By Ross Markman
In response to a suggestion by Mayor Bob Rice at Tuesday night's council meeting, the Havre City Council met Wednesday to discuss whether to adopt an ordinance to appoint an unpaid, on-call chaplain to assist in emergency situations where a member of the clergy may be needed.
Only there's one problem: That ordinance may already be in effect.
Council president Richard Pierson read excerpts from a March 16, 1987, letter, written by then police chief Richard Stremcha to then Mayor Donald Driscoll, saying that one of the police department's lieutenants had been investigating the idea of instituting a chaplaincy program for local law enforcement.
Pierson said he would contact Rice and city clerk Lowell Swenson to determine if an ordinance establishing a city chaplaincy program was adopted in 1987, and, if so, what happened to it.
"Why (the city chaplain) was done away with is beyond my knowledge," Pierson said. "But, I don't believe there's anybody up here tonight that's not in favor of this."
Council member Dana West agreed, adding that the council had concerns about potential liability issues that could occur with appointing a city chaplain.
City attorney Jim Kaze said that may not be an issue.
"There's probably not a risk of a lawsuit. There's no statute in Montana that says a city can have a chaplain and there's no statute that says it cannot," Kaze said.
Where the council does encounter a risk is in officially appointing a chaplain by ordinance, rather than simply using him or her in emergency police, fire and rescue incidents. The city would then be required to provide the chaplain with benefits such as insurance and worker's compensation.
"It could then be interpreted as a city employee," Kaze said.
Nevertheless, the attending public supported the idea.
"The concept of the chaplain is a good one," said Havre resident Ric Floren. "The fact that there's only 15 people in this room shows me that people aren't putting a lot of stock in this issue."
Rozann Kerr said she's spoken to several friends and neighbors about the idea. All of them agreed with it.
"Everybody I've spoken to is in support of this and I believe it's a positive," Kerr said. "It doesn't even need to be approved."
That remains to be seen, according to Rice, who said earlier this morning that he was searching past meeting minutes to see if such an ordinance already exists. Rice did not attend Wednesday's meeting, saying he changed his mind about appointing a city chaplain to avoid mixing politics and religion.
That's something that could be on the mind of some Havre residents separation of church and state. Most who attended the meeting, however, said it's not an issue.
"I don't feel it violates separation of church and state," said resident Ray Bergh. "The Montana Legislature has a chaplain. We have chaplains for the military and the U.S. Congress has chaplains. So, I see no problem with it."
Meanwhile, Havre Police Chief Kevin Olson, his officers haven't worked in conjunction with a city chaplain for at least a dozen years.
"The actual reason for abandoning (the city chaplain program), I don't know. I think it was just underutilized," Olson said. "But, I think we would definitely use the chaplain now."
Olson recalled one particular instance within the last four years when he took it upon himself to contact a pastor to accompany him to a family's home where he informed them of a loved one's death.