By Tim Eberly
Moments before he was sworn in as the new mayor of Havre, Republican Bob Rice assumed an informal role in City Hall: usher.
As Havre residents and his supporters filled the City Council meeting room to capacity Monday evening, Rice directed people standing near the back wall to the few remaining vacant seats in the front row.
"I know some of those people have never been to a city council meeting and they had no idea what to do or where to sit," Rice said after the meeting. "So that's why I was trying to direct traffic a little bit."
While taking the oath of office, Rice added a personal touch of his own. He asked his pastor to come up to the stage and say a brief prayer. Then Rice had his "junior mayor" for the meeting, Andy Meyers, come forward to participate in the swearing-in process. Meyers, who was Rice's junior campaign manager, held the Bible while outgoing Mayor Phyllis Leonard administered the oath of office.
"He said if we won, he wanted to be up there on the platform with me," Rice said of Meyers, a sophomore at Havre High. "In fact, I wanted him to be there."
Rice won the mayoral election on Nov. 6 with 56 percent of the vote, becoming the first Republican mayor in Havre since the mid-1970s. He had 1,361 votes to Democrat Mike Shortell's 1,039. He ran against Leonard in 1993 but lost by 36 votes.
Many of Rice's backers were among the standing-room-only crowd in City Hall. One of them was Rice's mother, Marian Wells. "I'm very proud of him," she said. "He worked very hard for it."
Havre couple Jeff and Shannon Lynnes also were among the supporters. "Bob is a dear personal friend of ours," Shannon Lynnes said. "And we are very proud that he is finally the mayor of Havre. It's been a long time coming for him."
Rocko Zavarelli, a Missoula resident who worked under Rice in the U.S. Navy, made the commute to be a part of Rice's entourage. "People that don't know him don't understand him," said Zavarelli, 47. "But he has the ability to make things work. If you ask anybody that served under Bob, they'd tell you the same thing."
In his first action as new mayor, Rice swore in the new and re-elected council members Allen "Woody" Woodwick, Tom Farnham and Dana West as well as City Judge Joyce Perszyk.
Prior to administering the oath to Perszyk, with whom Rice attended elementary, middle and high school, he said, "This is probably the most unusual thing I've ever done swear in a former classmate to be a city judge."
Rice presented plaques of appreciation he personally paid for to Leonard and departing council members Arnie Tyler and Helen Hill. "These were not purchased with the taxpayers' money," Rice assured his audience. Police Chief Kevin Olson also gave plaques to Leonard, Tyler and Hill.
During the half-hour meeting, Rice announced the postponement of the council's appointment to fill a vacant seat on the council, which resulted from a controversial tie vote between Ward 2 candidates Jerry Hanson and Richard Pierson.
After the original vote count on Nov. 6, Pierson, a Democrat, appeared to have defeated Hanson by one vote, 293-292. A recount several days later, however, showed Republican Hanson had actually won by one vote, 293-292. But further inspection of the ballots revealed that three of them lacked the official stamp of approval administered by election judges making the election a tie.
"In fairness to both those individuals, I postponed it until the 22nd," Rice said. Until that meeting, "they can convince the City Council that they're the best man for the job."
Though Rice was braced for his learning curve "This is my first meeting, so bear with me. There will probably be a few mistakes," he told the crowd the meeting went smoothly and was noticably more informal than in the past. Rice repeatedly encouraged audience questions and interaction.
"Somebody said it was a little looser than normal," Rice said at a reception at the VFW after the meeting. "Well, that's the way they're going to be."
Nearing the close of the meeting, Rice thanked the audience for the turnout and said, "I wish the meetings were all like this. I know that's a grandiose opinion. But to make Havre a better place, I think some of you need to take a greater interest in what we do up here."
Rice announced a podium would be present at ensuing meetings, to encourage questions or comments from the audience. Also, Rice said he will have a different junior mayor a student from Havre High at each meeting. In order to be selected, Rice said, students had to write him a letter with a brief autobiography.
Some comic relief was provided when Rice asked a handful of high school students in the back their reason for attending the meeting. One boy told Rice that a class required him and his peers to attend one City Council meeting and that the deadline for that assignment was that evening.
"I'm crushed," Rice joked after the audience's laughter subsided. "I thought you came here to see me."