. Somebody needs to inform Ms. Stebbins that she is not the queen of Great Falls.

There is a very disturbing pattern here. Is it lack of ethics, wayward ego, insecurity, or is the mental stability of our mayor at fault? Loss of control, shouting at the speaker and calling for Police because someone asks a tough question?

This does not portray a positive image on our city and makes us the laughing stock of Montana. If this is how they handle the public during a meeting, how in the heck are the going to handle a real crisis?

We can only bleed so much before death slips in. The election is the trauma center and we need three new pints of blood.

Anonymous said...

Overfield, Lewin, McKnight...are you really saying they are all confrontational, or are they merely asking tough questions which will garner answers that may cause serious disclosure that can result in legal action against elected officials?

There is a pattern to this behavior, but it's all negative and on the side of the city.

GeeGuy said...

No, I am not necessarily saying all three of them are all confrontation all the time.

But there is no doubt in my mind that there are those among the 'regulars' who have found their 15 minutes of fame, and who take great joy in badgering the City Commission, endlessly, mindlessly, and to little effect.

Anonymous said...

Citizens have every right to expect answers from public officials in a public forum as we watch on C-Span when tough questions are asked. There are times when some CEO or general before Congress may not have all the data, but actions are taken to provide it quickly to Congress. What really counts is the 'eye to eye' communications that reflects a public official's tone, attitude and sometimes character in regards to public accountability. It is certainly reasonable that a staff member may not have the answers to the question at their 'fingertips', but the point is that the commission also NEEDS to know the answer to the question, and the city staff tasked to answer a citizen's question should send a memo 'cc' to the entire commission to keep
them advised on how the question was answered. If it's not answered then it's unfinished business I say and subject to further public examination.

Anonymous said...

Why have all the count jesters seated on the bleachers if they are not prepared to answer even the most basic request?

Its comical our citizens with limited access to inside details are able to dig up piles of dirt while those in the know can't respond to a simple "round number" request.

And that printed agenda? Why not call it what it really is, "The Record" since everything is rubber stamped.

Anybody notice our mayor voted in a family pay increase last night? Item 23 of the consent agenda - a two year agreement for local 260, the painters union. If I recall, the only city painter is Mr. Stebbins. ???


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said:

"If it's not answered then it's unfinished business I say and subject to further public examination."

I would further ask:

Why are we paying all those staff members to attend these public meeting if not to be ready to advise and answer questions posed by the Commissioners and the taxpayers at the public podium? These are the folks we pay to know and SHOULD KNOW at least most of these answers. When the city manager does sometimes vaguely respond he makes little or no sense and his comments go unchallenged by the nodding head commissioners.......

Also GG, I attend many of these meeting and see very little badgering of the Commissioners going on there (Whitsoe being the one exception) mostly very concerned and intelligent citizens whom seldom if ever receive an answer to there questions and are put off by the Mayor, arrested, threatened, or told to basically shutup.

Who do you think is really badgering whom here, when citizens take the time and effort to attempt to participate, in this so called GF mockery of a democratic process?

Folks, November is just around the corner and then maybe we can breathe some fresh air into that fish smell eminating from Silly Hall. Now how is that for badgering?

Anonymous said...

What HASN'T been answered yet:

Who received the bid award for the running of the animal shelter? I believe the 30 days is up and the extension void now.

What, exactly, will be the percentage of GF ownership in the electrical debacle?

What, exactly, was the 1.4 milllion to SME used for?

Why was $400k given to a private non-profit within the past week? If it was given to this entity, why not the Humane Society which was non-profit/private?

Why can't a citizen, under the law, obtain copies of documents held by the city?

Why do we have police at meetings?

What, exactly, is the law/legality upon which the (now) 5-minute speech restriction based?

Why was there no public vote on the coal plant?

Why are so many items pre-ordained on the 'consent agenda'?

Why wouldn't Stebbins consent to participate in the on-line forum?

Why can't Lawton give an accurate budget? "Sometimes we're long, sometimes we're short" is not a good financial response.

Why are citizens being intimidated, bullied, mocked, removed, arrested and denied participation in the open democratic process of the city?

Why can't we get any answers?

Anonymous said...

Why can't we get any answers? We will after election day.

It will be very interesting indeed.

Ed Mcknight said...

I received a call from the city stating Ms Balzarini will be out of town until Monday. A very friendly assistant said I could e-mail her and she would help.

WolfPack said...

Is it really surprising that candidates who are using commission meetings as a campaign tool are treated a little adversarial when they are clearly trying to score campaign points? If answers to tough questions were really being sought verses political drama for the crowd wouldn’t a reasonable person have submitted questions in advance? This would have allowed researched and accurate responses instead of rough answers whose inaccuracies would be used later as proof of hypothetical incompetence.

GeeGuy said...

No, Wolfpack, it is not surprising. The present group of candidates is certainly not the first to do this, nor will they be last.

As far as submitting written questions, well, as you probably know from reading this weblog, sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't.

As far as McKnight's questions, what troubles me is my firm conviction that his lack of an answer did not result from staff's inability to answer them, but was a simple refusal. Do you really believe that the CEO of our energy utility has no idea what percentage of the costs are transmission costs without referring to her files? Give me a break.

Anonymous said...

Wolfpack, these are public meets correct?

The way they are run them is more like a theater complete with a play script. It seems they want us to sit there on our hands with our mouthes shut. Talk up and the users will remove you. I suppose the next thing is they expect is applause at the conclusion of the play or.. er meetings.


WolfPack said...

Geeguy, No doubt she has a general idea of transmission costs but is that good enough for a political opponent fishing for weakness? Advance notice of the questions would have removed justification for any excuses. Unless the goal wasn't to get questions answered, just to set the stage for political theatrics. Nothing wrong with this on the candidate’s part, as you stated it’s been done before. I just can’t dredge up outrage over a budding politician whose playing to the crowd not being given the same tolerance appropriate for an inquisitive citizen.

Anonymous said...

I was sitting there and I knew the ROM answer to the question. I believe it was a clear sign of disrespect NOT to give an answer. Submit it in writing? OK, why are we having these meetings?

It's Dona that is playing to the crowd when you get right down to it, not Ed.

Shameful and disgusting acting on her part. Here I thought she was a budding actor. Time for a new role.

Anonymous said...

Wolfpack misses the point. Stebbins doesn't answer ANY question and vehemently shuts downs questioners that touch on subjects that have to do with "show me the money". Money is going out at an alarming rate, can't be traced, isn't clear what it's being used for and being handled like a shell game.

The Commissioners, Mayor and City Manager are responsible for being able to answer questions regarding things to do with the city. They refuse to do that. Refuse, being the operative word.

The clearest and easiest abuse to track in this mess is the animal shelter bid. Stebbins and Grove sit on the committee which awards the bid. Grove reviewed the bids. The police department submitted a bid. (Lawton has said nothing.) It's all in the city records available on-line.

That's conflict of interest, at least. But, this seems a clearly illegal act which is not being confronted. Why hasn't an attorney here in town taken this up and started an investigation, it's obvious that citizens can't do it.

A post in another section brings up an interesting point about the shelter, the 30-day extension demanded by Stebbins has expired, so what's the status of the bid? What amount of money is being allocated to run the animal shelter now? How long will it continue?

It is just the tip of the iceberg, but I'm sure it's reflecting overall mismanagement, maybe even something worse, and it's not being dealt with.

If the city is blatantly manipulating things in such a small, simple area as the shelter, I can only begin to imagine what they are doing on bigger deals such as ECP, SME, etc.